I took the reins at McCall’s in 1994 after it had been whirled again and again through a spin cycle of owners and editors. Along with Betsy McCall, who lives in perpetuity on eBay, whatever was unique about the magazine had been lost in countless redesigns, and under new German owners I struggled to give the old girl a fresh approach. By this time, across the board, the Seven Sisters’ circulations had dropped by millions while the median age of readers was rising. It was considered a triumph when as editor I decreased the median age by 1.3 percent, landing around 45. Women were still turning to the magazines for recipes and craft ideas, staples along with Christmas issues so packed with high-maintenance flourishes that I thanked God that I was Jewish, and could be exempted from all the labor they required. Most notably, readers appreciated the magazines’ superb health advice. Breast, ovarian and uterine cancer; why women are more likely than men to get heart attacks; Alzheimer’s; the rise in diabetes—when TV and newspapers were only superficially covering these subjects, you could read about them in depth, then rip out the article to alert a relative or friend.
Readers could trust what they found in the magazines’ pages. While the Seven Sisters’ rarely won National Magazine Awards, the industry’s Oscars, editors brought rigor to the process. No matter how illustrious the byline—historically, the Seven Sisters were both respected and well-paying, and could attract top writers—editors and fact checkers meticulously vetted pieces. “You saved my life,” was not an unusual letter for our editors to receive along with “I showed your article to my doctor.”
With grand old women’s magazines slip-sliding away, there is no equally reliable one-stop-shopping source for women’s health information. Newspapers and TV still don’t cover these concerns as deeply as I wish they would, and while much looks truthy online, content is uneven—to the extent that when I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, my doctor made me promise not to read about my disease on websites. Nonetheless, as we share 24/7, the connection once found in the town square of women’s magazine is but a click away. This is good, along with the fact that thanks to search engines, we don’t actually need a memory. It must also be a kick to get a top online job when you’re only years out of college, and work with writers who’ve worked for five times as long as you have while they’re now paid, at the most, bubkes. Hey, if I were 26, I’d want that job, since on the Seven Sisters it was unheard of to become a top editor before 40.
I read the Sisters rarely now. As ad dollars have drifted to digital options, the magazines, like many others, have become anorexic shadows of their former selves who, like middle-aged matrons who’ve had too much cosmetic surgery, look more generic to me than ever. Every one seems to feature variations on Downton Abbey hairdos, How to Beat Belly Fat, and Bacon Ranch Chicken Casseroles.
No thanks. I’ve become a magazine vegan. I write the occasional women’s magazine essay, but mostly, I now write novels. I’m happier in my imagination. It’s a place where I can remember the way magazines used to be.