15 Industry Experts On The State Of The Teen Magazine In 2016

Photo: Steve Lewis/Getty Images.
Teen magazines were treasured objects during my formative years: Absolutely none of the sex or relationship advice was relevant, and I didn't actually buy most of the fashion or beauty picks I enthusiastically dog-eared. But savoring a print glossy from cover to cover was basically my favorite form of entertainment. Poring over teen titles certainly prompted my career path. I even bought, and obsessed over, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter To The Greatest Teen Magazine Of All Time, even though I'd never been a Sassy reader. (It shuttered when I was in kindergarten, alas.)

When my parents finally made me clean out my childhood bedroom this summer, I found stacks and stacks of erstwhile titles like Elle Girl, YM, Teen People, and CosmoGIRL, dating back at least a decade. Nostalgia aside, I was struck by the sheer variety I had (and took for granted).

Today's teen doesn't have nearly as many options on the newsstand. Gen Z's media diet is certainly more varied than mine ever could've been — it might be purely digital and mostly mobile-driven at that, thanks to, say, Snapchat Discover and Instagram as viable news mediums. In print, Teen Vogue and Seventeen are the only titles available to the 2016 teen (or tween; magazines are aspirational, after all). A number of teen titles shuttered before or during the recession — YM ceased publication in 2004, Teen People and Elle Girl both bit the dust in 2006 (though ElleGirl.com continued on), and CosmoGIRL folded in 2008, followed by Teen's demise in 2009.

So, this change didn't just transpire. But the two enduring teen glossies have shaken up their leadership structures lately: Less than two years ago, Cosmopolitan's editor-in-chief and publisher started overseeing Seventeen as well. More recently, Teen Vogue's founding editor-in-chief, Amy Astley, decamped for another Condé Nast title, Architectural Digest, in May; she was succeeded by not one but three people who are, in effect, equally in charge. (There's been speculation over time that Teen Vogue would be folded into Vogue, or just cease print operations completely.)

So what do all these changes mean for the future of the teen title? Do teens even want or need print magazines anymore? As essential as digital content indisputably has become, I'm forever a champion of print; I certainly hope the answer is a resounding yes. Ahead, 15 experts on the topic — including teen-magazine editors past and present, creators of next-gen teen media, and magazine-journalism professors — muse on the beloved medium's past, present, and future.
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Photo: Courtesy of Inez and Vinoodh/Teen Vogue.
Elaine Welteroth & Phillip Picardi
Currently editor & digital editorial director, respectively, at Teen Vogue

Why do you think teens still read teen magazines in print?
Elaine: "Because of the use-and-lose behavior associated with digital-media consumption, print offers a completely different kind of experience that teens can own, savor, collect, and even decorate their walls with. Clicking on web stories has become a big part of how we all collect information. But to click and move on is about satisfying an urgent need to be in the know — it's less about belonging. For teens, being a part of a community that you identify with is so important. Subscribing to a print title, even in 2016, is like signing up for a club that serves you on a more personal level. At Teen Vogue, we have created a community for our readers to belong, to be seen and heard, and to identify with the stories we tell."

Phil: "I think there’s a major nostalgia factor at play with teenagers, and with the world at large, to be honest. Our reclaimed obsession with everything from stickers to posters feels very much like it did when we were young, and we’d buy the magazine so we’d have something to pin to our walls. I firmly believe that mentality is alive among today’s teens! But beyond that, this generation is and has been all about a personalized experience — something that feels catered to them. In a media landscape where it feels like everyone is trying to be everything for everyone, it’s more relevant than ever to be a teen magazine talking directly to a teenage audience."

Has social media’s increasingly pivotal role in teens’ lives helped Teen Vogue connect with readers in print?

Elaine: "It has never been more important to be where our reader is. Social media has opened up an authentic dialogue that I've always personally embraced as an editor. As much as I delight in curating a thoughtful, beautiful print experience, I do it with a mind toward starting conversations that will live well beyond our pages. I am constantly thinking about what matters to the girls I interact with on a daily basis — via Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. That relationship matters to me on a very personal level. I feel like they are counting on me to use this platform to make a difference, and I don't take that lightly."

