Life

(French!) Kissing the Teen Mag Goodbye

With Seventeen moving to “digital-first,” the era of the teen print magazine is over. As it should be.

Cover image collage of Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Tiger Beat, Teen Vogue, Teen and Bop Magazines.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Tiger Beat, Teen Vogue, Teen and Bop Magazines.

This week, Women’s Wear Daily reported that 74-year-old Seventeen magazine will shift to a “digital-first strategy,” with print issues to appear only a few times a year. Like Teen Vogue, its fellow final survivor in a once-crowded teen-magazine field, Seventeen will live on in digital form—though WWD reports that Seventeen’s web readership is down this year, along with its print numbers. In the year 2000, there were seven major teen magazines publishing monthly; now, there are none. This makes me feel incredibly old, but even so: I am glad that teen magazines are dead.

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This gladness comes as something of a surprise. After all, I worked at one of them, YM, for three years in the early 2000s when I was fresh out of college. I learned so much in that job—not least from Christina Kelly, who had been an editor at Sassy, the teen mag so beloved among a certain set of Gen-Xers that I think it may be illegal to mention its name without appending “dearly departed.” I loved Sassy truly and deeply, and I even have certain nostalgic feelings about the more mainstream teen publications that I passed around at the back of busses on the way to track meets back in 1990.

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But all those feelings don’t add up to mourning for the lost teen magazines of my youth. That job at YM was never perfect. I wrote worthy, earnest features—a dual profile of a girl who had enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and another who had become a peace protester; a critical look at the life of a prodigy who had graduated from college at 14; interviews with kids who juggled a love of punk rock with their family’s membership in the LDS church. I wrote service: health advice, college advice, friendship advice. Clip after clip, into my little portfolio; I learned about fact-checking (remember that?), publication schedules, and copy editing.

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But I never felt quite right about any of it. It was always strange to be a writer 10 years older than her audience, trying to figure out what was cool and make our magazine mirror that. Who were we to say? I didn’t like the way the fashion and beauty advertising contradicted every feminist message I tried, with the full cooperation of my editors, to slip into the text. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that the serious stuff I was writing was not the point of the magazine for most readers. It was hard to get a clear picture of our readers’ habits, but I wasn’t so old that I had forgotten flipping right by the feature well on my way to the “embarrassing moments” columns and the photos of cute actors and musicians.

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With the advent of the internet, girls can get both of those kinds of pleasure—the gossipy frisson of “Can you believe that happened to her?”; the sweet hit of “Oh man s/he’s hot”—in so many more places. For a desperate decade, people who run teen magazines have tried to figure out ways to stay “relevant,” even as their online competition has expanded. Back in 2016, Elaine Welteroth, then the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, explained to Refinery29 why teenagers might read print magazines when the Internet exists: “Click and move on is about satisfying an urgent need to be in the know—it’s less about belonging. For teens, being a part of a community you identify with is so important. Subscribing to a print title, even in 2016, is like signing up for a club that serves you on a more personal level.” Teenagers liked to have a “personalized experience,” Phillip Picardi, then Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, added; the world is full of media for everyone else.

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But what is social media, if not a “personalized experience” of community? Also in Refinery29, Tracey Lomrantz Lester, onetime fashion news editor at ElleGirl.com, observed: “Those magazines helped form a sisterhood by creating a common narrative for so many of us, and now those girls are creating and sharing their own narratives every day. They have the ability to publish a mini-magazine daily on Snapchat or Instagram, and to giggle with their girlfriends in the comments sections, rather than passing on a well-battered copy of a magazine.” I would argue that these self-created “narratives” are more honest and organic than the ones crafted by older editors living in New York—even older editors as sarcastic and wonderful as the Sassy crew, or as I tried to be, in their memory.

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Finally, with the coming of the internet, the fundamental weakness at the teen magazine concept’s heart has been exposed. Why should teenage girls be their own reading “community” just by dint of their age? Sure, as every teen magazine editor and writer invested in the project of teen magazines would tell you, there’s something unique about being a teenager. But why did magazines for teen boys never take off? (Sassy experimented with Dirt, but the project was short-lived.) Back when anyone still read magazines, boys read magazines about things that interested them: dirt-biking, surfing, streetwear, music, computer gaming. Why should we assume that teenage girls would all be interested in the same small set of concerns? This attempt to address girls as a monolith wasn’t good. Even when we tried to be diverse at YM—to include nonwhite kids, poor kids, kids who didn’t exist in a perpetual state of chipper happiness about their lives—there were always advertisers who wanted the magazine to look “fun” to consider. The “teen magazine” concept is inherently apolitical, middle-class, and normative, and it was very difficult to circumvent that. It’s even harder in today’s more politically aware and sophisticated climate.

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You might think that the one definite advantage of having magazines just for teen girls would be the availability of advice on bodies and sex. Before the internet, teen magazines were probably the only good source of that kind of information available to people living in conservative areas. But teen magazines have also been a magnet for protests from the Christian right, due to the combination of their national reach and their sometimes-progressive attitudes toward dating and sex. Sassy was famously weakened, and eventually shuttered, after Focus on the Family asked its followers to boycott the publication because of its sex advice (which, Carlene Bauer points out, “wasn’t even all that sexy”). Teen Vogue got in trouble with the right as recently as summer 2017, when they published a guide to anal sex; a blogger called the Activist Mommy burned a copy in her backyard and started a campaign to pressure stores and libraries to stop carrying the magazine.

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If teen magazines weren’t perceived as institutions—which they were because of their reach and their cultural status as cornerstones of the female adolescent experience—they wouldn’t have been targeted in this way. The teen-founded magazine Rookie proves this point. It’s candid in its sex advice, and it still exists—because it’s comparatively small, and more than likely doesn’t show up in print form in Activist Mommy’s children’s bookbags. They can read Rookie’s online sex and relationships advice on their phones, along with all of the lefty political stuff now famously housed on Teen Vogue’s website, and their parents never need to know.

But the question remains: Why would they look to those particular brands if the whole internet is open to their eyes? I don’t see how Teen Vogue’s website is particularly written for teenage girls—as opposed to, say, twentysomethings who like Bella Thorne gossip, or thirtysomethings who want to read Nick Turse’s investigative piece on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or people of any age who care about any of those things. No, teen magazines, the cheerful, pink, bland ones we knew, are gone. And it’s for the best.

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