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YEAR OF THE WOMAN — Once ticketed for decline or irrelevance, the Seven Sisters have recharged themselves for a contemporary audience that has timeless concerns By Judith Newma

Do not call them Seven Sisters. The

While each editor of the so-called Seven Sisters will argue relentlessly about his or her magazine’s uniqueness, they are united on at least one subject: their anger at being patronized by media snots who still venerate the FiloFax ’80s and call women’s service magazines cultural dinosaurs.
‘The truth is that the bulk of the U.S. never changed in the 1980s,’ insists Redbook’s Ellen Levine. ‘For masses of Americans, there was no glitz. There was mostly pain and struggle and single-parent families and trying to get by’ – even when there were two incomes. ‘I hate the way the term Seven Sisters has been used to create a negative aura around women’s magazines,’ Levine adds. ‘What utter nonsense to think these magazines are any less important because they’re not publishing cowboy writers from Montana!’ Admit it. We laugh at those headlines only the ghost of Donna Reed could have invented (‘Chip Chip Hooray!’ for a cover story about chocolate chip cookies). We roll our eyes at the melodrama (‘Could a Rubber Band Kill You?
Yes, If You’re Allergic to Latex’) and mock the sentimentality (‘Mrs. Burt Reynolds . . . proving that if you believe in fairy tales and wait long enough, they really do come true’). We wonder what kind of scary pathology is at work among the women who buy all those wide-eyed statuettes from the Danbury Mint. We even make dire predictions.
Only a few years ago, media pundits smugly assumed one or more of the Sisters were toothless crones, destined for that great Amana Radar Range in the sky.
And guess what?
Not only have none of the magazines folded, but most of them are bigger cash cows for their companies than they’ve been in years. ‘The question ‘Do we need so many of these magazines?’ comes from the advertisers, who don’t want to advertise in all of them,’ says Steve Greenberger, vp/director of print media at Grey Advertising.
‘Well, the truth is, the readers need them.’
In 1992, the proof was in the pudding. (No, not the Mexican chocolate pudding recipe featured in the Feb. 2 Woman’s Day.)
The Seven Sisters showed ad growth across the board, with four of them – Woman’s Day, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Good Housekeeping – posting gains of $25-30 million in reported revenues. Only Ladies’ Home Journal lost pages last year, a downturn some attribute to editor Myrna Blyth dividing her time between running LHJ and Metropolitan Home, which Meredith ultimately sold. Blyth points out that LHJ grew steadily in 1989 and 1990, when its competitors were in a tailspin, ‘and we were up 7% over last year through April 1993.’
Some of this good news is, undoubtedly, a certain accounting sleight-of-hand. Virtually all of the magazines have cut circulation and rate bases, and various incentive deals have reduced ad rates. ‘They’re getting away from the numbers game and talking about an efficiency game,’ notes magazine analyst Marty Walker. Still, demographics determine destiny.
There are now more women in their 30s and 40s – the traditional age group for these magazines – than ever before. ‘It’s the old pig-and-snake analogy,’ says Better Homes and Gardens editor-in-chief David Jordan. ‘If you think of a boa constrictor swallowing a pig, think of the pig as the baby boomers. Wherever it happens to be in the snake, it has warped the snake out of shape at that point.’
Yet another contributor to the revitalization of the sisters is deeper pockets. ‘What’s really happened that people don’t talk about is the trading up of ownership,’ says John Mack Carter, the legendary editor of Good Housekeeping who is also director of magazine development at Hearst. ‘In the late ’80s, many of them were owned by entrepreneurs and independents who let them get into trouble. But then Redbook was bought by Hearst, Ladies’ Home Journal was sold to Meredith, McCall’s was taken over by the (New York) Times Magazine group, Hachette bought Woman’s Day. The larger companies recognized these magazines – the youngest of which is over 50 years old – as brands with brand-name intrinsic value. And they’ve been able to make the necessary investments to fuel their recovery.’
Ever the gallant, Carter also points out what should be obvious but is seldom said out loud: ‘The primary reason these magazines are successful, and will continue to be successful, is that they are women’s magazines, targeted to women. Men are not nearly as faithful readers.’
But are these magazines speaking to women today, or to our mothers? Each magazine has dealt with the time warp question somewhat differently – but deal with it they do. ‘Every editor is working extremely diligently to make their magazines focus on women in the ’90s,’ says Greenberger. Or, as Family Circle’s Jacyln Leo puts it, ‘The days when we could get a woman’s attention simply by putting a chocolate cake on the cover are over.’ (Although Better Homes did just that last month, with a sweetheart chocolate cake for Valentine’s Day.)
In the effort to shift their age demographics ever downward, some of the Sisters are paying less attention to the needs of older readers (the average age for the magazines is 42.5, according to Simmons Marketing Research).
In fact, with articles like ‘Sex and the Single Mom’ and ‘Menopause in Your 30s,’ Redbook’s Levine seems all too glad to shoo them out the door. Yet the average reader has not gotten markedly younger in the last four years (she’s actually become slightly older), and the advertising is not more markedly upscale. (One editor gleefully mentioned that Fred Hayman’s chi-chi perfume, 273, would be running in her book, which startled Fred Hayman’s account manager: ‘Well, there was talk of some barter arrangement . . . but right now that’s wishful thinking at best.’)