Phil: "I’ve been at Teen Vogue off and on for almost seven years now, and ever since I started there, teens have reached out to me personally to ask how they can get a job or how they can contribute, or even to ask for advice on everything from what moisturizer they should buy to coming out of the closet. We pay attention to the comments, and our social team is always trying to respond or Favorite what comes our way. But beyond that, we need to listen. And listening to what the readers say about our content is huge, because they expect us to write back and address them. The other day, I was tweeted by a young woman who wanted to know about our coverage on the flooding in Louisiana, and our features editor jumped right on it, so we tweeted her the link once it was live. It’s so great to see not just that they care about the world, but they take a vested interest in Teen Vogue’s growth and our place in the world."

How's this new, unconventional leadership structure panning out?
Elaine: "What feels modern about the leadership model at Teen Vogue is that the old silos between print and digital just don’t exist. The roles are integrated on a very fundamental level. Each is equally invested in and crucial to the success of Teen Vogue across platforms.

"It's also pretty radical and revolutionary to see young people at the helm of a legacy media brand — particularly one with the influence of Vogue behind it. Being young digital natives ourselves gives us a unique advantage in understanding our reader on a fundamental level, because in many ways we are that reader. We aren't weighed down by the old way of doing things. We trust our instincts, and we know that if something feels wrong to us, it isn't right for our audience."



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Photo: Courtesy of Elle Girl.
Brandon Holley
Founding editor-in-chief at Elle Girl; also worked at Lucky, Yahoo Shine, Jane, GQ, and Time Out New York; currently CEO of Everywear

You launched Elle Girl: How did you strive to differentiate it from other teen titles?
"We really wanted to make a smart magazine with great fashion, but also with a sense of humor. Movies like Clueless had a sophisticated sense of humor and were beloved by teen girls, but for some reason, not since Sassy had a magazine really talked to its reader the way she talks to her peers. A lot of content was about 'Life’s most embarrassing moments' and 'how to tell if he likes you' kind of stuff. We wanted to not be like that."

Do you think teens still read print magazines?

"I think they read some, but not as much as before. Things like how-to beauty tutorials by independent personalities like Bethany Mota just can’t be done in print."

Any thoughts on why specific teen titles shuttered?

"Sassy was its own thing; I’m not sure why that closed — file under questionable closes like Domino. I think YM and Teen were a little dated in the way they addressed teens. CosmoGirl had this empowerment message, Elle Girl had a dare-to-be-different message, and Teen Vogue offered an aspirational fashion message. All three were new voices that girls responded to."
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Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage.
Chandra Turner
Former executive editor at CosmoGirl; currently executive editor at Parents and founder and president of Ed2010

Do you think teens still read teen magazines in print?
"It’s funny that everyone assumes that millennials and teens aren’t reading print mags, but all the research that I have seen shows that is not the case. Young people are reading the same, or even slightly more, print magazines than older folks — but they are also reading more of everything. More digital. More social. They are just rabid beasts consuming media! There really is something special about those teen years when it comes to their relationship with media. They are at a time in their lives where they are searching for answers to problems, desperate to connect to others going through the same thing, and hungry for inspiration and confidence to make the right decisions. Teen mags still fulfill those needs like no other medium."

How was your time at CosmoGirl?
"I have worked at a lot of women’s magazines in my career, but my experiences at CosmoGirl hold a special place in my heart. Just thinking about my six years there now gets me choked up! It sounds cheesy to say this, but we really felt like we were making a difference in young girls’ lives. We were raising the next generation of feminists, empowering young women to make good decisions and feel confident about themselves and their bodies. We featured tons of young women in the pages and honored so many young women as 'CosmoGirls of the Year' that have now gone on to do so many amazing things like start an NGO in Nepal, a national mentoring program for girls, or a nonprofit for senior citizens, just to name a few off the top of my head.

"We also had this very cool program called Project 2024 (the year when 'our girls' would be eligible to run for president at age 35!), where we interviewed prominent women (and men, too) like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Madeleine Albright in the pages of the magazine to inspire girls to take career paths that would make real change in the world. As part of Project 2024, we also had an internship program where we placed college-aged girls in internships at prominent companies and organizations. There was even a documentary film made about the program, where the filmmakers profiled a group of our interns — all who had ambitions of running for president in 2024. To think that we now have a woman who is the Democratic nominee for president long before 2024 gives me goosebumps."
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Photo: Getty Images.
Patti Wolter
Associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism; freelance writer and editor

Do you think teens still read teen magazines in print in 2016?
"I do believe they read print, but as part of a brand they may have found online first. They identify and trust brand voices, and will pursue those across platforms... Anecdotally, I have watched tweens come to a magazine through the [title's] app, subscribe, then keep all the print issues and pore over them with friends. The print product isn't always their first stop, but one of many."

