The Last Days of Ladies’ Home Journal
by Allison Pohle
In the summer of 2013, during the first month of my internship at Ladies’ Home Journal, the magazine received a thirty-page letter from a lifelong reader. It was handwritten; shaky purple-inked cursive filled every side of the notebook paper. When I unfolded the pages, a few black-and-white Polaroid photos of a young woman fell out. In some, she was standing next to an unsmiling man in a Navy uniform. In others, she smirked coyly at the camera, and I felt the warmth of a smile meant for someone else.
The reader explained that Ladies’ Home Journal had always included the stories of its readers, and she felt it was time to tell hers. In short, clipped sentences, she described how her husband had been dead many years. She never remarried. Most of her friends were also dead. She went on to repeat these facts many times in the letter, often talking about how lonely she was, how she missed having someone to talk to, but always returning to how LHJ kept her company since the early days of her marriage.
As I read, I imagined her sitting at a kitchen table writing and writing, crossing words out as she dreamed of LHJ, the magazine she had read since she was a young bride, printing her story as unremarkable as she claimed it was. Now, more than 18 months later, I can barely remember the details of her letter, of her life.
LHJ kept a copy of every reader letter. The intern responded to every single one. Sometimes readers asked for old recipes, ones they might even remember seeing in “a spring issue sometime in the ’80s.” I would track these down, copy them and mail them free of charge. Once, a woman wrote in, and then called three times, to ask that I please send her an article she saw about Irritable Bowel Syndrome. “I don’t think you understand how much I need this,” she told me. “It’s urgent.” I spent three hours in the magazine’s archive room, which housed issues dating all the way back to the 1800s, looking for the article, which I eventually found and sent to her.
Most of the time, however, the readers asked us to listen, to read their stories and to make sure they were heard.
LHJ was forever changed on April 24, 2014, when Meredith executives told LHJ’s 35 staff members the publication would cease printing as a monthly — and could they please be out of the offices right away.
When the magazine ceased publication, there was no outrage. Media outlets announced matter-of-factly that another one of the seven sisters “bit the dust,” but no one seemed surprised. LHJ was just another old lady mag that became outdated.
Meredith executives vowed to turn it into a newsstand-only quarterly the following year. The spring 2015 issue was quietly released in February. Meredith didn’t issue a news release on its website. The Twitter account didn’t announce that copies are available on Barnes and Noble newsstands. The Facebook page and the website are still erased. The magazine is technically “back,” but unless they’re scanning certain newsstands, readers don’t know.
LHJ was the community so many women now find on online sites and blogs. It was the place where women across the country could write in to express their concerns, whether about how to clean curtains or how to save their marriages. Now, the 3.2 million women who found “passion and purpose” are left without the voice that guided them for so long. The publishers who ran a magazine that once vowed to “never underestimate the power of a woman” did just that.
Reading the last monthly issue of Ladies’ Home Journal is like going into a corporate conference room in the middle of the afternoon to celebrate the retirement of a lifelong employee. You pack around the long rectangular table, and someone awkwardly tries to sum up the highlights of the person’s career. The person giving the speech invariably forgets an important career highlight and only the person being honored notices, but, of course, doesn’t say anything. At the end, everyone claps. The person blushes. You eat some cake, drink some champagne, and go back to your desk to continue working, as if you aren’t bothered by the idea that 50 years of work is commemorated with cake, champagne and a few nice words.
The last issue of Ladies’ Home Journal has an editor’s letter that sums up some of the highlights of the magazine’s 131-year-old history. It’s two pages total. While it does mention how its 1904 campaign for the regulation of U.S. medicines led to the Food and Drug Administration Act, and how the magazine was one of the first to champion issues such as cancer prevention, eliminating risky procedures in maternity hospitals, and more humane treatment for American POWs in Vietnam, the majority of its long history is omitted. The rest of the magazine proceeds as planned, with a summer grilling guide, sleep tips, the “nice girl’s guide to getting a better price” and a feature on Miranda Lambert.
LHJ was the first American magazine to reach one million subscribers, largely in part because of its willingness to publish honest, informative stories that spoke to women as intelligent readers (imagine that!) who desired information, not just gossipy society articles (though it had plenty of those, too). The magazine went on to publish stories about World War I, a case of syphilis in a “nice, good” family (to eliminate the stigma that it only happened to “promiscuous” women), the first excerpt of The Feminine Mystique, and articles demanding safer standards for imported produce and better access to emergency room care.
Unlike the other seven sister magazines, which include Better Home and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Redbook and McCall’s, LHJ grew from a column. It was founded on the basis of being a distinct voice that spoke to an audience about a variety of topics.The Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper was born when Cyrus H.K. Curtis, who ran a publication called Tribune and Farmer in Philadelphia in the late 1870s, included one column for women. His wife Louisa didn’t think it was very good (rightfully so), and took it over. It became so popular that it grew into a full page, and, eventually, its own monthly supplement.
The first issue featured “Notes From a Young Housewife:” a woman who hated the dream home her husband built for her. Of course, complaining about a dream home is an eyeroll of a problem, but by publishing a letter that acknowledged marriage can be full of miscommunications, LHJ gave readers permission to express feelings that fell outside of the obedient demeanor then expected of young brides.
