Ian Burrell: Fresh and original - how magazine websites for young women are filling a gap in the market

The Media Column

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There’s a type of early twentysomething woman who picks up her mobile phone even before she climbs out of bed. During the course of the day she will fish out that phone from her bag an average of 110 times. It’s no wonder that The Debrief – the digital-only product from Bauer Media that is chasing this audience – is warning readers of the long-term damage that over-use of smartphones can do to their spinal cords.

Across British media there is a new wave of digital content being aimed at young women, demonstrating originality and a flair for design that outshines most content served to male audiences. After more than a decade of the Mumsnet behemoth dominating female digital media, it feels like a new generation is emerging with a fresh tone and attitude.

On Thursday in Shoreditch, east London, a collection of young mothers gathered to dance to a DJ called Strawberry Blonde and celebrate the launch of Motherland.net.

As a first-time mum at 27, Motherland founder and editor-in-chief Charlotte Philby says she looked for relevant media but “nothing I came across seemed to reflect myself and my friends and where we were at with our lives”. Her site is aimed at “Millennials” (up to the age of 34) as they enter the world of parenting and – she claims – fills a gap in the market.

“There were sites such as Mumsnet that seemed to be filled with fear-mongering and vitriol and this really weird idea of how motherhood takes over your life, and on the other side this saccharine sweet vision of motherhood which assumes that as soon as a woman gets pregnant she just wants to talk about baking and catchment areas.”

Motherland’s offering is beautifully presented content written by well-established journalists, a mix of features, fashion, food, travel and culture. “The idea is that the context is motherhood but it could appeal to anybody really,” says Philby.

Times journalist Wendy Ide has compiled a series of alternatives to the films kids obsess over – she suggests Japanese animation Princess Mononoke as a break for mothers exhausted by repeat views of Frozen. Wine writer Alex Whyte recommends the best wine bars in Paris.

The tone is “fun, irreverent, thoughtful and non-judgmental”, says Philby, a former staffer on The Independent. “Whereas you go on something like Mumsnet and you feel like there are these different camps. It’s so intimidating and confusing. There are weird acronyms that people use and you feel that if you haven’t immersed yourself entirely into motherhood that there’s something wrong with you or with the rest of the world.”

The venture is backed by creative agency Protein and has plans for filmed online tutorials and live events including wine tasting, antenatal yoga sessions and a series of “How I Make It Work” expert talks from working mothers.

While women complain of a lack of opportunities in traditional media outlets, the internet has been liberating for many mothers who have found they can continue to work away from the office. Content aimed at women online has become a “very busy category”, Erin Hudson, leading the digital department at media agency Carat, tells me. “There are millions of mums blogging online,” she says. “Digitisation has created an opportunity for people to create their own websites and drive their own opinions. It has really affected mums because it has allowed them to work from home and given them more flexibility.”

The Standard Issue is another new broad interest women’s digital magazine that launched recently and features contributions from numerous female comedians, such as Sarah Millican.

The Debrief last week won the Innovation of the Year category at the annual awards of magazine trade body the Professional Publishers Association. The product is transfixed on reaching readers on their phones. “It was very clear,” says editor Hattie Brett, “that in order to engage with women on an hourly basis we had to be very focused on our mobile strategy.”

It is aimed at women who are not yet contemplating motherhood but have it on the edge of their radar. “Smart, savvy, switched-on” is the phrase that Brett repeatedly uses to describe her readers, who will typically be 24, living with friends in an urban flat, and making £25,000 (above average for their age).

Brett, 31, leads a 10-strong editorial team who are squarely in the 18-25 age range of the readers. She used to work for Bauer’s Grazia but says this is a “very different audience” and there is no sharing of content between the brands.

The site hosts 120 pieces a week. Especially important is American editor Fiona Byrne who submits “While You Were Sleeping” stories so that The Debrief reader has something to pore over as she grabs her phone upon waking. This content, says Brett, “gives the girl the headline news she needs to know before she gets to work”.

We’re not talking about the latest news on Isis or Ebola, but stories such as the recent nude celebrity photo scandal and the banning of the American “pick-up artist” Julien Blanc.

But the site doesn’t shy away from contentious issues and repeatedly probes the complexities of modern gender politics. “She is an online activist”, says Brett as she imagines her reader picking up her smartphone for the 110th time that day, “she absolutely believes that women should be economically, socially and politically equal.”