Why do you think a lot of offshoot teen titles like Elle Girl, CosmoGIRL, and Teen People didn’t survive, while Teen Vogue did?
"First of all, Teen Vogue has the giant of fashion magazines as its primary brand name. But it also has been very successful by positioning for teens while being attractive to, and not stigmatized by, the late-teen, early-20s market. The digest size makes it novel, and the fashion [is] accessible."

Thoughts on Teen Vogue's next-gen leadership setup?
"I think the smartest strategies view their audience across platforms and plan editorial consistently and beautifully together in print, digital, social, and more. This feels more like a necessity than an experiment."
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Photo: Jesse Grant/WireImage.
EJ Samson
Formerly online director at Teen Vogue; also worked at New York, Alloy, GQ, and Hearst Digital Media's Men's Group; currently assistant vice president of digital for Ralph Lauren fragrances at L'Oréal

You were one of Teen Vogue's earliest digital hires. What was that like?
"Dream job is an understatement. I was hired as editor of TeenVogue.com early on in my career (I often joke that I’ve been in the game so long, I launched Teen Vogue’s MySpace page), so I really learned a lot about digital media while on the job. Back then, the entire magazine industry was trying to figure digital out — and in many ways I think it still is. But Amy Astley was super supportive and gave me a lot of freedom to run the site the way I saw fit, including giving then beauty director Eva Chen her first blog!

"That said, I can’t take any credit for the TeenVogue.com you see today. It’s totally different, from the design and user experience to its content strategy. Phil and his team are really killing it. When I ran the site, we almost exclusively covered fashion and celebrities. Now it’s common to see a fashion post wedged between an article on wellness and even politics. I think it’s a sign of the times, but also a major investment in resources: When I worked there, I was literally the only staff member on digital. I’m a huge fan of Teen Vogue's current digital strategy and proud to be part of its prehistoric era."

What do you think of Teen Vogue's leadership setup?

"It’s a daring move, but I think if any magazine should take the lead on shaking up the industry, it should be a brand targeted at teens. However, I’ve been in working environments where there’s been an effort to integrate print and web teams to varying degrees of success. It’s a challenge to ask one team used to closing an issue 10 to 12 times a year to work under daily deadlines.

"On the flip side, it’s not always easy to get digital editors to think beyond quick captions and 140 characters. But I have faith in Teen Vogue’s leadership — I hired Phil Picardi as a web intern when I ran the site, so I know Teen Vogue is in great hands."
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Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage.
Tia Williams
Former beauty editor at Teen People and YM; currently a novelist

Do you think teens still read teen magazines in print?

"Not as much as pre-social media. Which is why so many have disappeared; the two I worked for are defunct! When I was 13, we had YM, Teen, Seventeen, Sassy, and all the teen-dream zines like 16, Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, Bop, and Dynamite. There were endless choices, because there were no other choices: If you wanted beauty or fashion news, or advice on how to deal with excruciating social stuff, or pics of your favorite celebs, you only had magazines. Now, with the takeover of digital outlets and social media, the information comes far faster than a three-month lead time. And it's delivered in quick, flashy, shareable, sound-bite-y nuggets that are easily digestible for a demo that, these days, is inundated with constant streams of information."

What set Teen People apart from other teen titles? Why do you think it didn't survive?
"It was primarily celeb-focused — it began as People's little sibling — but a huge portion of the book was devoted to 'real' teens. We never used models. The features section was filled with stories that gave a voice to what everyday teens, from all walks of life, were experiencing. And it was intentionally unisex! Teen People wasn't as glossy as, say, Elle Girl and Seventeen, and I think this gave it a ton of heart and reliability.

