It didn’t come as a surprise when the Meredith Corporation last week announced its decision to all but snuff out the 131-year-old Ladies’ Home Journal, reducing it to a quarterly, newsstand-only publication. Unlike Hearst, owner of three other women’s magazines once known as the Seven Sisters, Meredith is a public company. It owed its shareholders a prudent decision on a property that had been on life support for years; in order to fulfill its promise to advertisers, the magazine had been Botoxing its rate base, giving away approximately 150,000 copies a month. Between 2009 and 2013 ad pages fell by half.
LHJ isn’t the first of the Sisters to crash. At 124 years old, McCall’s suffered that fate in 2002 when it went down in a blaze of crazy after having been rebranded as Rosie, a vanity publication for Rosie O’Donnell. After only nine months of Rosie, O’Donnell bailed, causing her bosses to sue the star for abusing employees, disrupting the editorial process, and trading her Queen of Nice persona for a self-proclaimed “uber-bitch.” Following a high-profile trial, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of neither party, both of whom he chastised for wasting the court’s time.
For the last eight years of McCall’s life, I was its editor-in-chief. Transforming the magazine into Rosie was an ignominious death for a publication that long before my time—1949 to 1962—had featured Eleanor Roosevelt as a columnist. Upon hearing the LHJ news, my schadenfreude exploded along with my sorrow.
My Facebook feed, which includes a roll call of current and former women’s magazine editors and writers, lit up with messages. At first, the comments seemed to all include the word “sad,” particularly as people considered the 35 colleagues who had been sacked. But as the news sunk in, the tone soured. “When was the last time you actually read the Journal?” “Wasn’t it your mother’s magazine, not yours? (The median reader age was 57, which to a 23-year-old may as well be 97.)
It was fitting that we were having this conversation online, because Facebook and its way-more-than-Seven Sisters has done as much as anything to relieve readers of their need to browse women’s magazines. I speak of the sense of community women now find in social media that they used to discover through traditional magazines. Regardless of whether the voice was preachy (cue LHJ or Good Housekeeping), friendly (McCall’s, Redbook, or Family Circle), spiritual (Woman’s Day, known for its Bible quotes), or grounded in earthlier concerns (Better Homes & Garden—always the practical Sister), women bonded in these pages in a way they had few opportunities to replicate elsewhere. When an issue arrived in the mail or was tossed into a supermarket cart with the Cheese Whiz, grabbing an hour to browse its features was the equivalent of a tea party with friends who shared your zeitgeist. From cover to cover, you saw and heard from women who looked, dressed, and stressed like you. And it was a big party: In 1903 LHJ was the first American magazine to reach 1 million subscribers. By 1968, its circulation was 6.8 million, exceeded by McCall's 8.5 million.
Since 1953, LHJ could boast of its trademarked Can This Marriage Be Saved, which in the history of American magazines is perhaps the most widely known column, ever. Its format was simple: Each half of an unhappy couple vented about their spouse, a therapist offered advice, and all three viewpoints were published—to the delight of readers who could be glad that no matter what sucked in their marriage, at least they didn’t have this problem. If marriages weren’t saved, they were at least candidly observed. When I worked for a number of years as a freelancer after I had a baby, LHJ gave me numerous assignments on relationships with every stripe of dysfunction. Unconsummated marriage, loveless marriage, incest—that was my turf before morning talk shows regularly parsed such intimate subjects.