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Too Young to Know: The Selling of Sassy
"Ten good reasons to say `no' to sex," chatters the cover of a recent issue of 'Teen Magazine. Other 'Teen stories have headlines like "Boy-Shy? Here's the Cure," "Figure Flaws? Style Solutions!" and "Quiz: Are You Your Own Best Friend?"
And then there's Sassy. "Thirteen Reasons to Stop Dieting." "My Brother's Gay. Big Whoop." "One American President's Lame Drug War."
In the fiercely competitive teen-girl market, there could hardly be two magazines more different than Sassy and 'Teen. Unless it's Sassy and YM. Or perhaps Sassy and Seventeen. Which is to say that until Sassy's creation, nothing like it existed.
As of last month, nothing like it exists once more. After years of financial struggle, Sassy is being sold -- to the publisher of 'Teen.
Started off as a spin-off of an Australian magazine called Dolly, Sassy broke into one of the most tradition-bound magazine genres with a gleeful disregard for the rules. Its persona -- clever, honest, feminist, and funny, like some way-cool big sister -- was unmistakeably original.
Before Sassy, girls had three choices. The industry leader, 50-year-old Seventeen, was the voice of Mom: knowledgeable, well-intentioned, and more than a little boring. For livelier fare, 37-year-old 'Teen and 54-year-old YM (formerly Young Miss and, way back in time, Polly Pigtails) were the class Heathers: wholesome and popular, with a wealth of information about guys and hairstyles, and dedicated to the proposition, as one Sassy writer puts it, that "you're nothing without a man and all other girls are competition."
Sassy didn't even sound like a magazine the way the others did.
Typical Seventeen: "Jealousy probably causes the biggest fights between sisters."
Typical 'Teen: "Nothing brightens up a guy's day like a compliment from a girl."
And typical Sassy: "Besides, freaking out over the SAT doesn't help you. Yeah, a really rockin' score wouldn't hurt, but most colleges are more interested in grades than test scores."
Who would you rather cut class with?
Sassy's differences went beyond its eyebrow-raising voice (pajama-party journalism, it's been called). For starters, it is inconceivable that any other teen magazine would get -- much less print -- a letter like:
"Dear Ms. Pratt, I would like to go on record, as press representative of Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, with my outrage and disbelief in the feature on her in November. . ."
It may not mean anything to you that Sassy called Tiffani-Amber Thiessen a "demi-bimbo." It's quite likely you don't even know who Tiffani-Amber Thiessen is. But the, you're probably not a teenage girl, living in a world where the star of Beverly Hills, 90210 (and at the time of the Sassy profile, Saved by the Bell) is an unchallengeable pre-fab goddess.
". . . With any feature interview, talent can be subjected to a fair share of non-positivity, but this "feature" not only crosses that line, but plants a flag in the ground proudly saying, "negativity." This kind of press goes far beyond the acceptable motives of keeping readers and advertisers happy; it reveals a hidden agenda of mudslinging and terrorist tactics."
When you publish a magazine for teenage girls, failing to keep advertisers happy is indeed the equivalent of terrorism. The false note in the publicist's letter is his claim to care about the magazine's readers. What Sassy knew when it slagged Thiessen is that there's something more important than hyping this year's girl. To Sassy, Tiffani-Amber was not worthy of worship because she wasn't smart. A perpetual beauty pageant contestant since age nine, she went to a bogus all-actors high school, and though she said she'd like to go to college for English literature, she was unable to name a single English author. (Finally, reported Sassy, "she says she likes a lot of Shakespeare's lesser-known works. Like what? `Like Hamlet,' she proclaims excitedly.")
The latest issue of 'Teen features a glowing, chipmunk-cheeked Thiessen on the cover. "While Tiffani-Amber's tv persona may have gone from nice to nasty, in real life she's far removed from that bad-girl rap! Wanna know more? Here's the scoop." The scoop turns out to be six photos, six gushing comments about her boyfriend, two diet and beauty tips, two inane thoughts on acting, and the names of her three dogs. 'Teen does not pretend that she's smart, nor does it say she's dumb. In the advertising-friendly world of 'Teen, intelligence is an irrelevant quality for young women.
Even more important to teen-girl mags than Aaron Spelling superstars are boys and how to get them. Now, Sassy could spot the cute guys and swoon with the best of them, but it also knew that "boy-shy" was not necessarily a condition that needed to be cured. Sassy girls were already plenty busy playing drums, working in fashion (but not as a model), achieving satori through surfing or being science whizzes, depending on which issue you picked up.
Then there's the sermon factor, which invariably kicks in when other teen magazines tackle the Big Issues. ('Teen
is still literally using the phrase "just say no.") Sassy's radical approach was to give readers information and assume they were intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions. When staff writer Mary Ann Marshall wrote a fairly harsh profile of a teenage heroin addict but neglected to conclude with some version of don't try this at home, she was flooded with angry letters from parents who accused her of telling people who to use drugs.