"It was primarily an entertainment magazine. In 2006, when Teen People folded, that audience was growing out of turning to print magazines for details on their favorite celebrities. Blogs were new. Perez Hilton was happening. Kids could suddenly communicate and share info on Myspace. The audience could get instant gratification elsewhere."

What do you think of Teen Vogue's leadership setup?
"Honestly? I think it's the future. I'm so inspired by what Teen Vogue is doing. Have you seen their covers? For the past six or eight months, all of the cover models have been precisely who this young, very digitally savvy consumer wants to see. And the content is a digital experience filtered through the lens of print. Brilliant!

"And it's because they have young, digital-clever editors at the helm. Teen Vogue has a very special talent in Elaine — she's an editor with a solid print résumé, but she's also a social-media luminary in her own right. Now, to truly resonate with a younger audience, you have to be both. She's the new model for a print editor."
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Melissa Chessher
Professor and chair of the magazine department, and chair and director of the magazine, newspaper, and online journalism graduate program at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

Do you think teens still read teen magazines in print in 2016?
"I think the current generation of teens and all that follow them will be 'digital first' content consumers, because their phones and their computers are critical extensions of who they are and how they live their lives.

"Print still plays a role, but if you go with the consumption metaphor, it’s less of an entrée and more of a dessert: an indulgence you take to the beach, on a vacation, trip, when you’re creating a poster board that features all the celebrities, hairstyles, shoes you love."

Why do you think a lot of offshoot teen titles — i.e., Elle Girl, CosmoGirl, Teen People — didn’t survive?
"Magazines are a direct reflection of the economy, and during the series of economic downturns and financial crises and the ad-revenue troubles they wrought during the past decade or so, publishers needed to cut expenses and began to limit themselves to one title in a category. That meant eliminating offshoots of legacy titles in favor of the legacy title, or just directing resources at titles that were around longer and had more tangible brands.

"At Hearst, for example, you had Seventeen, an older, more well-established brand, and CosmoGirl, a newer title with a completely different voice and vibe. If Seventeen was a Barbie doll — classic, traditional, reserved — then CosmoGirl was a Bratz doll, edgy, sassy, and a bit irreverent. Magazines are all about fantasy. Most readers of Vogue aren’t a size 2 and can’t spend $1,000 on a pair of shoes. The same is true for teen magazines. The readers of Seventeen are not 17. They are much younger, dreaming of what it will be like to be a junior in high school. By the time a teen is 17, she’s fantasizing about what it’s like to be in college. And if you want to find out what that experience is like as a reader, you could take a baby step with CosmoGirl, or you could go right to the real deal and read Cosmopolitan.

"The economic woes of the last decade or so forced publishers to make cuts, and spinoffs were deemed less valuable than older, more iconic brands or titles. I’m also guessing the fact that they were 'teen' publications factored into the equation. Because despite this demographic’s cultural and economic power, it still carries the baggage of being a 'teen' title and therefore something less than those magazines directed at their parents, who earn actual paychecks."
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Lauren Smith Brody
Former features editor at CosmoGirl, former executive editor at Glamour; currently author of upcoming book The Fifth Trimester and the founder of a consulting and speaking company of the same name

"Basically, I think there were two big problems: 1) Vast over-saturation... 2) ...of a very fleeting market. Teen mags, of the embarrassing stories and hot-guys variety, are ostensibly for 16-year-olds, but our readers at CosmoGirl were always secretly more like 10 to 12 years old. After that, they wanted real women's fashion magazines. Cosmo might have been too racy or mature for a 13-to-14-year-old, but Glamour wasn't.

"So I think it's no coincidence that the one that's really survived is Teen Vogue, which always skewed older and was never 'burdened' by the life-advice stuff that magazines like CosmoGirl did so brilliantly....for a smaller-than-acknowledged and very fleeting audience. Also, if you want advice about how to ask out a boy or what to do when you get your period in math class, you want immediate answers (from the internet). I have so many positive things to say about the health coverage, activism, and general you-go-girl-ness that young teens got from magazines like CG. I think — and I hope! — they get a lot of that from social media, and therefore each other, now."
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Photo: Peter Kramer/Getty Images.
Tracey Lomrantz Lester
Formerly fashion news editor at Elle.com and ElleGirl.com, style editor at Glamour, editorial director at Gilt. Currently brand director at Intermix.

