Jane Says! Catching Up with Jane Pratt

by Ashley Baker

Ever since she was named launch editor of Sassy at age 24, Jane Pratt has been entertaining and provoking young women in a way that few, if any, of her peers have mastered. Now, she finds herself a free agent after exiting Time Inc. in December, where the fate of her latest launches, XOJane and XOVain, remain in question. Just because she’s required to remain mum on that particular front doesn’t mean we’re not going to grill her about everything else!

It’s been ages since we last caught up. What is it like for the coolest expert on teenage girls to be the mother of a teenage girl?
She doesn’t think I’m the coolest, but I feel really lucky that I somehow managed to be the mom who gets to sit in the school cafeteria and have breakfast with all these teenage girls every day. They tell me what’s going on in their lives, and it’s kind of amazing—I don’t know how I got granted that amazing access, but they welcome me. Back when I was doing Sassy, people would always say to me, “Oh, you would feel differently if you were the parent of a teenage daughter—you wouldn’t want to be seeing them getting this information.” It’s easy to become a hypocrite, but the truth is, I would be thrilled for my daughter to be reading something that had all the honest information Sassy had in it. By the way, I went to the dentist for something else but I ended up having my teeth whitened, which means I can’t drink coffee for three days. I feel lousy, and my brain is not functioning, so if we don’t get good stuff out of this, just promise me that we can reconvene.

I’ll take you to Stumptown and put 65 cups of Hair Bender in you, and we’ll be all good.
Stumptown! My fave.

So the question on everyone’s mind: XOJane and XOVain had strong, super-engaged millennial audiences. Great traffic. So basically exactly the kinds of things that we’d all expect to be really successful on the Internet. Why didn’t they work?
It’s an interim period right now, and I won’t go too much into what’s happening with it. But I definitely feel like there is room for a place online where women can really deeply connect with one another. That’s always been my thing—when I was moving recently, I saw an old Sassy spine line that said, “Should Jane Get a Nose Ring?” I was desperately trying to do social media before we had the technology to do it. Obviously, there are reasons why the site is not live right now, but it wasn’t necessarily the formula or whatever that didn’t work.

Every season, we do a Media Issue, and every season, I ask editors the same question: What does it take to make a truly successful digital brand? From a business perspective, it doesn’t seem like many people are making it work.
A successful digital brand also means a brand that makes money, but I feel like the engagement piece doesn’t get nearly enough focus. When I say engagement, I don’t mean the number of comments or how long each visitor spends on the site. I’m talking about engagement that translates into real-world actions, whether that is buying a product or marching in protest. To do that effectively, I think the people producing it have to engage with the audience too, and that’s what creates a really deep connection. But I do feel like people haven’t figured out how to monetize those numbers. I think the future of digital media for women will be about merging a truly, deeply engaged community with e-commerce.

A lot of major publishing houses have tried to do some version of this, with very mixed results. Why is it so hard for many women’s media brands?
It’s about having a combination of the right people who get the e-commerce side of it. But without having a real trust factor with the site that is promoting these products, it’s not going to work. You’re not going to be able to sell better than Amazon can sell.

We’ve seen this work with brands like Goop.
For sure. I feel like there have always been these two ways to reach women—one is more of a numbers game, where you scatter information in a way that a lot of people will be drawn to momentarily. And then there’s been the way of really connecting very strongly with your readers through a first person they can actually know and they trust. That approach doesn’t usually get the huge numbers, but you can really use it to sell products, among other things. Not that selling products is the be all and end all. I’d rather change things in the world.

Isn’t it interesting how marketing is starting to respond a little more to the idea of the micro-influencer? It’s no longer all about the blogger with 5 million followers—it’s about that person in your Instagram feed who doesn’t seem like they’re for sale.
Totally. At various points in my career in digital, people said, “Do you want to get a network of influencers?” Like getting their numbers, on top of your numbers, is going to amplify your message by X amount. I don’t feel like that’s how it really works—in the real world, if you’re close to the people you’re writing for or talking to, you have influence in a much more organic way.

Do you ever get tired of that word, “organic”?
I use that word a lot when I’m talking about our traffic on XOJane, because we had no marketing budget, and we weren’t part of a company that had other sites whose traffic could funnel into ours. The only way to grow the site and get the numbers was through organic growth—I don’t know how else to say it! I mean, the word that bugs me more than “organic” is “authentic.” Ugh. Come on. Someone who says “authentic” just reminds me of someone who says “to be honest….” Just do it.

