The venerable Ladies’ Home Journal recently announced a noteworthy shift in its approach to content creation and distribution: beginning with the March 2012 issue, the readers will provide much of the content for the print magazine. Attributing this change to research on the magazine’s readers, LHJ editor-in-chief Sally Lee noted, “Usually content creation begins with an editor…we have content creation that begins with a reader.” The user-generated content will come from a magazine affiliate, DivineCaroline.com, which encourages users to submit their contributions with the chance of receiving payment. According to the site (which requires registration): “In addition to appearing here on Divine Caroline, your story could be published in Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the country’s most popular magazines! If your story is selected by LHJ editors, you may receive compensation for it. LHJ editors will be in touch with details if your story is selected.”
Given my interest in gendered sites of cultural production (especially women’s magazines), I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the stakes of this initiative—for the magazine’s professional editors and writers, for the (newly?) participatory audiences, and for print subscribers. Will this translate into a loss of jobs (the labor is surely much cheaper)? Do readers care if magazine fodder is pulled from a website? How different is the content from professional and nonprofessional contributors? And, finally, what does this mean for those of us trying to map the contours of media industries in light of transformed production and consumption circuits?
As myself and others have argued, issues of user-generated content and participatory media are usually framed as either empowering or exploitative. One on hand, contemporary audiences are afforded unprecedented access to the public vis-à-vis low-cost production and distribution technologies, ostensibly shifting structures of power in consumers’ favor.[i] At the same time, these individuals provide free labor and market research to traditional cultural producers. [ii] While the LHJ issue can be situated within this debate, I wonder if the pay model challenges this. Although I was unable to find exactly how much contributors receive, this marks a break with the non-compensatory system of many other blogs. Yet given that the magazine has the power to select (and non-select) stories, I don’t see much in the way of empowerment.
I am also struck by the historical and gendered contexts of this initiative. Histories of women’s magazines indicate that some of the earliest periodicals published the contributions of (female) readers. This was considered a way to give a woman’s voice to social and political issues. Will other women’s magazines return to this user-generated system of content? Will this strategy be deployed among other (non-women’s) titles–or is the gender of readers (and producers) central?
Although I just got my hands on a copy of the March issue, I’m curious about how these questions will play out and whether there is truly any challenge to traditional “producer” and “reader” categories.
[i] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 27
[ii] See, for example, Andrejevic, 2008; Turow, 2008; Zwick et al.
Andrejevic, M. (2008). Watching television without pity: The productivity of online fans. Television and New Media, 9(1), 24-46.
Ballaster, R., Beetham, M., Frazer, E., & Hebron, S. (1991). Women’s worlds: Ideology, femininity and the women’s magazine. London: Macmillan.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.
Turow, J. (2006). Niche envy: Marketing discrimination in the digital age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zwick, D., Bonsu, S., & Darmody, A. (2008). Putting consumers to work: Co-creation and new marketing governmentality. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(2), 163-196.