Joanna Coles published her first magazine at 11 and mailed a copy to Queen Elizabeth. She received a letter of thanks and a royal request for further issues. “It was all the encouragement I needed,” Coles said.
Coles went on to become an editor in chief of Marie Claire and then Cosmopolitan. This was in the 2000s and the 2010s, when magazine subscriptions had already begun to slide. The world of glossies was still what Coles called, “pretty [expletive] shiny, though it soon became clear that the shine was getting a bit thin.”
In 2017, in her second year as the chief content officer for Hearst Magazines, she became an executive producer on “The Bold Type.” An hourlong dramedy on Freeform, “The Bold Type” is set at a legacy women’s magazine called Scarlet that looks a lot like Cosmopolitan, with a glamorous editor in chief (played by Melora Hardin) who looks a lot like Coles. Centered on three young Scarlet employees — a junior writer, a fashion assistant, a social media director — it depicts a world of galas, lavish photo shoots, luxury accessories and a dress code that has somehow sanctioned mesh tops and plunging décolletage as appropriate workwear.
For the past two decades, movies and TV shows have depicted media jobs as glitzy and aspirational. Think of “Just Shoot Me,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “13 Going on 30,” “Ugly Betty” or Carrie’s Vogue sojourn on “Sex and the City.” Even unscripted series got in on the perfume ad-laden act, showing Olivia Palermo joining Elle (“The City”) and Lauren Conrad interning at Teen Vogue (“The Hills”).
Then again, in a scene that was almost certainly staged, Conrad famously turned down a work trip to Paris in order to spend more time with her boyfriend. So much for aspiration.
But as September issues have shrunk, so have these portrayals. “The Bold Type” begins its fifth and final season on Wednesday, about two weeks before “Younger,” the Paramount+ comedy set at a glittery publishing company, wraps up its seven-season run. The finales of these series may also close the increasingly ad-starved book on movies and TV shows that depict media careers as enviable.
“I mean, we may well be at the end of an era,” said Coles, who left Hearst in 2019. (She is now producing television shows and is the chief executive of Northern Star Acquisition Companies.)
In reality, magazine ad revenue has declined precipitously, newspapers have closed at a devastating rate, and the publishing industry has been transformed by the coming mega merger between Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster, none of which really lends itself to feel-good TV. And the median journalist salary is around $38,000, hardly enough to keep a character in Louboutins.
Will that sustain new shows? Already it’s become a punchline for current ones.
In the pilot episode of Starz’s “Run the World,” the editor in chief of an online magazine mourns what used to be. “There’s no more car service or white parties in the Hamptons or offices with doors that lock,” she tells a recent hire. In an early episode of the Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” a source asks a reporter why he went into journalism. “The money,” the reporter says. And then, after a beat, “It’s sad people know that’s funny.”
I’ve worked in journalism for about 20 years, starting just as the internet began to threaten traditional print media, and have been living through panics — of form, structure, content and budget — ever since. Shine has always been limited. I remember how, in my second year at The Village Voice, rumors swirled that we would all receive a holiday bonus. And we did. That bonus was $15. To put that in perspective, my roommate at the time, a college friend who worked at Deutsche Bank, also received a bonus. His was $25,000.
So despite having once worn a nightgown to the office (in my defense, I was 22 and also semi convinced that it was actually a dress), my experience has never really aligned with a series like “The Bold Type.” Friends in publishing report fewer Michelin-starred lunches and less Gucci worn to casual meetings than “Younger” affords for Sutton Foster and her co-stars.
But that’s largely why I love these shows. They neatly elide the drudgery, crippling salaries and soul destruction of early career media in favor of plot points surrounding Miu Miu shoes. Crises loom and then neatly resolve, usually in time for the finale.
“Sometimes we ignore the realities so that we can live in the fun and the aspiration,” said Wendy Straker Hauser, the showrunner of “The Bold Type.”
Yet Straker Hauser, who spent 10 years in print media, insisted that the show doesn’t diverge too far from the actual. “There’s also an interesting, accurate, depiction of the grit and the glamour, just living in a fabulous place like New York City and having access to the clothes and the bags and the fashion and the crazy hours and the magic that comes out of that,” she said.