Levine and Kate White of McCall’s have been particularly successful in bringing their distinctive voices to their magazines. They’ve led the domesto-porn sweepstakes with articles like ‘What Other Couples Do in Bed’ and ‘The New Secret to a Sexier Marriage.’ (Disappointingly, that secret was not nipple clips or nurses’ uniforms, but learning to talk to each other.)
Both are courting at least the perception of controversy. Levine was particularly pleased with a recent Redbook piece on married women and abortion, despite letters she received like the one hoping ‘ . . . you hear the screams of dead babies in your sleep.’ Only Good Housekeeping steers clear of sexual issues entirely.
All have beefed up coverage of health care (usually with the first-person I’ve-been-to-hell-and-back narratives traditional to women’s magazines), crime, and political issues that affect women.
Good Housekeeping has opened a Washington office; Ladies’ Home Journal has a news section produced by CNN. Jane Chesnutt, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day since Levine left two years ago, has won plaudits for her coverage of spiritual issues.
Some of the magazines are even making efforts to do celebrity pieces that don’t read like press releases. ‘Kathie Lee Gifford told everyone watching her show not to buy our July issue – she hated the story we did on her,’ says Levine happily.
Perhaps most significantly, the magazines have acknowledged that working women (with jobs, if not careers) probably don’t have time to make smiling snowmen out of ice cream, cones, twigs and Red Hots. Nutrition and convenience are paramount.
Most dinners featured in their pages require less than 30 minutes to prepare – with the help of some of the convenience foods that are among the magazines’ biggest advertisers.
The tone of most of the books also has shifted.
There’s less preachiness, less talking down to the reader and more just-between-us-girls journalism. And there’s a move away from what Kate White calls the Cape Fear tactics of the past (i.e., scare the bejesus out of the reader and then tell her what product or service to buy to eradicate the problem). Even the fear that has fueled the entire women’s magazine industry – fear of fat – has been tempered somewhat by articles that stress body acceptance and prove that not every woman could or should wear a thong bikini.
Finally, there’s a recognition that real-life problems can’t be solved by baking the perfect cheesecake.
For example, in a recent issue of Redbook, New York Times science writer Lisa Belkin wrote a harrowing story about a mother of prematurely born twins who had to make tough decisions about life support.
This was no fairy tale; both children died. Personal stories without happy endings are increasingly common. Of course, some things will never change. In the longest-running advice column in magazine history, Ladies’ Home Journal’s ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’, the answer is always ‘yes.’
Although they worry about it constantly, keeping in touch with their readers is apparently not too difficult for the editors. Readers ‘are extremely eager to let us know what they think,’ says John Mack Carter, who’s been known for his responsiveness and sensitivity since 1968, when a group of feminists stormed his office and refused to leave until he offered them a chance to write several features for the magazine. Myrna Blyth has instituted a 900 call-in number; FamilyCircle has a stringer network across the county; Jane Chesnutt has given senior editors ‘phone pals’ – readers they call once a month to see what’s doing in the Real World.
Indeed, editors of the Seven Sisters seem to be under more pressure than other top editors to prove their ‘we’re just regular folk’ status. David Jordan’s Better Homes is stationed in Des Moines, Iowa; Chesnutt can boast a small-town Texas upbringing; Levine lives in deepest New Jersey. Only Carter snorts at the idea that the other editors’ weekend houses outside New York City keep them in touch with America. ‘Oh, please,’ he says.
‘We don’t go there to study supermarket trends. We go because it’s much nicer than living full-time in New York City.’
Still, Family Circle’s Leo makes a valid point when she says that the purported differences between the coasts and the heartland are narrowing: ‘I mean, when you think about the fact that a woman in Wyoming has more cable access than I do living on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street . . . Sure, the coasts own fashion and communications and movies. But you know what? We’re provincial.
What goes on outside New York City and L.A., in many cities, is as sophisticated, if not more sophisticated. I don’t mean to imply that everyone in the country is wearing Giorgio Armani, but on the other hand neither am I.’ Even with this year’s successes, some media wags insist the women’s service magazines are, over the long term, in trouble. ‘What I said in the 1980s I still say: They’re on their last legs,’ predicts analyst Walker. ‘Each year they become less profitable. More and more they’re competing with broadcast, although there are some things broadcast will never be able to do, like delivering recipes.’
But the editors insist that as the times change, so will their magazines.
‘It’s so easy to dismiss women’s service magazines as anachronisms,’ says Carter.
Leo finds it particularly ironic that the Sisters were out of favor in the era of so-called family values. ‘We never abandoned our family advocacy position at the time everyone was genuflecting to the ’80s and all the glitz they represented,’ she says. ‘Actually, I think the real time for these magazines is now, when the country is more interested in family issues than ever.’
Egg is dead. Ditto Fame, Manhattan inc., Model, Taxi, Connoisseur, Smart and 7 Days. The Seven Sisters gambol on. Chip chip hooray.
Judith Newman has written about past ADWEEK Editors of the Year James Seymore, Anna Wintour and Robert Gottleib.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)