The Profile

Through radical empathy, New York‘s The Cut achieves success in the women’s media space

March 19, 2018
Editor and Chief and President Stella Bugbee (left) and CEO Pam Wasserstein (Courtesy of The Cut)

On a weekend evening in January, a relatively obscure women’s website called published a story that elicited a media frenzy. Babe, known best for clickbait headlines (Do you want to read my weirdest, grossest sex stories ever?” “Kylie’s just posted her post-pregnancy body and I’m drinking myself into a coma tonight”), posted a rambling as-told-to account of an anonymous woman’s date with a famous actor gone awry.

The media reaction to the post is familiar enough by now: the coverage of the coverage, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash. The tweets. Every women’s website and national purveyor of cultural commentary had something to say. As take after take pinged around on Twitter and Slack channels on MacBooks everywhere, battle lines were drawn. Some outlets felt free to publish pieces wary of the #MeToo movement, some doubled down on siding with accusers unequivocally, while others wrote pieces criticizing the editing of the young woman’s account. And then there were the deliberately trolling headlines, even when the article itself showed traces of insight (“Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” comes to mind, the column that cemented Bari Weiss as both a household name and object of scorn in many media circles).

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But New York magazine’s women’s vertical, The Cut, is one place that didn’t come out swinging—at least not right away. “What Is”—a Web-friendly overview of the controversy, dropped the first weekday morning after The Aziz Ansari piece came out. That evening, The Cut’s staff writer, Anna Silman, identified the Ansari moment as a turning point, and called for a parallel dialogue about pervasive sexist norms at large. “It might be more productive to see this as the emergence, however imperfect, of a separate (if related) conversation,” Silman wrote, “one that requires a more nuanced response than the clear-cut cases of assault and harassment that launched our current feminist reckoning.”

It also sums up the approach The Cut has taken since the moment a man accused of sexual assault became a viable presidential candidate. Nuance, empathy, and a reverence for women’s inner lives are ideologies all their own at The Cut.

“Empathy is my political stance in general,” says The Cuts Editor in Chief and President Stella Bugbee. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to specifically advance a partisan agenda as much as it is that we publish really smart, thoughtful, potentially even unpopular thoughts.”

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The Cut stands out in a crowded women’s media world in both editorial gravitas and reach: boasts beyond 8 million monthly unique visitors, up more than 40 percent since 2016. In addition to widely shared essays (see: anything Rebecca Traister has written since the election), celebrity cover stories, and original fashion photography, the site was the first to report allegations of sexual harassment against New York public radio legend John Hockenberry and uncover footage of Hardball host Chris Matthews’s sexist commentary during a 2016 interview with then-candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Cut Editor in Chief and President Stella Bugbee (Courtesy of The Cut)

The site, which was redesigned in 2017, has been part of New York magazine’s online presence since 2008. In 2012, The Cut brand went from fashion blog to full-fledged online women’s magazine, mixing politics, pop culture, and an irreverent, smart sensibility with the genre’s staples like fashion week coverage and beauty reviews. This was the heyday of feminist internet, when blogs like Jezebel and The Hairpin occupied a similar space. National news outlets like Slate, Vice, and The Washington Post have launched verticals devoted to women in years since, and big investors even joined the party.

New York Editor in Chief Adam Moss is quick to point out that the flagship publication has always been in the business of smart, nuanced feminism; Gloria Steinem, for example, launched Ms. magazine in the pages of New York in the 1970s. And the magazine itself has been home to deeply reported pieces on women, power, and ambition long before revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s abuses roiled the news this past fall. The magazine won praise for publishing the stories of Bill Cosby’s 35 accusers and including their photos on the glossy’s cover in 2015, and then-political writer Gabriel Sherman exhaustively covered Roger Ailes and his many abuses of power in recent years.

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The infrastructure of what’s now The Cut has long been in place, and its shape is rare in the publishing landscape: Moss’s vision of New York as a magazine for readers of a coastal sensibility (rather than a magazine solely for New Yorkers), paired with an early adaptation to the pace of digital journalism and an established roster of marquee writers like Traister, Ann Friedman, and Heather Havrilesky.

Still, Moss wasn’t sure people took The Cut’s journalism seriously until the 2016 presidential campaign. “We always had a dedicated readership, but the readership began to escalate,” he says, “and people began to notice and say nice things about what we were doing.”

“The experience was already there,” says New York CEO Pam Wasserstein. “The authority was already there, and now the historical moment has aligned with what we were already doing and capable of.”

“All journalism waits for its moment,” adds Moss.

And at The Cut, the moment belongs to Bugbee, a veteran of the editorial, advertising, and design worlds alike, who was on the relaunch team of The Cut and is now its top editor.

“What if, instead of an instantaneous backlash to literally every thought expressed online, we just sat with our discomfort for even ten minutes? Six months? Three years?” Bugbee muses in her monthly editor’s letter. “The ‘reckoning’ (as we’ve been calling it) began in full force only a few months ago, and already the very same media outlets that broke the first stories are giving credence to an impending backlash. But what is that backlash, exactly? It seems to me it’s a lot of women afraid of ‘losing the room’ or people deeply invested in keeping things the way they’ve always been. It’s simply too hard to live in a state of uncertainty. But we must acknowledge that people can experience contradictory feelings and still function.”

