The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 15
THERE is a popular notion that the editor of a woman’s magazine should be a woman. At first thought, perhaps, this sounds logical. But it is a curious fact that by far the larger number of periodicals for women, the world over, are edited by men; and where, as in some cases, a woman is the proclaimed editor, the direction of the editorial policy is generally in the hands of a man, or group of men, in the background. Why this is so has never been explained, any more than why the majority of women’s dressmakers are men; why music, with its larger appeal to women, has been and is still being composed, largely, by men, and why its greatest instrumental performers are likewise men; and why the church, with its larger membership of women, still has, as it always has had, men for its greatest preachers.
In fact, we may well ponder whether the full editorial authority and direction of a modern magazine, either essentially feminine in its appeal or not, can safely be entrusted to a woman when one considers how largely executive is the nature of such a position, and how thoroughly sensitive the modern editor must be to the hundred and one practical business matters which today enter into and form so large a part of the editorial duties. We may question whether women have as yet had sufficient experience in the world of business to cope successfully with the material questions of a pivotal editorial position. Then, again, it is absolutely essential in the conduct of a magazine with a feminine or home appeal to have on the editorial staff women who are experts in their line; and the truth is that women will work infinitely better under the direction of a man than of a woman.
It would seem from the present outlook that, for some time, at least, the so-called woman’s magazine of large purpose and wide vision is very likely to be edited by a man. It is a question, however, whether the day of the woman’s magazine, as we have known it, is not passing. Already the day has gone for the woman’s magazine built on the old lines which now seem so grotesque and feeble in the light of modern growth. The interests of women and of men are being brought closer with the years, and it will not be long before they will entirely merge. This means a constantly diminishing necessity for the distinctly feminine magazine.
Naturally, there will always be a field in the essentially feminine pursuits which have no place in the life of a man, but these are rapidly being cared for by books, gratuitously distributed, issued by the manufacturers of distinctly feminine and domestic wares; for such publications the best talent is being employed, and the results are placed within easy access of women, by means of newspaper advertisement, the store-counter, or the mails. These will sooner or later—and much sooner than later—supplant the practical portions of the woman’s magazine, leaving only the general contents, which are equally interesting to men and to women. Hence the field for the magazine with the essentially feminine appeal is contracting rather than broadening, and it is likely to contract much more rapidly in the future.
The field was altogether different when Edward Bok entered it in 1889. It was not only wide open, but fairly crying out to be filled. The day of Godey’s Lady’s Book had passed; Peterson’s Magazine was breathing its last; and the home or women’s magazines that had attempted to take their place were sorry affairs. It was this consciousness of a void ready to be filled that made the Philadelphia experiment so attractive to the embryo editor. He looked over the field and reasoned that if such magazines as did exist could be fairly successful, if women were ready to buy such, how much greater response would there be to a magazine of higher standards, of larger initiative—a magazine that would be an authoritative clearing-house for all the problems confronting women in the home, that brought itself closely into contact with those problems and tried to solve them in an entertaining and efficient way; and yet a magazine of uplift and inspiration: a magazine, in other words, that would give light and leading in the woman’s world.
The method of editorial expression in the magazines of 1889 was also distinctly vague and prohibitively impersonal. The public knew the name of scarcely a single editor of a magazine: there was no personality that stood out in the mind: the accepted editorial expression was the indefinite “we”; no one ventured to use the first person singular and talk intimately to the reader. Edward Bok’s biographical reading had taught him that the American public loved a personality: that it was always ready to recognize and follow a leader, provided, of course, that the qualities of leadership were demonstrated. He felt the time had come—the reference here and elsewhere is always to the realm of popular magazine literature appealing to a very wide audience—for the editor of some magazine to project his personality through the printed page and to convince the public that he was not an oracle removed from the people, but a real human being who could talk and not merely write on paper.
He saw, too, that the average popular magazine of 1889 failed of large success because it wrote down to the public—a grievous mistake that so many editors have made and still make. No one wants to be told, either directly or indirectly, that he knows less than he does, or even that he knows as little as he does: every one is benefited by the opposite implication, and the public will always follow the leader who comprehends this bit of psychology. There is always a happy medium between shooting over the public’s head and shooting too far under it. And it is because of the latter aim that we find the modern popular magazine the worthless thing that, in so many instances, it is to-day.
It is the rare editor who rightly gauges his public psychology. Perhaps that is why, in the enormous growth of the modern magazine, there have been produced so few successful editors. The average editor is obsessed with the idea of “giving the public what it wants,” whereas, in fact, the public, while it knows what it wants when it sees it, cannot clearly express its wants, and never wants the thing that it does ask for, although it thinks it does at the time. But woe to the editor and his periodical if he heeds that siren voice!
The editor has, therefore, no means of finding it out aforehand by putting his ear to the ground. Only by the simplest rules of psychology can he edit rightly so that he may lead, and to the average editor of to-day, it is to be feared, psychology is a closed book. His mind is all too often focussed on the circulation and advertising, and all too little on the intangibles that will bring to his periodical the results essential in these respects.
The editor is the pivot of a magazine. On him everything turns. If his gauge of the public is correct, readers will come: they cannot help coming to the man who has something to say himself, or who presents writers who have. And if the reader comes, the advertiser must come. He must go where his largest market is: where the buyers are. The advertiser, instead of being the most difficult factor in a magazine proposition, as is so often mistakenly thought, is, in reality, the simplest. He has no choice but to advertise in the successful periodical. He must come along. The editor need never worry about him. If the advertiser shuns the periodical’s pages, the fault is rarely that of the advertiser: the editor can generally look for the reason nearer home.
One of Edward Bok’s first acts as editor was to offer a series of prizes for the best answers to three questions he put to his readers: what in the magazine did they like least and why; what did they like best and why; and what omitted feature or department would they like to see installed? Thousands of answers came, and these the editor personally read carefully and classified. Then he gave his readers’ suggestions back to them in articles and departments, but never on the level suggested by them. He gave them the subjects they asked for, but invariably on a slightly higher plane; and each year he raised the standard a notch. He always kept “a huckleberry or two” ahead of his readers. His psychology was simple: come down to the level which the public sets and it will leave you at the moment you do it. It always expects of its leaders that they shall keep a notch above or a step ahead. The American public always wants something a little better than it asks for, and the successful man, in catering to it, is he who follows this golden rule.