This month, Outlook announced the closure of all its three licensed international publications: Marie Claire, People and Geo. Last month, my previous company had shut down two of its publications, Atelier and Diva. And suddenly, I find myself in a unique and sad situation of having two of my former employers, all lifestyle magazines, shut down due to losses. The similarities were marked by a complete lack of prior intimation to even the senior editorial team, and by the abrupt shutdown of operations without warning, leaving scores of my friends and ex-colleagues jobless overnight.
We had been just too buoyed by a ‘vibrant’ consumer economy to even fear losses. But short-sighted strategies and a glut of me-too products in the market had to come to its logical conclusion; a few casualties were inevitable.
Let’s first face facts: Lifestyle journalism isn’t journalism. It is glamorous marketing, the advertising of luxury goods and services disguised creatively as service to the reader. I could (can) never say this, of course, in the pages of my own magazine(s). For the kind of journalism that requires boldness, fearlessness, courage, thick skin, and irreverence for the powers that be, you don’t turn to the pages of a glossy. You read certain newspapers; slim, loss-making magazines; or a handful of websites. So let’s not burden those beautifully packaged pages of leisure-reading with the onus of also telling the truth. That’s not their job. Their job is to sell; they are a whole industry of fantasy creators and dream weavers, who guile you into thinking you need one more product, one more designer garment, one more car or holiday abroad in order to ‘arrive’. Their job is to create a need, which is happily filled up by the advertiser on the facing pages. Their job is to fuel the very consumer economy that feeds it, by the clever use of words and photos that convince you of its indispensability. Their job is to make you insecure, so that you reach out for that anti-ageing cream, that two-button blazer, to still be relevant.
Being Swogged, One Lotion at a Time
Not all of us who join lifestyle magazines expect this, of course. As part of the launch team of Marie Claire in India, I was full of google-eyed dreams of responsible journalism, saving Indian women from their sad plights, and heart-wrenching writing that would drive my readers to goose-bumps. Soon, however, tubes of expensive lip gloss and designer sunglasses found their way into my work cabinets, sitting pretty with my Buddha figurine and visiting cards. It is easy to lose one’s objectivity when you’re put up at the Ritz Carlton in Singapore by a high-end cosmetics brand; when you’re taken around Berlin or London or Toronto or Miami by large FMCG retailers or global sportwear brands or automobile giants, all expenses paid, pampered by beaming PR and media-communication managers. It is easy to come back all starry-eyed and watch your fingers flow over the keyboard using phrases like ‘exclusive product’ and ‘cutting-edge technology’ and ‘miraculous efficiency’ without batting a mascara’d eyelash. The rules of journalism are blurred; your writing reads more like press releases; your creativity is reduced to ‘packaging’ as I would tell my teammates: “All these stories have been done before. How we package it is what makes the difference.” My desire to uplift the Indian woman was transformed into trying to uplift her bum with cellulite creams.
And then I went further down the same path. Atelier was a luxury magazine, even more blatant consumerism than Marie Claire, except that we appealed to male audiences as well. There followed holidays to five-star hotels, travels around Europe and exotic locales around the world, and then smartly written narratives about one’s experiences, ‘packaged nicely’, of course. I used my creativity in finding interesting people to write about, interesting questions to ask them, interesting clothes to shoot them in. ‘Advertorials’ were just another chore, quickly dispensed with. Then, still driven by the desire to do something for the Indian woman, I pushed my owners to launch Diva (an unfortunately frivolous name but with an attempt at serious content). And finally, there was honest, sincere writing; fabulous non-celeb profiles; some strong stories, of course ‘packaged’ well… I thought I’d had it made. I got carried away by the illusion that I was a writer and editor; that I was creating human-interest stories people needed to read.
But we all forgot one thing; we forgot lifestyle journalism isn’t journalism. That it is glamorous marketing and that our job was to sell something.
The mistake that all five shutdown lifestyle magazines have perhaps made is that they kept editorial and marketing separate; that their editors never had to worry about bringing in the money; that their sales teams were clueless about the editorial vision. That may be alright for a news magazine or one that has unlimited funding, but it just doesn’t work in a lifestyle-product-driven magazine that hopes to make money from advertising to feed its people. At least not in India.
Those in the know in this industry know the stories of how editors walk into advertisers’ offices, smile sweetly and make small talk, before getting down to business. Those in the know know why the really good writers and worker bees never vie for the editor’s slot; “Who wants to do all that schmoozing and PR?” one seriously experienced scribe told me, explaining her decision to stay deputy editor and not apply for the vacant editor’s slot in her international magazine; it gave her some semblance of journalism. Those in the know know that you don’t need to even know how to write and you can still head one of the largest fashion magazines in the world (what are sub-editors for anyway?); all you need to know is how to sell something. Those in the know know why big media groups don’t want award-winning writers and editors at the top position in their lifestyle products; they want socialites and party-regulars; anyone who has the network and can bring in the money.
This isn’t to say there aren’t iconic lifestyle media products around the world – Marie Claire, Geo and People are themselves examples. But internationally, they perhaps have clear marketing strategies and sales targets that they develop with the managing editors, while keeping certain sections of the magazines sacrosanct for genuine editorial content. They are clear about what parts can be sold and what can’t. In India, the rules are different. This is an industry where everything is up for sale, led by some of the largest media houses; there’s zero tolerance for editorial snobbery. Those who don’t toe the line, lose.
There are other reasons too for the closure: Lack of strategic online presence, and lack of digital interactivity with readers who are younger and increasingly wired. To stay relevant, one has to reinvent oneself for the customer; today’s young and restless have their own compulsions that must be addressed. We cannot follow the old rules in a new world. The past couple of months have made me a humbler lifestyle journalist; I understand the boundaries of my work and keep the ‘lifestyle’ and the ‘journalism’ apart.
The greatest lesson has been in understanding that everything comes at a price. With every free meal, we lose a little more of our freedom.
First published on Newslaundry.com