"There's a paradox in magazines," Marshall says. "People are so concerned with the morals of teenage girls that they're way too careful," and girls end up without the information really necessary for making moral choices.
Sassy was less restrained when it came to politics, and felt no compunction about sweeping rants and blanket condemnations there ("Nine Things About America That Make Us Want to Scream and Throw Stuff"). But other teen mags never bring up politics at all, unless it's, you know, animal rights, gun control, the environment. Sassy actually explained the historical roots of the Gulf War and lamented the death of family farms. What's more, the girls read it. The Gulf War article generated more mail than any other story in the magazine's history.
"It was the first magazine to treat readers with any respect at all," insists senior writer Margie Ingall. "And it permeated the magazine; it wasn't just, here's the section where we treat the readers like they have a brain -- make sure it doesn't seep out and taint the eye-makeup coverage."
Does this discussion really need to be in the past tense? If somebody paid for the Sassy name, isn't there a chance they like the magazine and want it to continue the same way?
Simply put, no. But first some background.
This year, the teenage population of the U.S. is expected to reach 25 million. For advertisers, this means a spending power of nearly $90 billion.
Seventeen currently reaches 1.9 million readers. In the last three years, YM's circulation shot up to 1.8 million. 'Teen is 1.2 million. Fourth-place Sassy's circulation rose steadily from 250,000 in 1988 to 800,000, where it pretty much stalled. Bringing up the rear are newcomers Mouth2Mouth, Tell, and Quake, all of which are struggling.
Early in its history, Sassy was bought from the Australians by Dale Lang, who also owns Ms and Working Woman. By 1992, Lang managed to recoup his initial debt, but the magazine never turned a profit. Last April, he began looking for new investors.
By summer, the gallows humor was evident around the Sassy offices. The spine of the July '94 issue -- a space other magazines use to list contents, but which Sassy reserves for random thoughts -- winked, "Would you like fries with that?" The staff was practicing for their future employment.
Things only got worse. Invoices went unpaid for months. Freelancers went unpaid altogether, and some regulars started talking about refusing to do any more work.
On September 27, Lang sent a memo to the Sassy staff. "It is with deep regret that I must inform you Sassy magazine is being put up for immediate sale... I want all of you to know I've done everything possible to avoid this action. Sassy is a potentially great magazine and you are a fine young group of professional magazine people. You both deserve a chance that I can no longer provide."
"Potentially great?" was editor Christina Kelly's first reaction. Kelly called Lang's office and demanded an all-staff meeting. A few minutes later, executive vice-president Sandy Sarhatt was trying to calm the fine young group of professionals down. Dale believes in this magazine, she said. And I wouldn't worry too much in terms of job security. Right away, the staff knew they were fucked.
Two days later, Jane Pratt appeared. From the beginning, founding-editor-in-chief Pratt was something of a figurehead. Cute, warm, and hip, the 24-year-old was the perfect person to pitch the Sassy concept to new readers and skeptical advertisers. For a while she actually edited the magazine too, althought it was people like Christina Kelly and Mary Kaye Schilling who provided the genuine style that readers responded to.
"Christina is more legitimately hip than Jane will ever be," confides one staffer, "but that's not what sells ads." So when Jane left in 1991 to host first one and then another disastrous daytime talk show, she remained on the masthead, while Schilling and then Kelly actually took charge. In hindsight, some people suggest, Lang should have dropped Pratt and given Kelly free reign at this juncture -- maybe she could have reinvigorated advertisers. In any case, by September 1994 it was rare for Pratt to visit the office.
Her reason for being there was to tell Lang and the staff of Sassy that she would not be going down with the ship. She was taking a job at Time Inc. Ventures, the putatively hipper branch of the media giant, with whom she'd been quietly developing a relationship for over a year. Unfortunately, Pratt wasn't able to get hold of Lang that day and felt uncomfortable about making her announcement without talking to him first. Instead, she hosted an informal worry-session at which staff members munched pasta salad and traded rumors. Pratt muttered that Lang hated her, but said nothing about her plans until a few days later.
At this point, management began holding daily 4 pm meetings to keep the staff informed, and, as a side effect, perpetually anxious. Every day some two dozen people showed up for work, moped around in the impending doom, and then duly reported to find out if they should return tomorrow. At one of the 4 o'clock meetings, Lang announced that he was looking for a bidder who would continue Sassy's editorial mission, and that his goal was to make a seamless transition. Then the staff was told not to begin work on a new issue.
Time was passed in alternating nihilistic giddiness and glum contemplation. When not discussing the latest scraps of news, the staff looked for somewhere to pin the blame. Inevitably, Lang took some hits from people who felt he "nickle-and-dimed the magazine to death." This was only encouraged by v.p. Sarhatt's constant refrain of Dale has pumped all his savings into this magazine.
