When I was in junior high, one of my favorite places to spend my allowance was at the newsstand across the street from my apartment. I'd buy a Twix, and load up on many magazines as I could afford. My favorite was Sassy, but I'd also grab Seventeen and YM, and then, creeping up the age demo, Glamour, Elle and Vogue. I'd take them into my room, and perched on my red satin bed cover surrounded by a flurry of subscription cards, I'd sink into a fugue of longing for that handbag, this shade of eyeshadow, that hair style, that boyfriend. Not surprising, I suppose, that I'd go on to write for magazines as an adult.
I don't mean to kick an industry when it's down, but I have to confess, my love affair with the glossies has gone sour. I've let all my subscriptions lapse. I peruse the mag racks at the airport, at the bookstore, and while I pull down a stack of them -cover art is still good -I rarely find anything that I feel compelled to buy.
What motivated my mag-a-love as a teenager was learning the answers to the burning questions of my life at that time: how to be pretty? how to be cool? how to find a boyfriend? My concerns today are different: I now want a magazine to tell me something surprising, something I don't know. I want a magazine to tell me an amazing story.
But most magazines don't do that. And since I've spent the past decade and then some working in magazines and watching the sausage being made, I think I understand why: Magazines are risk averse.
From reading a headline, I can tell you exactly how a story is going to go, because -and I'm not sure readers know this -most magazine stories are written before they're reported. An editor decides what she (or he) wants, and then dispatches the writer to go and get it. (And those are the nice editors, sadistic editors will force the writer to try to guess at what story they've written inside their heads from their desks, and then watch them bang their brains out trying to get it. One editor actually told me she wanted me to "download" what her top editor wanted. WTF.)
The thing is, most editors sit behind a desk all day long. They don't know a whole lot about what's happening in the actual real world. Some editors understand this, and attempt to shore up their weakness, but in tough times, they get cowed by their higher-ups. Who are defensive about their lack of knowledge and therefore cling to their ideas about reality with more intensity. (Included in their conception of reality is a rigid idea of who their reader is and what he or she is interested in.) It's Plato's cave. The editors are chained to the wall with their backs to the fire, and watching the shadows dance on the wall. Pity them.
Let me give you a recent example. I've just ended a relationship with a certain magazine, whose name I won't reveal, but who I've written for several times in the past. They wanted a story about how women with certain Bad Disease found their lives changed by the illness. Sounds reasonable enough. The process is this: I am to go out and find a number of women with this Bad Disease and talk to them about how their lives have changed. I am given various storylines by the editors: my distant marriage has been made closer. Bad Disease made her fearless in the face of a relationship that used to terrify her. She embraced alternative treatments, but not too much, so she doesn't seem like a wacko. Etc.
These are storylines dreamed up in an editorial meeting. They are invented. They are fiction.
My job is to then talk to as many women --real breathing women-- as possible to find someone that conforms to these storylines. I am asked to provide photos. If the woman has an undesirable quality--like, say, she's a lesbian -she's disqualified.
This is not journalism, ladies and gentleman, this is "casting", as in casting a movie or a reality TV show. And it happens all the time, in magazines covering every subject.
These editors are so entrenched in their shadow-world that they can write lines like: "We like that she's so young with this Bad Disease..." when evaluating the real-life people whose profiles I provided.
This particular story didn't go so well --after I spoke to more than 30 women, it turned out that reality was not conforming to the idea that the editors cooked up in their cave. But rather than changing the story angle, I was asked to start all over again from scratch, searching desperately for women with a terminal disease whose transformations met the pre-fab big story requirements.
Only I'm not going to do that, because in this case, the head honcho of this magazine didn't like that I couldn't start the whole process again for a few weeks due to other commitments and decided to replace me on the story, and not to pay me. Well, she offered me such an insultingly low fee, that I felt better turning it down totally. I resisted the urge to tell her she was most certainly a vindictive, bitter, stupid nutcase. (I actually liked the editor I was working with directly -- if you're reading this, you're better than where you're working. But your boss? I'd fit her for a straitjacket.)
It's all good, though, because I was tired of participating in this process -- it left me feeling dirty. (Why did I take the assignment? Well, in the past, this magazine had given me more freedom to just find real women and tell their stories without all this bullshit, and I like doing that. Their "casting" requirements became more stringent as time went on. Also, like most morally questionable endeavors, the money is really good.)
Please note: every single woman that I talked to had a story that was worth telling. Every single woman! And none of them will be written about in this magazine
Here is my plea to the magazine editors of the world: Magazines are shuttering one after the other. But readers want to read real stories! And writers want to write them! What you're doing is not smart. It's sad. Please stop it.
Follow Alison Stein Wellner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlisonSWellner