11 March 1998
1,770 words

"The Huge Health Market:"
4 consumer editors at ASJA

NEW YORK--I went to the American Society of Journalists and Authors meeting, "The Huge Health Market," on 11 March 1998 at the National Arts Club in NYC. Here's my quick and dirty report.

They had Andrea Bauman (no relation), Senior Associate Editor, Redbook; Laurie Abraham, Health/Features Editor, Mirabella; Deborah Pike, Health Editor, Good Housekeeping; and Susan Roy, Senior Health Editor, Self. They described the demographics of their magazines, the stories they run, the stories they're looking for, the freelance opportunities, and the rates.

Good Housekeeping and Redbook start at $1.25 a word, and can go up. Mirabella's contracts say $1.50 a word, but they can change it, said Abraham. Roy couldn't give a word rate, because Redbook stories are long and condensed to half the size, but payments are in the same range. About 30% of Mirabella's writers are new, and 30% of Redbook's, but Self is hard to break into unless you have a good medical background. All of them now have web sites with selected articles.

Stories on smoking and health are not a taboo, the editors said. Good Housekeeping hasn't taken cigarette advertising since the 1950s, and they regularly discuss smoking and health, with a special article on passive inhalation a year ago. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association listed the percentage of cigarette advertising in consumer magazines, and Self was last, with 1.5%. Mirabella (the founder) was married to a gynecologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and covered smoking-related issues as editor of Vogue and Mirabella.


The Redbook reader is a new mom--a young, married woman in her late 20s to 40s, a working mother, living anywhere in the country, said Bauman. She's not interested in menopause. She wants to boost her energy level. She's interested in preventative and natural ways, because she doesn't have time to traipse to the doctor. Circulation is 3 million.

They have columns called "Red Alerts." Columns cover all-natural health, ob-gyn specifically, and other health.

"Articles have a voice and a point of view, not generic articles that could run in any magazine," said Bauman. "If this could run in 2 or 3 other magazines, it probably wouldn't be good for us."

The stories are "very authoritative," in terms of sources, said Bauman. "I'm looking for writers with a strong voice and skill at digging. I like writers with a scientific background," although there are exceptions.

"I'm always looking for a new medical finding that has practical use for readers," said Bauman. For example, there was a recent report on food and cancer resistance. Although a lot of it comes from medical journals, she also wants stories from daily life, like the stories on herbals.

The Red Alert Health Center had stories like: Lumpy breasts--how dangerous are they? The aches and pains of your 30s. The sore throat that won't go away. Home health remedies. Cramps during sex. Red bumps on the bikini line.

There are stories on doctor-patient relationships, and the medical consumer. Should I call the doctor? Checkups you can skip and checkups you can't skip.

Stories can be issue-oriented. "The scariest healthcare news" (insurance company cutbacks). Maternity leave. "Getting the best maternity leave." Politics and policies of reproduction, such as "Too many babies" (in artificial reproductive techniques). C-section is not a dirty word.

The mini-guides are service-oriented. The smartest way to protect yourself from cervical cancer. How to get pregnant.

Diet and fitness stories have a "very bottom-line benefit," said Bauman. "30 days to a beach-ready body." "How not to obsess on food." Latest trends.

Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping's readers are married, in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, with children or without, said Pike. Circulation is 2.6 million.

Health care has become 14 pages a month, said Pike. They cover nutrition, medicine, and fitness. Health gets 2 or 3 cover lines, and is the best read section in the magazine. A doctor runs a health column.

Good Housekeeping has been published for 113 years. Their goal was to help the American family lead a better life. They started the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval before the government regulated food. The Good Housekeeping Institute does its own testing, and develops stories out of its original research. For example, "decaffeinated" coffee actually has caffeine in it, and some coffees have more than others. They analyzed St. John's Wort. They regularly run a section on the best doctors in different specialties. They rated exercise videos.

They get involved in public policy issues, like handgun violence, drive-through deliveries, and health insurance for kids.

Freelancers can do front of the book pieces of 1,500-2,000 words, which often goes on the cover. They have a "strong voice," are personalized and "in-depth," said Pike. For example, in a story about fainting, the writer described how her husband fainted during her childbirth.

Freelancers can also do the well stories. A recent one was about how E. coli affected a family from Connecticut, whose 3-year-old girl got ill from lettuce. That story resulted from a query from a writer "we had never heard of before," said Pike.

The health report can be up to 5,000 words. They've covered alternative health.

Pike is interested in diet and nutrition. "We're always looking for a fresh approach." They don't do a lot of fitness.

The "Better Way" section is 400-1,00 words, on "light and heavy topics," said Pike. A recent story explained why condoms aren't tested in humans (they were grandfathered into the FDA regulations).


The Mirabella reader has a median age of 31, with a broad range, is urban sophisticated, and concentrated on the coasts, said Abraham. "We could do a lot more in the middle" of the country, she said. "We had a higher education demographic than the New Yorker." They do write about menopause; "I'm 34, I'm fascinated," she said. They like to write about political issues. Circulation is 600,000.

"We're smaller, we have fewer pages to work with," said Abraham. "We don't do much direct service. We tend to do health pieces about an issue or a bigger trend."

"My favorite health story," said Abraham, started from an epidemiologic study which found that the rate of lumpectomies, compared to mastectomies, varied greatly around the country. She sent a reporter to South Dakota, where the rate of lumpectomies was lowest, and the writer sat in on discussions between doctors and patients. "Subtle forces come into play," said Abraham. The physicians were older, lumpectomy is a more difficult procedure, and they were trained on mastectomy. Supposedly the patients had a choice, but the doctor would present the choices to patients with a "subtle bias." The doctor would say, "If my wife had that choice I would suggest that she have a mastectomy--but you do what you want." The women in South Dakota had a "different body consciousness." The story was based on "this nugget," the reporter's observation of a woman making a decision.

"We don't do straight health," said Abraham. "The health has to have some other in."

For example, the way they handle fat. They did a story on the LA Zone Diet as a cultural trend, focused on the culture as well as the diet, and worked some science into it, said Abraham. They've run contrarian views on diet, and interviewed Princess Di's diet guru.

Mirabella is doing more psychology, and less medical. Abraham is "particularly interested" in sociobiology. She was fascinated by the New Yorker story on the Pima Indians, which has a genetic predisposition to obesity and diabetes. The story was not about the stress of a woman having a genetic test, but about "the science of it," with "some narrative drive."

Another story was about a rogue group of psychologists studying non-relational sex, urging men to put more intimacy into their sex life. Another was about a group of iconoclasts in Chicago who are treating aging as a disease; "we're out to cure it."


Self's readers are median 33 years, in their 20s to 30s, largely urban, and single, said Roy. Circulation is 1.4 million. Don't call them; they'll call you. Most of the slots are already taken, by medical book authors or moonlighting newspaper journalists, and Self seldom uses new writers. But it does happen.

"Health news is big news," said Roy. "We provide women with information they need to make health decisions."

They have separate editors covering different categories of health: Health, nutrition, mind and body, psychology, cosmetic surgery and dermatology. "I cover hard-core health and medical," said Roy.

The front of the book is written by freelancers who write for medical newswires. It has a 5-page section summarizing medical journals, all done by 1 writer. There is 1 page on alternative medicine, with Q&As on alternative practice. The longest feature is 500 words.

The well is 1-2 pages or more. In October, they had a special section on breast cancer, with 2 features and a 16-page handbook.

They had a feature on "The New American Medicine," which was about alternative medicine. "Most people are either true believers or write it off. We'll try to take the middle ground," said Roy.

The middle of the book is 2,500-3,000 words, with 3-6 sidebars or charts. After the redesign, "there's no place for the 1,000-word piece any more," said Roy.

"I have a network of stringers," said Roy. They are "writers with expertise in health and medicine, who have written books or written medical columns for newsletters." They cover medical meetings, "submit written reports, and we read them very carefully."

"We subscribe to 50 health and medical newsletters, including the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association," and follow the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, said Roy. They get thousands of press releases. A book editor follows the new books.

So if you read about something new in JAMA, they know it already, said Roy.

Stories are based on these sources. They either turn it over to one of their regular writers, or to a writer with expertise, usually someone who is writing a book, said Roy.

"It's very hard to break into Self," said Roy.

But one freelancer, who was at the ASJA meeting, submitted a proposal which Roy accepted. "She queried 2,500 words, and I assigned her 500." She was a woman who had "personal knowledge" of the subject.

--Norman Bauman