Totally. Okay, time for your thoughts on print media. The newsstand is a tough place to be right now. Where do you see it all going?
Well, I think there is always going to be a place for print magazines. Not so much because they serve a purpose in disseminating information, but because they produce emotional responses and provide visuals that you don’t get in other ways. I do think that there will continue to be this thinning out of the number of titles, and consumers will be required to pay more for the titles that they do get. Maybe frequencies will be dropped further. But great publications are still going to be there—the ones that are really meaningful to their readers, giving them something they’re not getting from other places. And a lot of that is the visual thing. People can’t just curl up in bed with their favorite website in the same way.

Which titles are meaningful to you now?
Every month there are probably 10, 15, 20 magazines that I have to get, because of a story in them, or because I see something that’s appealing to me on the newsstand. It could be everything from New York to Vanity Fair to Vogue…if I think a cover is absolutely beautiful, I want to just have it.

Do you feel like there’s a lot of sameness out there?
Absolutely, and especially when it’s content that you can get so much more quickly online. A lot of the shifts lately have been toward more sameness; less distinct voices. There was a phase there, in the ’90s and early 2000s, where I felt like each title was getting a more distinct voice. Now it feels like there’s a desperate scramble, and in that, a lot of the uniqueness has gotten lost. It’s like, “Okay, what works? What’s going to work? What can we do inexpensively that’s going to sell?” In a lot of them, it feels like the care that used to go into them is lost. Do you think so too?

Yeah. I think that’s why people are gravitating even more toward what’s happening online. Yes, it’s immediate and happening all the time on your phone, but the content itself is often a little more addictive.
I’m not saying they’re all doing this, but when you go to open a print magazine and the quality of the writing, the legitimacy of the research that went into the writing, and the visuals are no better than what you’re getting on your phone much more quickly and free…well, then, forget it. There’s no point. Print needs to stay focused on what it’s good at. Even some of the design of print over the past 10 years or so has gone toward a more digital look, which I think is a huge mistake. And why is the language trying to be the kind of language that people use online? People use it online because they don’t have the space. You don’t need to do all that LOL kind of language in print.

If someone were to give you a print title today, to edit, would you want to do it? And if so, what are the first changes you’d make?
Whether or not I would do it would really depend on the brand. If there was room to do something really different from what’s out there, then I would be interested. I would also be interested in creating a new title, because I’ve had an idea for that for years and have not done it yet. Starting my own would be the most interesting. A lot of what I would do with a print title would actually seem to be a little bit retro, in the sense that it would be going back to strengthening what is potentially so strong about print, while bringing in all those elements that we all now know about in a quantifiable way, thanks to the precise feedback we get from our online properties, can help drive subscriptions and newsstand sales. I know the trend is to treat print magazines as merely another extension of “the brand,” but I think it’s important to focus more on what is so unique and special about them, and how different the experience they create is from any other media, including their digital counterparts.

In fashion, we’re having a real ’90s moment among millennials. Does it ever surprise you how women can have such nostalgia and appetite for periods in history they never lived through?
Yeah, it’s funny—a lot of times when they talk about the ’90s, I know that they’re actually talking about the late ’80s. The price of Sassy magazine just went up exponentially on eBay about five years ago, when people started getting really into the ’90s. I wanted to get a [full] collection of them and I didn’t want to pay those kinds of crazy prices! I love talking to people who weren’t around for the ’90s yet who have this sense how great those years were. It reminds me of how I felt about the ’60s! We certainly didn’t think it was anything great back then. We weren’t having a fashion moment—possibly, a music moment. Possibly. But even that seemed like a big mess at the time. But anyway, it was fun.

What do you think are the most prominent ways that teenage girls have changed since you were a teenage girl?
I see a lot through the lens of my daughter and her friends, and the fundamental emotions are the same, I think, but the exteriors are tougher, and more calculated. That’s a social media influence, phenomenon. They’re excellent marketers of themselves, but it creates a little bit of a barrier—they’re one step removed from revealing their true selves. That’s always been a natural instinct of teenage girls anyway, but now, they’re better at it.

Are you stoked about this body positivity movement in fashion?
I really, really am! And not that there isn’t still a long way to go, in terms of allowing women to feel really free and great about themselves. But it’s a tremendous step, and it’s tremendous that marketers found out that it sells, too.

As someone who’s championed women and girls for your entire career slash life, how were you feeling on November 9th?
What’s going on right now is so incredibly devastating that it makes it almost difficult for me to even talk to you about anything else right now. The steps backward, and the direction that the country is going in, is horrific—and not just for women and girls, but for anyone with differences. At times, I feel desperate, and at times, I feel like I really don’t want to allow my mind or my work to focus on anything other than changing that. It’s that important. But you know, then we go on—we use the platforms that we have to try and create that change.

Any plans to run for office? Jane for president, 2020?
[Laughs] That would be awesome! We did do something back in Jane magazine where we did something about “Jane for President.” The bumper stickers said something like, “Let’s have a real bush in the White House!” I might be more qualified than Trump is, but that’s not saying much.

Read the issue HERE.

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