'Magazine Mavens' Talk Love and Politics

Female editors at top women's magazines — Deborah Way of O, The Oprah Magazine, Damarys Ocana of Latina, and Dawn Baskerville of Essence — discuss topics highlighted in current issues of their publications.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Now, it's time for our monthly check-in with the Magazine Mavens. Editors of some of our favorite magazines talk to us about what's hot in their pages and what their readers are thinking about and talking about.

Joining me are Dawn Baskerville, managing editor of Essence magazine, Deborah Way, executive articles editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and Damarys Ocana, contributing writer to Latina magazine.

Ladies, Mavens, welcome.

Ms. DAWN BASKERVILLE (Managing Editor, Essence Magazine): Hey, Michel.

Ms. DEBORAH WAY (Executive Editor, O, The Oprah Magazine): Hi.

Ms. DAMARYS OCANA (Contributing Writer, Latina Magazine): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Dawn, let's start with the fun stuff. It's February. Who doesn't want to talk about love and relationships? But I want to ask you and I want to ask each of you, how do you keep it fresh given that it's a perennial topic?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, because love is fresh, and there are different ways to approach it each time you look at it. And at Essence, we're always looking for what's relevant and what's new, what's hot. So that kind of - we take our cues from our audience, really, and how our readers come at us. That's what they want to talk about.

MARTIN: Okay. Deborah, what about you?

Ms. WAY: Well, our focus - it is definitely the month of hearts and flowers this month, but our focus is decidedly not on love as a happily ever after proposition, so much as love as a contentiously ever after and maddeningly and frustratingly ever after and hardworkingly ever after proposition.

MARTIN: I notice that. You kind of push against the conventional wisdom. You have a piece about - you know, a lot of people think it's not okay for couples to fight. And you say, you know what? You have to fight. So was that intentional? Were you intentionally looking to kind of push against people's expectations?

Ms. WAY: Yes, it was definitely intentional. And, of course, our point is not to make the case that love stinks. You know, we're not trying to rain on anybody's parade, but simply to make the case that it is not a constant bed of roses. And I think, for our readers and for so many women, it can just be a real relief to hear that.

MARTIN: Damarys, this is the first edition that your new editor-in-chief, Mimi Valdes Ryan, got to supervise in full. So shout out to her. But I noticed that Latina didn't really go too hard on the whole Valentine's Day thing, per se. I mean, you've got some interesting articles about relationships, but not so much on the whole Valentine's Day, love and flowers thing. Is it not that big of a deal for your readers?

Ms. OCANA: Well, I think love is always interesting, but really interesting to our readers as we've seen through responses to some of our articles in the past is the idea of cheating. So, actually, we did a little counter programming this year and had an article about women who have cheated and lost it all, and how they sort of began to get their relationships back on the ground.

MARTIN: How are readers responding to this? Do they - it is kind of a - how can I put it - keeping it very real.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, how are readers responding? I mean, is it kind of a don't-air-our-dirty-laundry kind of thing? Or are people saying, well, you know, like I was saying to Deborah, relief that somebody's actually admitting stuff like this goes on?

Ms. OCANA: Yeah. I think it was relief actually, because, you know, we took an online poll asking our readers how many of them had cheated, and actually 69 percent of them had no problem saying that they had.

MARTIN: Stop it.

Ms. OCANA: So, obviously, they didn't have a problem admitting it.

MARTIN: Can I meet some of your readers? Because they are living a very different life than I.

Ms. OCANA: You're telling me. I can't even get a thing.

MARTIN: How about taking it all in? I don't know. I'm trying to get to the grocery store, but - interesting. And so people are actually responding to it. They're really - they're finding it very interesting and…

Ms. OCANA: Yes, the whole topic of cheating is sadly one of our biggest response getters.

MARTIN: But do some people ever criticize - because I know that Essence has had this issue, and sometimes they featured, for example, a couple of months ago, a cover story on Sean Diddy Combs and his then significant other, Kim.

And some other readers were not appreciating it. They said that they thought that Essence shouldn't be, quote, unquote, you know, "validating this lifestyle."

Dawn, you remember that, right?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, definitely.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: But Essence readers take black love very seriously and - but we also want a real perspective. So, unfortunately, it's not always a bed of roses. Sometimes there are indiscretions that crop up in relationships. But any opportunity that we get to celebrate black love, we try to do that. And particularly for this issue, we're looking at our second annual Will You Marry Me special.

MARTIN: I saw that.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Yeah. Well, we actually...

MARTIN: Talk about that.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, we give black men the opportunity to actually propose marriage to their special person. We had over 300 men who responded to the call to surprise a special woman in their lives with a proposal, and - which they did. And you can go on Essence.com and actually see the proposals. You can see the very emotional responses, and you'll even get the opportunity to vote for your favorite couple. The winning couple gets to get married aboard a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship, and then they get to sail away on a seven-night Caribbean honeymoon cruise.