February’s letter, titled “I’m Certain that Certainty is the Enemy,” turns out to be both Bugbee’s cri de coeur and The Cuts governing philosophy in the #MeToo era—one it’s betting its core readers share.

Bugbee describes herself as someone who sees the world in Venn diagrams, and that’s how she thinks of The Cut’s four sections—style, self, culture, and power—they should be continually overlapping. This idea sounds, at first, like a sophisticated version of the tired “women can care about makeup and politics, too, who knew!” ethos of some women’s publications. But reading The Cut feels less like reading a curation of the imagined woman’s wide-ranging interests, and more like having a wine-soaked conversation with your wittiest, most zeitgeisty friend.

The cover of The Cut’s February issue (Courtesy of The Cut)

What [women] think about on a daily basis…that’s important, and we’re going to think about defining that stuff,” says Senior Editor Ruth Spencer, citing The Cut’s expansion of coverage on careers, ambition, and motherhood-related pieces.

And since sexual assault and our culture’s relationship to masculinity and femininity have been on many of our minds for some months, The Cut has been a natural host for those conversations. Bugbee says she hopes they are thoughtful ones.

Bugbee and other editors at The Cut say submissions are considered carefully. At times, Bugbee says, she’s seen some of those same pieces published as-is in other publications, if the writer opts not to cooperate with the process at The Cut.

When The Cut published a nearly 3,000-word first-person confessional essay by Moira Donegan, in which the young writer outed herself as the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, this January, it was not without long conversations and deliberations between the writer and editorial staff. Bugbee describes the decision to take Donegan’s story as one that came from the site’s ideology of empathy—and calls it a defining piece of its #MeToo coverage.

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“I was proud of Moira for coming forward, because that wasn’t an easy choice. I was glad she trusted us to work with her on it, and that felt like a moment where The Cut was able to contribute something big to this conversation,” Bugbee says, adding that it also “helped bring a lot of eyeballs.”

She says she would treat a piece by a writer anywhere on the feminist spectrum in the same way: “I’d never take anything out of hand. But if it’s smart, and has something new to say…[empathy] allows me to publish things even if I may not always agree.”

In addition to the Donegan piece, the site’s #MeToo coverage has included a conversation between Traister and conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “the lessons of the Post-Weinstein moment,” an Ann Friedman column looking at “Google Doc” activism more generally, and critical coverage of Hollywood. A Traister column from 2015, “Why Consensual Sex Can Still Be Bad,” resurfaced as one of the site’s most-read pieces in late 2017.

While it may seem obvious that a magazine targeted at educated women living mostly in large, metropolitan areas (mostly “older millennials,” as Wasserstein says) craves complexity and empathy, that’s not traditionally been the credo of women’s media.

When Ann Friedman, a freelance writer and co-creator of the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend, went freelance after being laid off with her colleagues at GOOD in 2012, her weekly column at The Cut became both her financial foundation and intellectual home base. She has been a contributing writer for the site longer than many current staffers have been on board.

“I’ve had editors at glossy women’s magazines say to me, ‘Forget the nuance. We’re trying to make a really clear argument here.’ No editor at The Cut has asked me to forget the nuance,” Friedman says. “Internet conventional wisdom is you need a very clear take that can be put into a clicky headline. Some of the worst #MeToo writing and response has been that—‘Here’s why so-and-so is bad.’ That is just not The Cut’s M.O.”

She also believes The Cut stands out in a crowded online space eager for eyeballs because it isn’t afraid of waiting a beat or two on the conversations of the day. “There’s a lot of editorial pressure to be like, ‘What are we saying right now?’” she says. “The Cut will write that quick blog post, and revisit it in a deeper way later.”

Looking back, Friedman does wish some of the process around her earlier columns at the site had included “nuance checks” on how readers unlike herself might see her pieces: “‘Hey, what about a woman reading this in the middle of the country? Or a woman who is transgender?’” she posits. “But this is something that everybody can get better at.”

Bugbee and Moss say they work hard to resist making assumptions about their readers. She particularly tries to use caution with assumptions about a reader’s financial privilege, terrain other women’s magazines can easily fumble.

“I’d hesitate to call something ‘an investment bag,’” she says. “We don’t speak to you like, ‘Go out and buy one right now!’ It’s more like, ‘If you were to buy this…’ We don’t assume privilege—whether it’s education, motherhood, or money—we don’t assume these things came easily for our readers.”

That holistic approach applies to subjects and people The Cut tackles, too. When Allison Davis, currently on her second tour of duty as a staff writer, sat down to profile Bring It On actress Gabrielle Union for The Cut’s October 2017 cover, she felt stumped. Union’s new book of essays detailed fertility struggles and her experience of being raped as a teenager. Davis—who often pens fun-but-thoughtful content on sex and entertainment—felt the profile warranted the serious tenor of the memoir’s subject matter. Her editor, Molly Fischer, had another thought—had Davis’s conversation with Union at a Chicago sports bar really been two hours of heart-wrenching real talk?

“I said, ‘No, for two hours, it was a lot of laughing and drinking tequila,” Davis recalls.

Fischer told her, “It’s okay to put that in, because we’re trying to portray her as a complete person.”

“I was able to write the draft in one night after we got past that.”

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Editors Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Anna Silman’s name.

Amanda Palleschi is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, Washington City Paper and others. You can follow her on Twitter @APalleschi.