“I love you for saying that,” says Kate Lewis, svp and editorial director for Hearst Magazines Digital Media (HMDM). We have asked her opinion on why the cyclical rediscovery of the fact that women’s magazines cover politics persists.
It works like this: an article or some sort of social media commentary will appear that treats the idea of a women’s magazine delving into political coverage or offering resonant insight into political culture like a novel curiosity. There will be responses to the surprise that counter with an account of the history of political coverage that has long existed among the more stereotyped fare like eyeliner application tips and bathing-suits-for-every-shape collections. But like Sisyphus forever rolling his boulder up a hill, the misperception is never fully contained and the cycle repeats itself.
“That is a constant frustration of mine,” says Lewis, “when people are like, ‘OMG, can you believe women are writing about politics?’ And I’m like, ‘What do you think? These are general interest magazines. We write about all the things that affect a woman’s life.'”
We could tell Lewis is used to anticipating and managing these sorts of expectations. Before we bring up the question, she injects into our conversation the idea that titles like Cosmopolitan have been “deep in this space for a long time.”
For just one recent but not 2016-recent example, Cosmo devoted special coverage to the 2014 elections under the banner #CosmoVotes, which included a get-out-the-vote campaign and candidate endorsements based on how well prospective candidates were aligned with Cosmo’s stance on issues like reproductive rights and voter id laws.
As for why the awareness of this tends to dissipate, “I think that it is confusing to have a media property, wherever it is, whether it’s digital or print or anywhere, that has lipstick recommendations and reality TV news, coupled with thoughtful, political commentary,” says Lewis. It is something, she notes, more readily apparent in the limited space of a print magazine, and she hopes to counter that with the greater force of politics coverage in the digital space. “I think that the digital frequency and the volume, and the pace at which we produce may help to shift the perception of some of these brands that I think have been cornered as being really about merely lifestyle stuff as it relates to beauty and style or relationships or whatever.”
The salient question to explore isn’t, are women’s magazine covering politics and its attendant issues? The question is, how? For Hearst’s collection of sites, its post-election gaze has turned, in part, to activism, exemplified by its partnership with America Ferrera and Harness, the organization Ferrera co-founded with Ryan Piers Williams and Wilmer Valderrama that connects interested individuals to community leaders involved in activism.
The partnership with Hearst extends across Cosmopolitan.com, Elle.com and MarieClaire.com, and will include a documentary series currently in development that profiles specific women and their singular accomplishments.
The kickoff to the partnership happened last month, at an event hosted in the airy, light filled, multi-screened cafeteria at Twitter’s New York headquarters. It featured Ferrera moderating a panel that included Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, activist and strategic advisor for the Women’s March on Washington Sarah Sophie Flicker and executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health Jessica González-Rojas.
There were over 100 guests in attendance–mostly women, mostly young, diverse, and dressed in a way that, whether work or casual, made you want to take notes and update your own wardrobe. But the attention of the audience was on the women on stage, who were talking about the what and how of getting involved with and supporting communities engaged in activism. The scene was a live representation of the idea of women’s magazines–that it is ok to care about appearance and activism, separately and concurrently, that an interest in one doesn’t cancel out an interest in the other.
It is the nature of just that sort of audience that appealed to Ferrera as the two organizations decided to work together. “We couldn’t be more excited to partner our message with the power of Hearst’s brands,” she told Fishbowl. “These beloved brands are undoubtedly helping to define the cultural conversation in this moment.”
And both Lewis and Ferrera observe Harness as filling a particular need for that audience, one which Ferrera describes as having “grown out of a clear demand for a thoughtful conversation around engagement and activism.”
The fact that Harness’ mission is not about politics in the red/blue mode appeals to Lewis. “What it helps women do is harness their passion for activism and point them in the right direction,” she says. “So there is no political agenda with Harness at all, it’s really about helping you do something.”
Hearst’s politics coverage, like basically every other publication who covered the 2016 election in some way, received a huge audience boost from that election. Cosmopolitan.com’s politics section was up 458 percent in April 2017, compared to April 2015. For Elle.com it was 827.5 percent and for MarieClaire.com it was 1,905.8 percent in that same time frame, all according to Adobe Analytics. (Hearst had similarly striking gains in politics coverage for other titles, including Esquire.)
If the need to do something was one important desire to come out of the post-election space, the need to say something, or read someone with something to say, is the other. “My sense is that, especially during the campaign and through the election, there was a lot of, ‘What happened today? What happened today?’ I think we’re more now in a place of, ‘How do we feel about what’s happening?'” says Lewis.
Lewis says opinion pieces and stories that highlight personal experiences are what continue to power those audience gains post-election. This includes writers like Sady Doyle, R. Eric Thomas and Brittney Cooper, and new additions like Jessica Valenti, who began writing for Marie Claire as a contributing editor in May and whose first pieces immediately gained traction. It also includes writers like Cosmopolitan.com senior political writer Jill Filipovic who has been writing for the site since before the prospect of Trump 2016 became an all-consuming garbage mountain of content across the mediascape.
What these and other writers exemplify, and what works for the titles, is the personal in the political. “Most of the kind of work that we do around issues has to do with finding women or a woman who have experienced those things, and explaining what her life is like,” says Lewis. “And from that, we allow our readers to extrapolate any kind of understanding that that may provide them on an issue. I think that is something that is a hallmark of women’s media.”