What was your time at Elle Girl like?
"I joined Elle.com as a fashion news editor in 2007, when the print edition of Elle Girl had already folded. The two online publications shared a lot of staff and resources — this was a time when digital staffs were super lean and publishing companies were looking to save, not invest, when it came to online — and I eventually oversaw part of ElleGirl.com as well. The 'shutdown' of Ellegirl.com was more like a long, slow process rather than a big, dramatic pulling of the plug. The site had a successful games section that drove a lot of traffic, so Hachette had outside game developers continuing to create and maintain the games; we just kept up some evergreen fashion and beauty content to round out the site. Eventually, that was dropped as well, but I had already left by then."

Why do you think a lot of younger-sister teen titles, including Elle Girl, didn’t survive?
"Adolescence and the teen years are such distinct experiences that I don't think a diluted or youth-ified version of a grown woman's magazine could ever address all of those needs, just as an adult version of a teen's magazine would be a tough sell.

"When I think back on the magazines I obsessively read, collected, and cut apart to make collages from, like Sassy, Seventeen, and YM, they each served such a unique purpose, and I read each for totally different reasons. YM was the down-to-earth friend you could be totally yourself in front of and indulge your silly side with, Seventeen was the cool older sister who seemed to know a little about a lot. The DNA of Elle and Cosmo are so specific and so beloved, a teen version of either could never quite accomplish what a title created solely to speak to a teen girl could."

Teen magazines' target demo will always exist; where might teens turn without such a range of titles to choose from?
"I think teens themselves and their experiences have changed drastically... [As a teen, I] loved reading about girls who got their braces locked while making out because it had happened to us, too, and we didn't have another outlet to discuss it or a community to share it with. Now girls are in constant communication with their circle of friends (and 'friends'), and it's an endless loop of sharing (and 'sharing') embarrassing stories and what they're wearing and what they're listening to.

"Those magazines helped form a sisterhood by creating a common narrative for so many of us, and now those girls are creating and sharing their own narratives every day. They have the ability to publish a mini-magazine daily on Snapchat or Instagram, and to giggle with their girlfriends in the comments sections — rather than passing on a well-battered copy of a magazine."
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Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage.
Ellen Seidman
Formerly executive editor at YM; also worked at Redbook, Child, and Glamour; currently editor, writer, and content strategist for print and digital

The whole magazine industry is more focused than ever on digital efforts and new platforms. What's the enduring power of print?

"There is no replicating the experience of reading a print magazine: the flip-ability, the beauty of the photography, particularly makeup and fashion layouts, and the focus factor. When you're holding a magazine in your hands, you actually have to focus on it, assuming you can resist the siren call of every 'ding!' from your phone. But when you're looking at a digital edition of a mag or a site, it is all too easy to start checking out Facebook, your email, etc.

"Also, it's still a treat to browse a newsstand, pick a magazine, and dig in; surfing online and cuddling up with your iPad just isn't the same experience. Unless they someday invent an aromatherapeutic iPad that also massages my feet and feeds me macarons. In that case, count me in."

YM had such a loyal following: Why didn't it make it?
"One significant factor was that the company that owned it at the time, Gruner + Jahr, was late to the game in setting up a website. Back when I was executive editor in 2000, the editor, Diane Salvatore, and I were so frustrated that Seventeen had a website; then Teen People came along with a great website. Not establishing YM.com ASAP was a major fail on the part of the company. That's what girls wanted and needed, and YM wasn't there."

What do you think the teen magazine will look like in the future?
"Teen mags need to keep coming up with ways to synch with online editions, but also blow out what they do so well — photography and trusted service — instead of cutting back.

"Plus, I'd love to see print mags coming out with tech advances all their own... It would serve mags well to entice readers with digital innovations — say, an advice column with a chip that was the tech equivalent of a Magic-8 Ball; girls could ask a question, press a button, and get a random answer. Or even something low-tech but fun, like a hologram that you could put your finger on and it could detect your mood. Teens love what's new and fun, and magazines that serve them need to keep delivering that."
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Photo: Courtesy of Elle Girl.
Melissa Walker
Formerly features editor at Elle Girl; also worked at Seventeen Prom; founder of I Heart Daily newsletter; currently freelance writer and young-adult author


