New mag to cover global women’s issues

Valerie, a digital effort by two Columbia j-school alumnae, launched November 1

In 2010, Daria Solovieva was sitting in a media business class at Columbia’s Journalism School, when she thought, ‘I could start my own publication.’ Fast forward three years, and Solovieva and a fellow j-school alumna are launching Valerie, a magazine aiming for deep-dive coverage of women’s issues globally.

Valerie, which went live November 1, bills itself as a space to “feature female writers, bloggers, photographers, bring you stories of inspiring women and feature economic, social and political issues impacting lives of women across the globe.”

Valerie is the brainchild of Solovieva, its managing editor, who is a freelance journalist based in Cairo, and Columbia classmate Ivy Ng. The work Solovieva has been doing in Egypt in the three years since her j-school graduation helped revive her interest in starting a media outlet with an international scope by and for women.

“Over the past few months, most of the stories about women in Egypt are about violent rapes and sexual violence,” Solovieva, 29, said over email. “These are very important stories, but as a result these women become an unidentifiable mass that only deal with sexual harassment and rape in the streets. Women are quite instrumental in Egypt’s transition in other ways, and we want to tell that story as well.”

So last year, she began assembling a team of three other editors. They developed a business plan, Solovieva said, began working on creative design with one of her college friends, and consulting with a board of advisors. Solovieva said they settled on a name they felt would evoke an idea of valor and “a sense of strength and power that is missing from many women’s publications. (That and an Amy Winehouse song).”

Solovieva said Valerie will try to challenge the traditional narrative of women in the Middle East and other areas of the developing world.

“In Saudi Arabia if you Google women right now you’ll only find stories about driving ban and how oppressed women are over there—the predominant media narrative,” she said. “But actually there are quite a lot things changing over there, a lot of female entrepreneurs and wealthy women who are making steady progress and changes, but are not in the headlines. That’s what we want to cover.”

Like many of those involved with Valerie, Solovieva is no greenhorn. She was primarily a business reporter for about seven years, she said, and before going to Columbia, her international experience included stints freelance reporting from Somalia for the Economist and working as a staff reporter in Russia for the Wall Street Journal.

A week into its existence, Valerie already reflects its founders’ international sensibility. Contributors have filed stories from Russia, South Africa, Egypt, and Liberia, most of them journalists Solovieva knows through the Columbia j-school alumni network.

The website is advertisement-free, and while they are looking into options for funding, the cofounders are putting their own money into the magazine for now. Solovieva said that Valerie intends to pay its contributors in the future, but in an economic climate where paid work can be scarce (and reporters have to resort to inventive tactics to receive due payment), the magazine is currently relying on the willingness of its contributors to volunteer their time.

One of those willing contributors is Clair MacDougall, a freelance journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia. MacDougall is an experienced international correspondent, with clips appearing in Newsweek, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor. She does not, as a rule, work for free. But for her, for now, Valerie is different.

“As a struggling freelancer, I firmly believe that writers ought to be paid for their work,” she said. “That said, I support Valerie’s ethos, and think it is important to write stories that you are sincere about and believe in.”

She said she was eager for the opportunity to delve deeper into the women’s issues that simmer underneath much of the reporting she’s done from Liberia, whose head of state, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is Africa’s first female president.

“I don’t think traditional or mainstream media entirely ignores and excludes women,” said MacDougall. “The main issue is that it presents women in limited and unimaginative ways, as heroines, harlots, or victims, and through the prism of hideously boring conventional notions of femininity.”

Solovieva agreed.

“For many publications, a ‘women’s angle’ is an afterthought,” she said. “It shouldn’t be; women are increasingly more politically active, a growing consumer segment, and it does not make sense that news organizations do not directly cater on an ongoing basis to their changing needs and growing demand for information.”

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Noah Hurowitz is a CJR intern