So, the readers feels like they have some part in it, and, of course, the men get to, you know, be the romantic people that they are. And that isn't often highlighted. So, we're very excited about it, and we just urge people to go online and, you know, do the voting thing. You can have from now until February 14th. So choose your couple.

MARTIN: But you're also keeping it very real as always with a big take-out on safe sex 101, which of course...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well...

MARTIN: …brought me up to it. And I wonder, is it your thought that people don't know enough about this issue, or that people need to be reminded?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, our readers basically like their information straight, no chaser. And we like to give a full comprehensive view. Love has aspects of sex and, unfortunately, sex is sometimes not safe. And we want our readers to be safe. So, basically, it's a special report in three parts. We start up with a quiz, where you might be surprised to find that the things that you think you know about protecting yourself that you actually might not.

And then we kind of go into talking about different sexually transmitted infections that plague the African-American community and women at large, anything from Chlamydia to HIV/AIDS, which is the leading cause of death for black women age 25 to 34.

And then we have a very candid conversation about sex. It's one thing to, you know, get the clinical part of it, but we also want to talk about the best ways to ask about your partner's sexual health, as well as to maybe have to reveal to him some parts of your own.

MARTIN: So it's a way to help people negotiate this difficult terrain.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Absolutely. It's about empowering women, giving them the power and the information so that they can take responsibility for their own sex lives.

MARTIN: Deborah, I was curious about that, too, in your relationships issue. How do you envision people using this information?

Ms. WAY: We feel that it's, for our readers, it's just, as I said, it can be a real relief to know that you don't have to be holding up as the standard of love the idea of attunement, for instance, that idea of twin souls and two hearts beating as one and perfect bliss and harmony 24/7, and that every enduring relationship is going to have conflict and troubles and problems.

So, her package of stories starts with a piece by the psychiatrist Mark Epstein, where he's advocating thinking about love more as a continuous cyclical process of rapture and repair. You will definitely have times of being distant from your significant other. You will have times when you're not responsive to each other. And you will absolutely and definitely have fights with each other, more or less bitter. You know, you will find yourself in the kitchen screaming at each other over how to wash lettuce. Or you will find yourself on vacation in Paris out on the street, again, screaming at each other and throwing down your money in your wallet and saying, I quit, I'm going home - which actually happened to a couple he knows.

But his point is that that's a really much more realistic and healthy way to think about a relationship, because that model of constant attunement is an impossible ideal. And if you have that as your ideal, it just sets you up for, really, heartbreak and disillusionment.

So that's the theoretical part of these group of stories. And then the rest of them are a bunch of wonderful personal essays in which our writers are very candid and very frank and, for the most part, very funny. We have one writer who is looking back on her wedding day 25 years ago and remembers feeling like she was being marched to the guillotine in a fabulous white dress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know - and you know, again, Deborah, I have to give it up. I have to give credit for folks who haven't seen the issue, and I'm reading this thing and I'm cracking up because she's talking about one of her mother's friends had saved her an emergency valium. And she's talking about being at the country club and how she thought it was a good idea to greet the guests in rollers green shorts. You read through the whole piece, and what do we see? The picture of a couple - not necessarily who you think is having a country-club wedding. I'm not going to spoil it for folks in case they haven't seen it yet. But I do want to point out, again, diversity: built in? Unexpected? What would you -what word did you use?

Ms. WAY: Well, diversity is just a huge part of our mission and watchword in everything we do. I mean, we're always looking for all kinds of diversity in people's lives and in people's experiences because our readers are so incredibly diverse. I remember hearing our editor-in-chief Amy Gross on the show a while back, talking about how she feels that she is really speaking to every woman, and we try to keep that in mind with everything we do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our monthly visit with the Magazine Mavens, editors of some of our favorite magazines: Damarys Ocana of Latina, Deborah Way of O, The Oprah Magazine, and Dawn Baskerville of Essence magazine.

Let's talk about politics. It's - lots of politics in February. And several of you have kind of keyed right in on that. Dawn, you've got another of your in-depth interviews with front-running presidential contenders. This month features John Edwards. Was he surprised that Essence was interested in spending that kind of time with him and giving him that much space?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Not at all. He seems to be very entrenched in diversity issues, very comfortable with inclusion issues, so not at all. And then he was very forthcoming and open. Our Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson actually traveled to Iowa to talk to him about fixing inequality in America and why he believes race and gender of the other candidates won't matter in campaign 2008.

MARTIN: What about the Republicans? Any plans to feature their front-runners?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: We have given fair inclusion to all candidates. And we featured the candidates that talked to us.

MARTIN: I mean, did you approach them? Did they just not...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, we gave them...

