Everything Old Is New Again: How the ‘New’ User-Generated Women’s Magazine Takes Us Back to the Future
Volume 31, Issue 3, 2014
By Amy Aronson
In 2012, the Ladies’ Home Journal announced its decision to become the first contemporary women’s magazine to almost completely socialize content, drawing on user-generated material for the majority of its articles and columns. Across the industry, this “bold crowdsourcing experiment” and “a new approach to editorial content” in “mostly unknown territory” was seen as historic. Yet not quite in the way most commentators suggested. Because in drawing on reader voices and audience participation to fill its pages, the Journal wasn’t so much breaking new ground as it was reclaiming continuity with the women’s magazine tradition of the past. The “new” Ladies’ Home Journal actually reconnects us with the original vision of the women’s magazine in America, its eclectic content and interactive dynamics, and its mindful woman reader far less of a pushover than many critics and commentators have allowed.
Historically, the American magazine arose as an open and participatory form not unlike digital and social media platforms today. From its origin in 1741, the “periodical miscellany” contained multiple departments and embraced both multiple genres and the voices of various contributors. In fact, the American magazine was unusually amenable to a relatively open and dynamic exchange of reader voices and views. Magazine historians note that the idea of the American magazine may have come from British examples, including the essay papers Tatler (1709–11) and Spectator (1711–14), and the popular miscellany, the Gentleman’s Magazine (begun 1731). But the Tatler magazine had its “Isaac Bickerstaff” character, and the Spectator its “Mr. Spectator” persona, each of which worked to center commentary and organize contents. And the Gentleman’s Magazine was organized in sequential entries linked through carefully composed editorial transitions.
By contrast, American magazine printers presented anonymous contributions of prose, poetry, letters, queries, and fragments—whatever material they could garner by hook or by crook—in little apparent order on the page. American magazines more typically included contributions from amateur writers, and they generally printed them alongside those of community leaders or elders, often making scant effort to prioritize them on the page. Even early American magazines renown in their time for their structured, elegant Addisonian essays—the Columbian Magazine, American Museum of Philadelphia, Massachusetts Magazine of Boston, and the New-York Magazine—are better remembered today for the eclectic array of content within which such essays appeared.
When the first “ladies magazines” came along beginning in 1792, they, too, were American magazines, marked by the same sort of polyvocality and discursive competition between adjacent items on the page. The earliest women’s magazines contained eclectic content – fiction, including travelogues, short stories, poems, parables and fragments; non-fiction pieces spanning advice, instruction, argumentative essays, “observations” and reportage, even music. They mixed contributions from different writers – both men and women, most amateur and anonymous, but some of community or emerging literary stature – as well. And they published a noisy mix of messages – some content was patriarchal, geared to subordinating women, while some, in those same publications, at the same time, was more progressive both culturally and authorially within that historical context.
Women’s magazines were more forum, or nexus, than soapbox, dynamics that prefigure the social media model of the Ladies’ Home Journal today. Largely user-generated and perpetuated by reader response, they invited a range and promoted the exchange of audience voices and views – much like contemporary digital and social media do. And they demanded active, agile, independent audiences not totally inconsistent with the web-surfing, content-sharing, curator-readers demanded by “platishers” and digital platforms now.