Then there was some griping about publisher Linda Cohen, who'd taken charge in 1992. As the editorial staff saw it, Cohen was too much of a girly-girl to represent their magazine. "She sold the magazine like she was apologizing for it," says one writer. How un-Sassy is Cohen? She reportedly interviewed for the publisher's job at YM before taking over Sassy. And her beau is a guy named Dan Wassong, a cosmetics executive who'd being sued by the EEOC for sexually harassing at least 15 women from 1965 to the present.
Besides, Cohen's specialty is cosmetics (duh, as Sassy would say), and the big cosmetics firms are the most notoriously skittish advertisers around. Kelly and her predecessors took pride in their editorial independence, and more than a few envelope-pushing articles led to pulled ads. (not that it took much; when Sassy praised the merits of Teen Spirit deodorant -- this was pre-Nirvana -- but editorialized, "gag on the name," Mennen cancelled several ads as punishment.) One staffer suggests that account executive Mike Fish, who brought in the more reasonably entertainment advertisers, would have been a better choice.
On Wednesday, October 12, Publishers Weekly reported that Jann Wenner had put in a bid. After two weeks of dread, it was a ray of hope. Wenner may be a self-aggrandizing prick, but he'd leave Sassy to its own devices and they'd get to move to the plush Wenner Media offices. At the 4 pm meeting, writer Margie Ingall asked tentatively, "If, say, there was a rumor printed in a certain journal, would it possibly be true?" "No no," sighed Sarhatt, "Rolling Stone is not one of the bidders."
Kelly's face fell. In five more days it would all be over. To tell the truth, Sassy had a lot more problems than you'd feel comfortable bringing up in a memorial tribute. The inevitable fashion spreads were virtually identical to everyone else's. No matter how much Sassy editorial content stressed that it was cool to be different, the fashion models were always the most normal girls around. Or, to be precise, improbably beautiful and thin versions of the most normal girls around.
Somehow, it only made it worse that the editorial staff, keenly aware of the sitution, frequently attempted to undermine their own magazine's fashion spreads. It was very funny when two "Working Our Nerves" columns took on "Dopey Fashion Poses," but kinda sad when you that you could find those same poses in every issue. And when Sassy hopped on the white trash fashion trend last winter, a seemingly chagrined writer summed up the spread as "What to wear with greasy hair, dirty fingernails, and a newly paroled boyfriend."
Sassy could lay on the lefty posturing a little thick too. Readers were generally encouraged to be their own women and think for themselves, unless it came to even moderately conservative political views, which tended to earn the standard Sassy dismissal, "That's just so wrong." Occasionally, it was scary how judgmental Sassy writers could get over politics. When one girlwrote in to the Help column to say that she found it alittle awkward that her boyfriend was a Republican, executive editor Kate Tentler (formerly of the Voice) practically advised her to break up with him.
And in a classic profile of MTV's Kennedy, Mary Ann Marshall wrote about how she liked the VJ after meeting her, but that Kelly told her, "I will not allow a positive profile of Kennedy in this magazine. Did you know she's a Republican?" Four paragraphs later, Marshall had come around. It felt uncomfortably like a member of the in-crowd deciding to make friends with an outcast, only to be told by the leader of the clique it's us or them.
Ingall gets all charged up when I suggest that the magazine has a rigid political code. She points out that she herself has defended the existence of right-wing campus newspapers, questioned the prevalence of repressed memories, and -- challenging one belief that nearly all teenage girls chant as a mantra suggested that animal testing was valid. That earned her hate mail and crank calls.
Sassy had some other unfortunate tics as well. But in the end, a 25-year-old guy can't help but feel admiration when a magazine aimed at teenage girls manages to piss him off. Indeed, while Sassy's median age was 15.4, it always had a cult following among the college and post-college set. Even Ben is Dead paid tribute earlier this year with a "very essential super extra-special Sassy issue."
Part of the appeal for older readers is what The New Republic described as the sense that Sassy was at once a teen magazine and a parody of teen magazines. Its beauty is called "Zits and Stuff." Its quizzes don't ask, "Are you down on yourself?" ('Teen, September 94), but "Are you a poser?" ("Are you perpetually shunning the mainstream to appear painfully cutting edge? Then be the first one on your block to take this quiz.") Casual readers can be forgiven more for missing the irony. "Like that idiot J.R. Taylor," shouts Ingall, "who uses `ready for Sassy's Cute Band Alert' when he puts down teenybopper bands. That's totally not what it is!"
Among ad-buyers and elderly media reporters, the misconception about Sassy was that it "became increasingly outrageous with its frankly sexual content,"as Deirdre Carmody put in in the New York Times. Infact, Sassy toned down its sexual content quite a bit from its early days, when it actually acknowledged the existence of legal abortions. Still, folks aren't happy until a magazine is promoting, as 'Teen did last month, the ridiculous idea of "secondary virginity."
