Jane Pratt, founding editor of Sassy, was social media before social media existed. Today she’s launching xoJane.com, her answer to Sassy for a constantly connected generation.
Sassy, the cool girl’s anti-glossy—whose winking, edgy-for-a-teen-mag coverlines (Long-Distance Romance: Sucky Or Not?; Do You Need Armpit Hair To Be a Feminist?) could easily be Twitterbait 20 years later—created the voice that informed a thousand snark-filled blogs. It put readers on a first-name basis with editors (who didn’t use surnames in their bylines), and writers crafted features and advice based on personal experience rather than the ruling of "experts" in beauty, fashion, or sex. For Pratt, the personal and the social were intuitive well before the technology was there to implement those ideas fully.
"I was always trying to include the readers in what we were doing back before the technology was there to make it as easy as it is now, with reader-produced issues and all that cumbersome stuff," says Pratt. "Now I want to take the whole community thing to another level."
At Sassy and Jane, she had the editor’s letter; xoJane will have "Inside Jane’s Phone," which is prominently featured on the magazine’s banner. Pratt’s way of inviting readers inside her life is by letting them into her phone—she recently posted a text she got from Michael Stipe during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, and a photo captioned "Worst Mother in the World," showing her daughter and two sleepover friends fully clothed in a full bathtub—along with the family dog. "It’s all about the quick interactions I can have with readers," she says.
Of course, rapid-fire technological advances that have turned the media industry on its head since Pratt, then 24, became founding editor of Sassy in 1988, do create new challenges—even for nimble web-only publications.
"It’s harder to find strong voices," says Pratt. "There are so many out there, it’s hard to discover them—everyone has a platform now. It’s not about finding the person who’s unpublished, because everybody’s published."
Pratt and her new staff found each other in a variety of ephemeral, new-media ways. Cat Marnell, the beauty and health editor, answered a tweet sent out seeking a "not-so-healthy health editor." Marnell, who had been the associate beauty editor at Lucky, will now be penning beauty pieces you’d be hard pressed to find in Allure or Glamour, such as "I’ll Try Anything Once: The Pepto Bismal Facial," accompanied by a photo of Marnell looking much more burn victim than cover girl.
"Cat is such a strong voice, but one that hasn’t been out there yet—people don’t know her," says Pratt. "To me she’s on the level of [Sassy alum] Christina Kelly or Spike Jonze [who founded Sassy’s spinoff publication, Dirt], where you know they have really great talent and they really blow up."
Like Sassy, xoJane will feature a smallish stable of regular contributors—fewer than 10—whom readers can get to know intimately. Its take on celebrity will be inclusive rather than adversarial or gossipy; Pratt’s friend Courteney Cox is the home editor. There will be sports and technology coverage, and Pratt expects 15% of readers to be male. And xoJane (not unlike sites such as Jezebel) will cast a withering eye on the stuff that drives most women’s mags—body-issue baiting, beauty-closet freebies, "how to please your man" listicles.
"Similar to Sassy and Jane, the overall philosophy will be bringing women together and not pitting them against each other," Pratt says. "We’re creating a place where it’s OK to be selfish and not to figure out how to please your husband or boss or parents or whatever."
Pratt is launching the site with SAY Media, a blogging and ad-sales company created last year by the merger of Six Apart (which created Movable Type and Typepad) and VideoEgg, an ad-sales network. SAY is building its stable of "passion-based" sites through acquisitions and partnerships, but Pratt’s is the first "home-grown opportunity," says SAY President Troy Young. Pratt will also serve as editorial director of style for SAY, with an eye toward bringing in other big names and personalities to launch verticals. One of the first is teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie.
While Pratt says it may have been easier to work with established media companies on existing print or online properties, she wanted to launch her own project, perhaps no surprise given how prominently her name figures into her titles (though she says she sees her moniker as a stand-in for everywoman). She started working with Six Apart two years ago, and the merger with Video Egg sealed the deal.
"What they brought was such a massive team and an innovative company looking at ad products in different ways," she says. SAY ads pay based on user engagement, not pageviews served, and stress the interactive element, inviting users to leave comments on videos or respond to targeted discussion topics—visitors to a mom blog viewing a Green Giant ad might be asked to share tips with other readers about how they trick their kids into eating broccoli, for instance.
"Ads have to be functional and give the user something to do," says SAY’s Young. "There’s a war for attention between ads and content, and so far ads in that equation have been forgettable and avoidable. If that keeps happening then writers don’t get paid. We want to make sure writers get paid."
Given some of xoJane’s content, hazard pay might be a nice touch. Reviving a popular Sassy feature that egged on real people to try outrageous beauty or fashion trends, one brave contributor to the "I’ll Try Anything Once" column wore a nude bodysuit around New York City for a day. The rest of the content will be in a similar vein.
"Everything is written from a very personal perspective," says Pratt. "We’re not trying to get in on that timeliness game and what other people are reporting online. Everything we write is an exclusive, because it only happened to us."
[Images courtesy SAY Media]