Still, she conceded that the show had heightened some facets of magazine work. In her previous career, she never dressed like the women on the show. “I’ve never gone in with a bare midriff,” she said.
But one of the show’s more fanciful elements, the access that the women have to Scarlet’s fashion closet, is absolutely based on fact. “You were constantly dressing up, knowing that this was the only time you would ever wear this skirt, because it had to be back in the closet at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning,” Coles said.
Darren Star, who created “Younger,” admitted that the characters’ wardrobes might stretch the means of the average publishing salary. Or not. “They may be very smart shoppers,” he said, “a lot of Century 21.” (R.I.P. Century 21, haven of working girls.) It doesn’t really matter.
“I don’t think the audience is watching this show so they can see Sutton Foster dressing drably,” he said. “That really is just entertainment.”
He suggested that the show had perhaps exaggerated the parties and the expense accounts at Empirical, the fictional publishing house on “Younger.” But the show also hired a consultant to ensure that the publishing-centered stories felt true.
“It was important to me that aside from how the characters dress, there’s some veracity to how business is conducted,” he said.
Over the years, Empirical became Millennial, which tussled with an offshoot called Mercury before finally becoming Empirical again. The industry machinations mostly served as a glass-walled backdrop for relationship dramas. Similarly, Scarlet finally contended with a switch to digital, though the change in formats never really faded the glamour. There were no big budget cuts, no mass layoffs. The champagne — or at least, some very upmarket prosecco — continued to flow. The $10 pressed juices, too.
If you work in print media or publishing, this might feel like a betrayal, or a sweet escapist dream. (Those in search of greater realism can always just binge the final, newspaper-set season of “The Wire” again. And cry and cry.) Though journalism and publishing had already become increasingly decentralized — and the life of a freelancer like me is pretty much a constant quarantine — this past year kept almost everyone out of most media offices. So a vision of buzzy, plush workplaces provides a jolt of pure pleasure. What this work often looks like now — remote, budget-crunched, mostly in pajamas — doesn’t lend itself to soapy series television the way the magazines and publishing houses of past decades did.
That world, Coles recalled, was bright: “It was colorful. It was fun. It was aspirational. It was joyous. And that’s such fun to capture on TV and in film.”
She added: “I just think that we’re struggling with how to televisualize the next stage.”
One show has tried. Even as “Younger” and “The Bold Type” featured formal galas and endless glamour, another series offered a more representative portrayal of modern media careers. On Hulu’s “Shrill,” which premiered its third and final season earlier this month, Annie (Aidy Bryant) works at The Thorn, a Portland alt-weekly that serves as a loosely fictionalized version of Seattle’s “The Stranger.” A woman in her early 30s, she still lives with a roommate and her wardrobe seems sourced from thrift stores and ModCloth. Champagne is a rarity.
The Thorn lives from crisis to crisis — story lines about reduced hours and managerial shake-ups track with my own years at alternative weeklies. But it also invites an eclectic group of writers and artists to develop their own voices, and that tracks, too. The Thorn allows Annie to grow as an essayist, even as its own cultural footprint shrinks. In the final season, The Thorn is sold, rumor has it, to a news conglomerate called Neutral Source News.
“All their articles are medical fear click bait,” a photographer says mid freak out. “Like, ‘99 Ways Sugar Is Child Cocaine.’” Sadly, that also tracks.
The coronavirus pandemic has been unusually devastating for alt-weeklies, with many now defunct. (The Stranger has survived, though, and the Voice, smaller and thinner, is bizarrely back.) So we probably won’t see many more shows set in even this dustier corner of the media landscape.
On a recent afternoon I spoke with Lindy West, the creator of “Shrill,” about bringing an alt-weekly to TV, and she reminisced about her time at The Stranger and the passionate, creative, weird people she found there. “I’ve achieved like, a million of my dreams,” she said. “My husband just said to me the other day, he was like, ‘I don’t think you’re happier than when you were at The Stranger.’ And that was with all the drama and the chaos.”
She wanted to instill that drama and chaos into “Shrill.” And The Thorn does feel surprisingly genuine, though even here, West admitted, some streaming service glitter has intervened.
“It’s like 15 percent more stylish and less falling apart,” she said. “Real life is way more dark.”