What We Lose in Losing Ladies' Home Journal

Like middle-aged matrons who’ve had too much cosmetic surgery, women's magazines today are looking more generic than ever.

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.

As for McCall’s, a hundred years ago, the magazine was publishing the work of social activists such as Jane Addams along with articles highlighting designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. For decades it was lauded for its fiction, offering readers Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Tim O’Brien, Anne Tyler, and Kurt Vonnegut. In 1951—in time for my mother to give my sister the same name—the magazine introduced a paper doll named BetsyLittle girls snipped out the printed dolls and clothing or, for 10 cents in 1957, could order dolls printed on cardboard.

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.