Women’s magazines “the root of all evil”?

So I chatted to the managing editor of Glamour magazine the other day and she was great. Helen Placito, comfortably dressed, easy to talk to and totally down to earth was not necessarily what you’d expect from the managing editor of one of Britain’s top fashion magazines and she went some way to restoring my faith in the industry.

Women’s magazines like Glamour often come under a lot of criticism for promoting ideals that real women can never live up to. But Helen defends Glamour: “We’re very empowering; we do like to celebrate women”. She admits that “it’s very glamorous” but suggests that “we’re also very attainable”. One of her favourite celebrities recently featured by Glamour is Kate Winslet; “She’s had a lot of criticism recently because of having different children with different fathers. It’s nice to take someone who’s been slandered and celebrate them for who they are.” This philosophy largely governs Glamour’s attitude towards photoshopping too: We try to limit how much we retouch. We’d never make someone thinner or fatter. We might sort out untidy hairs, redness, that kind of thing.” On the other hand, “there are lots of meetings at Number Ten concerning body image. Ministers tend to think women’s magazines are the root of all evil.” Yet Glamour often surprises people: “people judge us very unfairly. Sometimes those who attack us haven’t even read the magazine!”

And to their credit, Glamour “try not to talk about diets, but rather healthy living”. “We celebrate the fact that we were the first women’s magazine to put Adele on the cover. We talk about curvy girls – we run pieces on what to wear if you’re slim, what to wear if you’re curvy etc.” Helen mentions some weekly magazines as examples of where women’s magazine have gone wrong: “I look at them and can’t believe what they put on their covers. There’ll be a picture of a woman with a red circle round her thigh – I couldn’t do that as a day job.” “It’s like the Daily Mail online – it’s awful. I hate it. But people can’t get enough of that stuff, it’s a mystery. I hate the Mail online, but I love it at the same time.”

On the other hand, this is not something Glamour will ever subscribe to: “the most important thing is to remember your audience, don’t alienate her”. Precisely who Glamour sees as their audience, is a woman “late 20s to early 30s, but really we’re read by a huge age range; it is very much a general interest magazine, we cover fashion, beauty, celebrity, relationships, health – the lot. While it’s not targeted to someone who is married with kids, of course, we value all our readers!” And Glamour is doing very well at appealing to their target audience, significantly better than many magazines. When I ask Helen, for example, why Cosmopolitan – a magazine she worked at for six years – hasn’t kept up, she replies; “I don’t know. It has an amazing history. But I think it kind of lost its focus in a way. It’s very sex-driven. Some of it is quite filthy!”

Yet Glamour is not without its problems; the print culture to which it belongs is one that is rapidly going out of fashion. Helen retains a positive attitude about this though: 415,000 people still buy the magazine. I hesitate to say it’s dying out. People are still buying magazines, but there’s a lot more of them out there, never mind what’s on the web! But we are aware that our readership is declining slowly…If you’re lucky enough to work for a rich company like ours [Conde Nast] then you can experiment. But as a business model it’s tough, it’s really tough. It’s something we talk about every day in the office.” Asked about Glamour’s future then, Helen explains that “we’re actively targeting our subscribers. It’s hard to know but I think people will always love picking up a magazine, whether to read on the tube or in the bath. And Glamour sells 415,000 a month on print and only around 5,000 on tablet – but this is a new area, compared to print, and we obviously hope to increase that number hugely!”

One of the problems is that “everyone wants things for free nowadays. There’s an expectation that everything should be free. It’s crazy…tempting, but crazy.” Discussing The Daily Telegraph, Helen explains: “Their readership is literally dying out – it’ll probably still exist in 20 years but it’ll be entirely digital I think and they must know that.” The only way to stay successful in print culture is to be very smart: “If you’re smart, you’ve got to be appealing to everyone. Everyone is working harder; everyone’s pay is either the same or less. The ‘90s boom is over. It’s all a bit more hard work now.” This means that a lot of people leave places like Glamour, “jump ship and go into retail, because that’s where the money is”. But “a lot of those people have come back, because they just don’t find it interesting. We’re all very cynical about that in magazines, ‘who’s going to pick that up?!’ we joke. People are attracted by the higher salaries by I think they miss the creative buzz.”

But money is a real issue for anyone involved in the journalism industry and one of the questions I ask Helen is how often she is forced to suspend ethical judgement for financial considerations: “I’d love to say I never suspend ethical principles, but I do it every day, we all do, and not just at work. I mean, once you start questioning promoting fashion and beauty brands, you can get into all sorts of ethical questions, but ultimately people have free will, and they are free to buy or not. Likewise with the magazine”. But “beauty is our big driver – it’s what makes us our money”. And this is my next question for Helen – what kind of power advertisers wield over content in the magazine. “We don’t always love the ads in Glamour, no magazine does. I mean we joke about it but…you do have to question whether you can turn money down.” On the other hand, when there is something Glamour feels really strongly about, financial concerns are secondary; “Jo [Elvin, editor of Glamour] feels quite strongly about not having feminine hygiene adverts in the magazine”, for example.

Conde Nast, as an umbrella company, however, has come under criticism before for putting financial considerations before other more important concerns. They got in trouble in the US for not paying their interns anything at all, something Helen describes as “terrible”. On the other hand, how to manage those on work experience or internships, is “tricky”. “Most magazines have tons of work experience people who are being paid the minimum wage or not being paid at all and are doing real jobs. I feel really bad about it […]No one at Conde Nast works for free, I do know that much.” “There’s just too many of you. I read all these applications letters and I know they’d all be good at it but we can’t accept everyone.” Helen explains: “I get a lot of letters saying, ‘I’d like to work at Elle magazine’. Often just being correct, professional and friendly makes you stand out. But the talent and experience is endless!”

Everyone is desperate to get into this industry. So what are the details of such a job, why is it so appealing? “I leave the office at 5.30 most days. And I rarely take work home – I’m very lucky, I realise that; at the start of my career this was not the case, I worked very long hours. This applies to our whole office pretty much – we don’t encourage late-night working. I am of the opinion that it’s just a fashion magazine and if you’re there at midnight every day there’s something wrong. It’s not that hard, we’re not running the country or solving the Ukraine crisis.” How serious is it all then? “I do think it’s serious, we work hard and are very professional and I think we produce a great product. But it’s actually supposed to make you feel better. We’ve covered the financial crisis, the Middle East, you name it. We like to surprise our readers sometimes! I think it’s important to know what you’re doing. Ultimately, it’s meant to make you feel good about yourself.”