Lifestyle Journalism Takes Another Kick In The Crotch

Sometimes life just happens to you — you find yourself in a job, a relationship, or a secret sex cult and think, Wait a sec, I didn’t sign up for this. I was recruited without realizing it! Lifestyle journalism is one of those things for me. One day I’m starting my first internship fact-checking restaurant reviews and then, wham, suddenly I’ve been working for the past 15 years as a lifestyle editor.

Those 15 years haven’t been easy. I entered journalism on the heels of its glory days, when there were taxi vouchers for booze-soaked events and long lunches aplenty. But my generation’s media industry is a struggling one, and when businesses face the tough decision to lay off staff or close down publications, I’ve watched lifestyle journalism and the women who work in it, take the early hits. Just last week, the entire lifestyle section at Global News was closed down along with the entertainment and social media teams. And, according to the Canadian Association of Journalists, 70 journalists were let go — many of them women and non-white employees. (Global News says this number is inaccurate and “greatly overstated” but would not give the actual number of employees impacted by cuts.) Lifestyle journalism in Canada is dying. I’m pissed off about it — and you should be too.

Lifestyle journalism in Canada is dying. I’m pissed off about it — and you should be too.

My recruitment into the world of lifestyle media took place at my first job. I was one of two digital editors at a city magazine. The site had four main beats and the editing duties were split down the middle with my (wonderful, male) senior editor. He took local politics and food, and I was assigned shopping and entertainment. Being a recent grad tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, a $34,000 salary, and a shaky knowledge of pop culture, I had no special aptitude for telling wealthy Torontonians what to wear or watch. I had no complaints, either: I liked covering Fashion Week and the Toronto Film Festival, and I learned a lot. But having grown up working in my family’s restaurant, I was probably best suited to editing food. It didn’t occur to me that my gender had largely dictated the topics I was in charge of. Nor did I know that this division of labor would determine the rest of my career.

My next job was as the life editor of an upstart weekly paper and the following one as an assigning editor in a national newspaper’s life section. Without looking, I had officially become a lifestyle editor — one of those sounds-glamorous jobs that’s actually looked down on by quote-unquote serious journalists.

Lifestyle is a funny word. For me, it conjures images of palatial Hollywood villas with lounge chairs around infinity pools. It smells like money and suntan lotion and fizzy beverages. But in the media world, it means a lot more.

Within larger news organizations, the lifestyle section (referred to more blatantly in the past as the women’s pages) is typically where you’ll find articles about food, fashion, beauty, health and wellness, personal finance, parenting, relationships, as well as features about women’s rights issues and stories from marginalized voices. Coverage of systemic racism, violence against women, and LGBTQ+ rights finds a home in today’s life sections. Women’s media outlets, such as Refinery29 and Chatelaine magazine (where I worked for four years), are generally referred to as lifestyle publications, though our work also often includes news, politics, sports, and entertainment — not that we get much credit for it.

If you haven’t guessed already, “lifestyle” has very little real application in journalism, except to serve as a code word to mean “for women” and therefore “not important” and “not smart.” One of the times this truly bothered me is when I was the deputy editor at Chatelaine and we won a national award for “best lifestyle publication” rather than in the “best general interest” category. (The Walrus, an excellent features magazine with a niche audience, took home that title.) What’s not “general interest” about a publication with millions of readers that covers everything from federal elections to pie crust techniques?

Lifestyle media is typically produced for and by women, and by default of our gender, our work is overlooked and often derided. It shouldn’t be. Our job as lifestyle journalists is to analyze the way we’re living, and to support our readers in making the right decisions for themselves. We don’t function like a traditional newsroom, with reporters chasing breaking stories. Instead, we give readers the context behind the headlines. We tell the stories of the often-marginalized people impacted by policy decisions. We answer big questions that aren’t covered in quick news hits. Our journalism fights for reproductive rights, examines the reality of being a woman in politics, and, yes, argues the virtues of a truly ugly sandal. For too long we’ve been doing that by and for white people (read Kathleen Newman-Bremang’s scathing indictment of Canadian media or Sadiya Ansari’s piece about the lack of women of colour in media in leadership roles for more on that). Soon, though, we won’t be doing it all.