How would you describe your time at Elle Girl?
"Elle Girl was the love of my life in terms of jobs. It was the most fun, creative, and inspiring atmosphere possible within a corporate setting, like putting together a magazine with your friends. I still count much of the staff among my close circle. I think that vibe came through in our content, and that sparked a following that really loved the magazine. Brandon Holley, the founding editor-in-chief, was crazy in the best way and encouraged all of us to express ourselves and do what we loved within the pages of the magazine. Christina Kelly, an idol of mine from her Sassy days, took over for Brandon, and working with her was a childhood dream come true. When I left that job to write books, or, actually, the job left me when Elle Girl folded in 2006, I never thought about going back full-time again — it was just too good to try to re-create."

Why do you think Elle Girl didn't survive?
"A week before the meeting where they called us in to say Elle Girl was folding, they had called us in for a Champagne toast to say we'd won an AdWeek award. So it was head-spinning. I think it had to do with so many things that were not related to Elle Girl specifically, but teen magazines are easy to cut from a portfolio, especially when advertisers believe teens are only online and not reading print."
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Photo: Courtesy of Seventeen.
Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis
Alums of Teen Vogue, Nylon, and MTV, and freelance writers; cofounders of Clover Letter

How does Clover x Cassandra Report's study say something about whether teens are (or aren't) reading teen magazines these days?
Liza: "When we were teens, we had SO many magazines to choose from and look forward to each month. Now the selection has become whittled down to just a couple. Teens just aren’t subscribing to print magazines as much anymore, because there’s so much other information out there online. Of course, that information is a specific kind of information, and that’s not a good thing. The internet has changed things for print in a big way (I mean, duh). But the way teen magazines looked in the '90s and early '00s is starkly different than how they look now. Social media rules over everything — and this forces print magazines to adapt, because the publishing cycle is several months behind."

As alums of publications for teens, thoughts on the state of the teen magazine in 2016?

Casey: "In 2002, when I started high school, I subscribed to seven different teen mags at any given time. YM, CosmoGirl, Elle Girl, Teen, Teen People, Teen Vogue, Seventeen...the list goes on. I learned more more about the world — and relationships, politics, and even things like my own body! — from teen mags than I did in class. All of those publications covered current events, offered up expert advice, and had features about girls I could actually relate to. That basically doesn’t exist now — largely because the internet didn’t exist then, at least not the way it does now. It’s kind of hard to imagine what a teen magazine looks like in five, 10, 20 years. If you had told me a decade ago that the state of media would look like it does now, I wouldn’t have believed you."

Liza: "Growing up, my favorite part about teen magazines was their tangibility. You could rip out the pages and paste them all over your wall; they felt special. I still have a bunch of old teen mags stacked in my old closet at my parents’ house, and they’re like this weird artifact from 2000. I believe that the future of print teen magazines relies on maintaining this magical quality that the old-school teen mags did so well. Making these print editions feel like collectors’ items — ones that you can’t just toss in the trash when you’re finished reading — feels like a refreshing change from the fast-paced, traffic-driven internet environment."
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Photo: Steve Lewis/Getty Images.
Cheryl Brody
Director of Syracuse University's Newhouse NYC program and freelance writer

"I love this industry, so it's sad to see any magazine fold. I grew up wanting to buy every single teen title, from Sassy to YM, so I think young readers are missing out because they don't have that option anymore. With that said, they have the ability to get content everywhere at any time, on their phone, their computer, and, yes, via print. The teen brands that have survived, like Teen Vogue and Seventeen, are so important, and I am blown away with what they are doing at each brand.

"Full disclosure, I'm biased because I know many of the editors at both titles, but I'm truly in awe of how much they do to stay on top of the trends and stay connected with their readers, like when Teen Vogue recently joined musical.ly (FYI: watching Elaine Welteroth and Phillip Picardi "Vogue-ing" is pure joy). Those teams understand how important digital and print and social are. They all go hand in hand, and one isn't more important than the other.

"When I worked at CosmoGirl, I covered health, and the readers would send me emails and handwritten letters thanking me for the stories I wrote. That still happens, but it's more instantaneous — now via tweets or comments on Instagram. The teams at these titles are helping shape a generation of very savvy teenagers, so it's important that the editors continue creating this content — on every platform."
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