When Cosmopolitan took home a National Magazine Award for public service journalism—the first ASME recognition in the magazine’s almost 50-year history—the news echoed through headlines as signal of the state of things, not just at the swank Hearst glossy, but in womens’ magazines as a genre. Namely, that perhaps the national media was poised to acknowledge en masse the smart, serious work already being published by the ladymags—and that perhaps ladymags might be reinventing themselves for an increasingly savvy audience, sick of pandering.
But for Cosmo Editor in Chief Joanna Coles, the award is symbolic of nothing more than the increasingly thoughtful work she’s been pushing into the magazine. In the 18 months of Coles’ leadership, Cosmo has slowly begun to resemble a smarter, yet still recognizable, version of itself, with international reporting, political coverage of reproductive rights and gender equity, and career advice tucked between sex tips—which have also inched closer to the groundbreakingly honest pragmatism of Helen Gurley Brown’s vision. Take the now ASME-winning feature, “How Not to Get Pregnant,” a frank, humorously illustrated guide to contraception, which ran at 12-pages—the equivalent of Moby Dick in lifestyle magazine land.
“You can’t be a magazine that writes about relationships and love and sex without writing about contraception,” Coles told me when I caught her by phone as she rode to a lunch. Coles says the feature was so successful because of its comprehensiveness and “non-judgemental” tone, including birth control options not usually codified by the good girls of womens’ magazines, like withdrawal.
“What we’re trying to do is be realistic about the life that the reader leads,” says Coles. “Do we have readers that have the occasional drunken hook-up without contraception? Sure. What’s the best way to handle a situation like that? Have him pull out. Is it effective? Only 77 percent of the time.”
According to Coles, Cosmo has extended this definition of sex and relationships past contraception, using reproductive rights as a tool for publishing narratives that take on wonky political topics, like the implementation of buffer-zone law in Massachusetts, as well as newsier coverage relevant to the lives of women. Last week, for instance, Cosmopolitan.com’s top slot held a 4,000-word feature on how cyberbullying exacerbates Dartmouth’s problematic sexual assault policy. It’s written by Katie Van Syckle, a regular contributor to publications like Rolling Stone and New York.
You’ll also find personal essays by literary voices, like The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P author Adelle Waldman, and career advice and features influenced by Cosmo’s careers editor, Sheryl Sandberg, whom Coles first courted while she was working on the draft of Lean In. Even celebrity profiles are infused with more substance, like this piece on actress Gabourey Sidibe, which examines why the press find the plus-sized actress’ confidence so surprising.
“One of the things I wanted to do was reflect the issues that young women are wrestling with in their lives,” says Coles. “We’ve beefed up the magazine’s career content; we’ve beefed up our financial advice. We’re not a magazine that tells you to spend $4,000 on a bag; we’re a magazine that tell you to put some of it in a savings account and put a down payment on an apartment.”
Coles, who spent time as a politics reporter at The Guardian and the Times of London before swapping continents to edit magazines like More and Marie Claire, says her news background has propelled her focus on the magazine’s website, which has increased its staff and almost doubled its readership in the last year. “You need the marathon metabolism of the magazine, along with the sprint metabolism of the website,” says Coles, “people like Amy Odell, Lori Fradkin, and Jill Filipovic—they’re the new feminists.” It’s such a shift from the original publication that the site architecture isn’t keeping up the news content that Cosmo has been shuttling onto its homepage: A news piece on Brazil’s black market abortions is filed under “Health and Fitness Tips,” while features on the kidnapped Nigerian girls are labeled “Life Advice and Self Improvement.” According to Coles, Cosmo is in the middle of a site redesign, which will orient everything to mobile and make space for the newsier content.
Regardless of the quality of content that pours out of Cosmopolitan’s homepage, it won’t be easy to remake a brand synonymous with sex positions into something more in the eyes of the public. But Coles might be sick of the trite coverage that her publication is getting a bit smarter—as seen by her reaction last week when Flavorwire ran a piece “It’s Time to Start Taking Cosmopolitan Seriously.”
Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: ASME, birth control, Cosmopolitan, national magazine awards, women's magazines