The media business is, to put it bluntly, fucked. COVID-19 has been a swift kick to an industry already on its knees thanks to the Facebooks of the world sucking up digital ad dollars, among other factors. Advertisers took back marketing budgets when the pandemic hit, delivering a blunt-force blow to media organizations’ revenue streams. Lifestyle journalists, and therefore women, are often the first to go.

Sometimes I joke that every day I work in Canadian media is just another day closer to when I get laid off. Being “impacted” in a “restructuring” is practically a rite of passage in this industry: A meeting with HR shows up on your calendar, you get your severance package, and then you get drunk with your colleagues who were also given the boot.

I was at Chatelaine during the “Red Wedding” of 2018, when Rogers Media laid off a third of its publishing division, including more than half of my colleagues at the magazine. At the time, I remember it seemed like the lifestyle publications, which also included Today’s Parent and Flare, faced the deepest cuts, despite the impressively sized digital audiences they pulled in. In a conversation with a senior manager about how we could possibly continue to operate, I was told I should feel “lucky to be there.” Since then, I’ve watched newspapers gut or shutter their life sections and magazine owners hollow out lifestyle publications like Canadian Living, Style at Home, and Elle Canada among others.

Media cuts aren’t, of course, confined to the lifestyle space. According to industry watchdog J-Source, 2,000 Canadian journalists have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Long-suffering community newspapers have been all-but decimated this year. There have been layoffs at TorStar, PostMedia, Vice Media Group, which owns Refinery29, and many others. Each one is depressing, though usually not surprising given the challenges our industry faces.

The sentiment that lifestyle isn’t real journalism, is one often held by media owners and upper management.

I try not to spend too much time thinking about the state of our business — if I do, I’ll spin out into anxiety, anger, and fear. But when I read the email Global News sent to its staff last week, which gave the rationale behind closing its lifestyle and entertainment sections, I almost threw my coffee mug against the wall. The memo called the restructuring a shift away from “non-news” and to its “fact-based journalism.” Are you kidding me? I thought. Way to insult the 70 journalists you’ve just made jobless. I’d been continually impressed by the (entirely fact-based!) work coming from Global’s lifestyle team. That the brass at Global was neither committed to supporting its work, nor saw that work as journalism was infuriating. This sentiment that lifestyle isn’t real journalism, is one often held by media owners and upper management — and one that makes it easier to trim from these sections first.

I felt a similar stab more personally when a spokesperson for Vice Media Group was asked why Refinery29 was not part of the company’s presentation at the recent NewFronts, a U.S. industry dog-and-pony show: “The serious challenges of this time demand a focus on great journalism and news and therefore, our NewFronts highlighted our work in those areas,” they said. Ouch. (Never mind the great journalism Refinery29 produces in North America and Europe.)

You get used to being treated as less-than when you work in lifestyle media while also facing pressure to bring home the bacon. You know that your best work will never get the accolades it deserves, and that male colleagues, bosses, and peers — and, heck, women too — think what you do is not important. They’re happy to keep you around as long as you’re making money, but you have to constantly justify your work as valid compared to other more prestigious journalism. There’s often a double-edge sword of feeling the pressure to attract advertisers without being given the resources to scale the audience while delivering quality content.

If you’re a lifestyle journalist, you might internalize this messaging, and worry about speaking to a group of aspiring journalists or appearing on a panel with more “serious” reporters. When I worked as a style editor at the Globe and Mail and was asked to apply for a national news editor job there, I did my very best to convince my bosses that I was completely unqualified. I couldn’t remember all the provincial capitals! I’d never done news! I ended up landing the job, then leaving for Chatelaine before I started. I didn’t think I was cut out for that kind of journalism.

Funnily enough, it’s been my experience working in women’s media that’s shown me how wrong I was. It’s been at these so-called lifestyle publications that I’ve led coverage of sexual assault trials and elections and published investigative features about domestic homicide. I’ve also written about becoming a mom and edited a series about the glory of having a crush. I’ve learned that my favourite kind of work treats “serious” subjects with levity; and vice versa. I can write a better headline than almost anyone. I’ve found my home in lifestyle.

There has never been a more terrifying and confusing time in modern history to figure out how to be a human person, and while breaking news serves an essential role, its role isn’t to help us navigate the world around us. Lifestyle journalism is journalism about being alive. And we need it now more than ever.

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