Reader stories became LHJ’s foundation when the publication switched to a crowd-sourced model in 2012. Many of LHJ’s older readers didn’t have Internet access, so the magazine became a “printed blog,” where the editors published (heavily edited) stories received from call-outs rather than solely by professional writers. Some sections, such as “You are the answer lady,” featured Facebook comments from readers who weighed in on questions such as how to get grandkids to stop spending time on their smartphones during “quality time together,” and whether it’s appropriate to ask restaurants to turn down loud music. In its last years, LHJ brought a sense of community most often found online into its pages.
But, like any publication, the magazine had its faults. It was a women’s service magazine that primarily targeted white, middle-class women and didn’t do enough to diversify its audience. Most of the advice focused on marriage, how to effectively maintain a home and raise a family, all of which are gender stereotypes many modern women are working to overcome. These old-fashioned ideals impacted the magazine’s ability to attract a younger audience, which limited its appeal to advertisers.
LHJ is said to have folded due to “an advertising issue.” A spokesperson for Meredith told Adweek, “When we looked at our brands, Ladies’ Home Journal unfortunately had a higher median age than other titles in that field.”
At the time it folded, LHJ wasn’t much doing worse than any of its competitors. In the second half of 2013, its single copy sales rose 4 percent. In the first quarter of 2014, its ad pages fell 22 percent, but its competitors had similar numbers, according to Adweek.
In reality, LHJ folded due to an identity issue. During my internship, I saw firsthand how the magazine struggled to find its footing. Advertisers wanted to appeal to a 35–55 year-old demographic, yet only 35 percent of the magazine’s readers fell within this range. The average LHJ reader was 57 years old.
Almost half of the U.S. population is over 50 years old, and these people are responsible for half of all the dollars spent consumer packaged goods. Yet, less than five percent of advertising dollars are devoted to them. Instead of holding its own as a wise lady, Ladies’ Home Journal hastily tried to make itself younger with more photo-based beauty articles featuring 20-something models and less of the substantial, progressive reporting it had featured for decades, isolating its core base of readers.
It seems billionaire investors are interested in the challenge of making a magazine relevant to the digital age when its readers are elite, well-educated, influential people who can cite their articles as inspiration when they make changes on a big scale. They don’t seem as interested when the magazine is one they saw dog-eared on their grandmother’s coffee table when they were growing up. They don’t seem as interested when the magazine’s readers are women who live in the Midwest and the articles that inspire them are ones they share because, inside of the words, they don’t see the need to make a change, they see themselves.
After I read the thirty-page letter, I decided to send the original back to the author along with her photos. I told her that we’d made a photocopy, but I wanted her to have the original, the details of her life, for herself. I knew the fragmented thoughts she sent wouldn’t be published, and couldn’t bear the thought of her life sitting in a binder sandwiched between other reader letters asking how to find the dress on page 64 or complaining how the typeface was too small to read.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived addressed to LHJ. It was written in purple pen. The woman mailed back the entire letter, including the pictures and my response letter. She didn’t give an explanation. She wasn’t ready to stop telling her story, to give up on making sure she was heard.
Some might say that LHJ will still gives readers a community, that she is getting another chance. In reality, LHJ feels like she’s on life support, with a slow pulse of four issues a year keeping her 131-year-old brand alive.
In not publicizing the quarterly’s release, it’s almost as if Meredith is setting the magazine up for failure. If copies didn’t sell, executives would be justified in claiming no one cared enough to continue buying it. But, so far, copies have sold.
Earlier this month, I tried to buy an issue in Boston. I went to three different Barnes and Noble stores, none of which had the magazine. I scoured newsstands, yet couldn’t find the smizing image of Jamie Lee Curtis on the cover anywhere. When I emailed a spokesperson for Meredith to ask about the distribution, he said the copies in my area were probably sold out already. I ended up buying mine on eBay, an option not available to the many aging readers without Internet access.
In the thin spring 2015 issue, the editor’s letter says, “we hope you think of Ladies’ Home Journal as a smart girlfriend — one you come to for advice or a nudge when you need it.” The editors do say that they’re excited to share “empowering stories,” and the magazine contains features describing women who live with ADHD, who are cancer survivors, and who use music as a source of healing.
But, most of the magazine seems to be filled with generic recipes from a Meredith database that could be substituted into any publication. Most notably, there are no invitations for readers to write in. Instead of being woven into most articles, the few reader comments are squeezed into sidebars. The voices of women are small and pushed to the margins of the very magazine that, only a few months ago, made their words heard.
LHJ is still dying. Losing LHJ, to some degree, means losing appreciation for the older women in our lives, as frustrating as some of their values might be, because we stopped giving them a space where they felt understood. In losing LHJ, we silenced voices of women who are not too unlike the ones we see in the checkout line at the grocery store or who stare off dreamily as they wait for the bus. Women, perhaps, who are not unlike the women we will become.
We can take the stories of the older women in our lives for granted. We can forget that the need to be understood doesn’t fade just because our hair color does. We can forget to listen. But, when we finally remember, once the pages of the magazine have been printed and the stories have been mailed back, it might be too late.
Allison Pohle is a writer who only wears dresses. She also tweets, but types with only with two fingers because she never learned how to use the home keys.