In any case, says Ingall, calling Sassy "The Magazine that talks about sex," is totally missing the point. "It should be `the only teen magazine ever to be nominated for a National Magazine Award for general excellence,' or `the only teen magazine where people grab you at parties and say, Oh my god, I love your magazine!"
Of course, if you're going to get into that, you'd have to add that it's the only teen magazine with advice columns written by Billy Corgan and Dean Ween; the only teen magazine whose "One to Watch" column has featured both Matthew Sweet (before Girlfriend) and 22-year-old astronomer Ben Oppenheimer; the only teen magazine whose review of In Utero ended with the sentence, "Kurt, I'm worried about your state of mind"; and the only teen magazine that would dare to say, "prom night sure can suck."
On Friday, Oct. 14, the 4 pm meeting ended with the promise that there would be only one more meeting, Monday at 1 pm. That night, art director Karmen Lizzul and associate art director Amy Demas threw a party at a Bowery loft. It had been planned for a month, but everyone kept asking if it was the end-of-Sassy party. Do we have to talk about this tonight? frustrated staffers shouted over the thumping 70s funk whenever the topic came up, but of course there was nothing else to talk about. "We are gonna get laid off on Monday, right?" asked senior editor Mike Flaherty. "I mean, that is what's happening." In response, newly promoted staff writer Maureen Callahan suggested that before they left, they should cover the office with all the leftover Sassy stickers.
At 1 pm Monday the staff filed into the conference room. They were told to come back at four. At four, no one from management showed up. The staff waited in nervous silence for a few minutes, until managing editor Virginia O'Brien thought to call her voicemail. There was a message telling them to go back to their desks and wait for a call.
A few minutes after they got back to their desks, O'Brien's phone rang. Everyone shuffled back into the conference room. This time, Lang was there. He announced that L.A.-based Petersen Publishing, 'Teen's parent company, would be purchasing Sassy. He said that he had recommended that Petersen rehire the current staff, but got no promises.
So that's it? asked O'Brien. We're paid up to today?
Um, no, answered Sarhatt. Friday.
The next day, Kelly, O'Brien, Amy Demas, and fashion editor Andrea Linett all ran into each other at the unemployment office. Petersen was not hiring anybody. They did meet with Kelly, but only as a formality. She told them that for starters she didn't think Sassy could be run out of L.A. Thanks for your time, they told her.
"It's just as well," says Marshall. "It's probably not a magazine that any of us want to work on."
Lizzul agrees. "All they care about si advertising. The content is just the stuff between the ads."
The first new issue of Sassy is scheduled to hit the stands January 31. The December issue that the old staff had nearly completed -- Sassy's first celebrity-produced issue, with artwork by Liz Phair, an article by James Iha, and fiction with Naomi Campbell's name on it -- won't be printed.
The January issue is being put together by freelancers out of the 'Teen offices in L.A. The only holdovers are girly-girl Linda Cohen, serving as a consultant, and Betsy Hoyt, who formerly wrote promotional material and is now contributing editorial. Petersen has yet to name an editor, but the new publisher will be Jay Cole, who also publishes 'Teen.
Cole's plan is to age Sassy's readership by a year or so. That way Sassy can be the magazine that girls graduate to when they're too old for 'Teen. Older, in this case, does not mean smarter.
"The original vision for Sassy there was really nothing wrong with," says Cole. "It was designed to give teens a sense of inner self-confidence, develop self-respect, to empower young women. That concept is something we're planning to continue." How will they do that? "We're planning to use a lot of personalities, celebrities who have accomplished something, to give teens a sense of how they can be the best that they can be." Plus, he adds quickly, "There will be a lot more fashion and beauty."
If 'Teen is any indication, expect Sassy's new self-esteem-building strategy to be just a tad moredidactic than before. In case you're dying to know, the boy-shy cure begins with, "Keep a written account of your personal growth." The old Sassy way of trusting girls to get a joke, understand a Yiddishism or think for themselves is a thing of the past. "We intend to maintain that spirit," says Cole, "but there were some issues of Sassy that were somewhat irresponsible. We have to be responsible not only to readers, but to parents and advertisers as well."
Asked for an example of Sassy's irresponsibility, Cole volunteers, "We would stay away from fringe-type articles. I don't think we would say, `the prom sucks.' We might cite different opinions on the prom, and who decides to go and who doesn't, but there's no point in saying, `the prom sucks.'... In an adult publication, that might be appropriate, but not for teenagers."
God forbid anyone should treat teenagers like adults. God forbid there should be a magazine for girls who think the prom sucks. Sassy will be missed.
Originally appeared in The New York Press, Nov. 23, 1994