Why So Serious?

by Jen Doll

There’s been a couple-weeks-long conversation simmering, and it all began (at least, most immediately; truly, it began long, long before that) when British quarterly Port magazine decided to put six white, male editors (of GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and New York) on its cover. It’s not just the all-male, all-Caucasian cast that was the problem, though. It’s that the cover heralded “A New Golden Age” of print media — an age ostensibly presided over by Port’s chosen six white dudes (Anna Wintour was asked to join, but declined).

Port’s cover got all of the takedowns it deserved — read Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate and Ruth Franklin’s great open letter to “a few good magazine editors” — and in The New Republic, Jessica Grose investigated why this “pernicious assumption: that what women’s magazines publish is not as influential or important as what men’s and general interest magazines publish” continues to exist. She turned to ASME chief executive Sid Holt, who explained that “literary journalism is not central to women’s magazines’ editorial mission — which is one reason these magazines are rarely nominated in these categories.” ELLE’s Robbie Myers followed that (and it’s hard to take that as compliment) with a piece defending women’s magazines’ work, and offering her own criticism to men who don’t bother to find out what those publications actually contain. Along the way there have been numerous lists of stories published in women’s magazines upheld as deserving their own acclaim for “tackling complex, important topics.”

What have we learned? For one, we now know what Port magazine is. We’ve also gotten a fair reminder that women are capable of writing and publishing quality work. Of course they are. We even have a reading list or two to enjoy. And we’ve engaged in a necessary conversation about gender byline equality and credit where credit is due, though this isn’t the first of it, and it’s not the last of it, either.

Aside from the questions brought up about the way we see and reward male and female-oriented work (and whether we can rightfully expect men to read magazines targeted at women, and vice versa), this has gotten me thinking about the many judgments we place on writing — where they come from, who decides them, and why we see things the way we do. If we tacitly define “serious journalism” as being about men and by men (this has never been said, of course, though if we look at the awards, if we look at history, we can form our own conclusions) and confined to topics that men have traditionally written about, are more frequently assigned to write about, and are even more frequently likely to read (i.e., in men’s magazines), “serious” will continue to fall to the male side of things, and those pieces in those magazines will continue to be the stories that are recognized.

“Serious journalism” seems a coded way, intentional or not, of saying “journalism by and for men.” But I think what the label “serious journalism” is meant to imply, in spirit, anyway, is not gendered but simply good — demonstrating a high level of quality with regard to writing, reporting, creativity, resonance, and insight. Perhaps it’s a rare piece on nail polish colors that should be considered “serious,” but so it would be with any but the most daring exposé on seersucker suits. And yet, both of those latter pieces could, in fact, be good, and both of those types of pieces certainly appear in women’s, and men’s, magazines. What that tells me is that we need to expand our definition of “serious journalism.” It’s not that we should include things that are “frivolous,” necessarily, but we should include things with male and female bents, and even things that are not serious in subject, but serious in terms of the work they entail — the seriousness between the writer and his or her subject, and the reader and the page. “’Serious journalism’ need not be on ‘serious’ topics like rape, war, & death,” the writer Amanda Hess recently tweeted. “Long live longform on beauty & boy bands.”

Another thing is, though, we shouldn’t have to feel like all writing has to be serious, that serious is the only value in publishing. I do understand the need of women’s magazines to defend what they do as such; none of us like being ignored for the writing we produce, whether it’s serious or not. At the same time, why should we hold up this one formerly and still currently male-dominated “ideal” when there’s a lot of amazing stuff out there that doesn’t fit the definition (a definition that’s vague in the first place)?

Long live longform and good work on all sorts of things — stuff that could appear in any sort of quality magazine, or, for that matter, website, whether it’s one that is targeted to a general audience, men, or women. “’Serious journalism’ defies definition, but a publication’s investment in storytelling — the time, money, and pages it devotes to narrative — is measurable,” Hess writes further in a piece on Slate. “I’m not privy to the budget breakdowns of these magazines, but it’s not difficult to discern the editorial investment in a story just by reading it. And even the pieces that have been heralded this week as ‘the very best’ of women’s magazines could invest a lot more.”

Investment is a key point. Every editor is tasked with putting forth something that both fits the vision of the publication and also, ideally, will be read by a large number of readers (ever more the case on websites). The problem of “serious journalism” may not, in the end, be something that’s about men and women, but more about the resources and time to truly invest in such a product, especially against the surge in shorter, faster, generally less editorially demanding web content (singularly if not in the conglomerate), and decreased budgets and time for long-form, long-lead pieces. Not that short stuff is all bad; some short writing is very good. But what happens to not only the label but also to the content so described as “serious” when there’s neither the time nor the money for “serious”?

“Serious journalism,” in fact, is likely only a small portion of what the typical reader reads, and it may not even be the thing the typical reader relies on or appreciates the most. It’s not the main thing filling the pages of any magazine, though its existence is clearly important. I confess, too, a certain personal dislike for the phrase “serious journalism” itself, because it so snootily implies that other sorts of writing are not. Imagine if you had a friend whom, when you suggested he or she read something you thought was awesome, said, “I only read serious journalism.” That person would be the worst! Personally, I like all sorts of writing: I like articles about how to do things better, profiles of important people, stories about what face cream I should use, and brave and thoughtful depictions of wartime. I also like cat videos. I know they are not serious journalism. To me the most important thing is the question of quality and purpose, and at the heart of that is, does this piece of entertainment do its job? Of course, a lot of that is up to the reader. But the reader isn’t the one giving the awards.

There’s always going to be room for opinion related to any categorical designation, even or especially one so simple as “bad” or “good,” “serious” or “silly” (there are no magazine awards given for “silly”). But in my imaginary hoped-for future media world, we would write about, edit, and publish whatever we truly care about, for whomever wants to read it, and we would most of all do it well, without the need to call it “serious” or “frivolous,” “male” or “female,” or anything else. That writing would speak for itself, those doling out awards would recognize writers who did what they did the best (regardless of where their work appeared), and readers, regardless of gender, would keep coming back for more, which would be its own award.

Photo via Boston Public Library/flickr.

Jen Doll will be writing about books and other things for The Hairpin. She is a contributor to The Atlantic Wire and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other fine media establishments. Her first book is due out in the spring of 2014.