MARTIN: I mean, I saw - we saw a major takeout on Hillary Clinton, a major takeout on Barack Obama.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Yes. We did make the approach to all candidates - all of the major candidates. And we wound up doing the interviews with those that favorably responded to the invitation.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Damarys, Latina has a nice spread on the major party candidates for president. It gives equal time to both Democrats and Republican front-runners. Is that a signal that Latina believes the Latino vote to be kind of a swing vote?

Ms. OCANA: Well, it absolutely is. There are 17 million Latinos that are eligible to vote this year of the 40 million of us. And so - and a lot of us are concentrated in key swing states like Florida and Nevada, et cetera. So it's really important for us to get the word out there to our readers that it's important for them to go out and vote, because they really, more than ever, have a voice. So to that end, that's why we did this package in which we present major candidates on both sides of the aisle, and where they stand on some of the most important issues to Latinos.

MARTIN: How did the readers respond to that? Because my guess would be that your readers are all over the place in terms of their political interests, political level of kind of political involvement.

Ms. OCANA: Well, it's interesting because they - I mean, they're not all over the place. I mean, 57 percent of Latinos are registered Democrats. So it's - we lean more that way. You wouldn't know it from the Florida primaries, because Florida tends to be populated by Cuban-Americans who overwhelmingly vote Republican, though that's changing as well. So, you know, so far we've had great response from readers who, you know, more than anything, want to be educated on the issues and on where everybody stands.

MARTIN: But I noticed that you didn't give more priority to Bill Richardson, who, until he dropped out, was the only Latino candidate - certainly a very highly qualified candidate. But you didn't go out of your way to kind of give him any more attention than the others. And I just - you know, wondered about that. Do you feel any pressure to do that? Do you feel any pressure not to do that?

Ms. OCANA: No, not at all. In fact, I personally tried to get an interview with Richardson, and we were not successful for I don't know what reason. But I mean, we were extremely interested in talking with him. It just never happened. I'm not sure.

MARTIN: Don't feel bad. He didn't give us any love, either. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OCANA: Scheduling? I mean I hate to just be blunt, but you know?

MARTIN: No. No, don't feel bad. Of course, you know, Dawn here probably has some magic fairy dust that she can sprinkle to get these people to...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, tell her everything. But I don't - you know?

So, Deborah, finally, I wanted to talk about - O doesn't have a lot of, sort of, politics, of course, a lot of attention for Oprah for her endorsement of Barack Obama as a private citizen. But another thing in O I wanted to mention, that novelist Wally Lamb teaches a writing class in a women's prison. That was fascinating enough. But he had some advice that could work for anybody facing an issue. If you mind, would you just tell us about his story?

Ms. WAY: Well, in addition to being a beloved and best-selling novelist - and not incidentally, a two-time Oprah Book Club pick - Wally has, for the past eight years, been teaching writing workshops in a women's prison in Connecticut. And the women are doing autobiographical writing. They're telling their life stories on paper. And the work has been quite remarkable to the extent that he's - Wally has published so far two anthologies of their writing. The first was called "Couldn't Keep It To Myself." And it came out several years ago. And the second is called "I'll Fly Away." And that was just published in September. And that was really the occasion for his writing this piece for us, which is about the transformative power of writing. For him and for his students, writing is a way to, as he says, rise above the gravity of your life, and to begin to see the patterns in your life, and to begin to connect the dots between the experiences you've lived through and the decisions you've made and how that has affected the person you've become.

But, of course, his larger point in writing for us is that you don't have to be in a literal prison to find value in this sort of writing. As Wally says, you know, who among us hasn't built a barbed wire prison around herself with secrets and regrets and painful memories? And if you can write your way through those things through honest telling of your stories, it can be hugely liberating.

And Oprah, by the way, has been keeping a journal pretty much since she was able to write.

MARTIN: Do any of you do that? Do any of the other ladies do that? Keep a journal?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Sure.

Ms. OCANA: I don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OCANA: I always start, but I never, kind of, followed through with it.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. OCANA: Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I, you know, I just - I'm writing all day every day for a living. But - so I tend to keep my thoughts in my head, and they just sort of do war up there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OCANA: So, I think, you know, listening to what Wally's doing, it seems like a really great time for me to maybe jump back into that. I think it can be immensely helpful.

MARTIN: Dawn, you do? You keep a journal?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Yes, I do. I can't say that it's consistent. It's been off and on. It's a little frightening to revisit, but, to everyone's point, it is a free therapy. And I think that it's healthy and enriching when you can kind of see your own self-progression in words.

MARTIN: If you guys can make time for that, I guess that's kind of an indictment of the rest of us if you can just carve out some time.

Ms. OCANA: You've inspired me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WAY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Damarys Ocana is writer-at-large at Latina magazine. Dawn Baskerville is managing editor at Essence magazine. And Deborah Way is executive articles editor at O, The Oprah Magazine. They were all kind enough to join us at our bureau in New York.

Ladies, Mavens, thank you so much for speaking with us.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. OCANA: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. WAY: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Thank you, Michel.

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