Oh, grow up

Offspring is making a smarter parenting magazine. Is that what parents want?

Published May 31, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Anyone looking for a magazine about raising children might be underwhelmed by all the offerings out there. Comparing titles is a bit like taste-testing various brands of stewed prunes.

First there are the cover photos (always photos, never illustrations): smiling babies, smiling siblings, smiling parents with babies and siblings. Then there are the cover lines, which invariably fall back on the numbers strategy: "Toddler Discipline: The 10 Golden Rules"; "Up All Night? A 7-Day Plan Guaranteed to Get Your Baby to Sleep"; "5 Emotional Skills All Children Need," etc.

People who put out magazines about children tend to stick with what works; daring experimenters usually get their hats handed to them by the circulation department. (Of course, you could say the same thing about women's magazines, which replace babies with celebrities, and men's titles, which replace babies with babes who happen to be celebrities.) For the most part, the market leaders -- Gruner & Jahr's Parents (1.8 million circulation), followed closely by Time Inc.'s Parenting (1.4 million), with G&J's slightly more upscale Child (920,000) trailing in their wake -- follow The Rules, at least on the surface.

Into this predictable mix wades Offspring, a new magazine from the people who brought you Smart Money. With its second issue now on the newsstands, Offspring (not to be confused with the punk band of the same name) is setting out to boldly go where a "parenting" title has not gone in a while.

"One way to describe it is a more journalistic parenting magazine," says Steven Swartz, editor in chief of Offspring and Smart Money, the Hearst Corporation/Dow Jones & Co. joint venture that became one of the magazine success stories of the '90s. "I actually think there's a lot of similarities to the approach of the existing titles; the big three all do a very good job of the basics." The vulnerability gap, as perceived by Swartz (who will continue to moonlight at Smart Money) and his No. 2 editor Stuart Emmrich, is service.

At first glance, the existing kids mags would all seem to be about service, with those endless how-to, when-to and don't-ever stories. But Swartz begs to differ.

"There's service and there's service," says the fast-talking Wall Street Journal veteran. "A lot of what passes for service -- and I'm not commenting on any specific magazine -- can be pedantic and rather useless. When we started Smart Money we looked at other personal finance magazines and their favorite phrase was, 'Shop around for the best deal.' You said to yourself, 'Did I really have to pay three bucks to be told "Shop around for the best deal"?'"

"Service" is one of those words that strikes fear in the hearts of journalists, conjuring images of ink-stained wretches describing innumerable widgets, or cranking out bland advertorial copy to keep the ad pages from colliding. But Swartz sees service journalism as a noble calling -- when the emphasis is on the latter.

"If you go through both issues of Offspring, it's very much a service magazine," he says. "And Smart Money is very much a service magazine. But we like to think it's intelligent service."

As you might expect, given Swartz's pedigree, Offspring contains a preponderance of personal-finance stories, from how to save for college to what kind of Web cruiser to buy. (Indeed, the Internet gets serious attention, without the usual "Net Nanny" hysteria.) Politics is on his plate, too, with information on the presidential candidates' educational stands complemented by grass-roots solutions.

"It used to be you just sent your kid to the local public school and if they had a bad teacher -- too bad," says Swartz, the father of a toddler himself. "Now parents are banding together. They're trying to oust principals, trying to oust teachers. They're raising money for the public schools -- they're involved in ways they were never involved before."

The longer features are quite involved. Some of the best ones (in the June/July issue, a piece on vaccine reform; in the inaugural issue, a profile of a mother who became a gun-control activist when her son was shot) would stand up in any good, general-interest magazine. Best of all, the tried-and-true, timeless dilemmas of parenting journalism are actually made fresh here. Clifton Leaf's "When Good Friends Make Lousy Parents" (April/May) is good and dishy -- it even uses people's real names! -- and George Kalogerakis' account (June/July) of taking a course in how to be a better parent is honest and funny in a way such stories seldom are.

Offspring's look stands out from that of its competitors (the larger format helps -- though it might hurt them in some magazine stands). Art director Jill Armus, late of Saveur, has crafted a design that is elegant -- double-truck intros to features; amusing illustrations contrasted with stark black-and-white photos -- without being precious. (OK, some of the fashion is borderline -- but who the hell wants children's fashion, anyway?)

With its writerly writing and eye-catching images, Offspring actually reminds me a little of Parenting -- in the late '80s. Before the magazine was fully acquired by Time. Under initial editors Owen Edwards and David Markus, Parenting aimed for the high end. (I worked as a writer and editor there under Markus.) Veronique Vienne's design was distinctive, if a bit remote; the stories, at best, were counterintuitive -- and at worst, self-absorbed. (In an early first-person piece, a writer recalled taking his young son to the American Museum of Natural History, being overcome with memories of his own father taking him to the museum when he was little -- and then looking up to realize he'd lost track of his kid.)

Since then, the magazine has followed a more traditional arc. After being bought outright by Time, Parenting moved from San Francisco to New York, abandoned the narrative for the info-bit style -- and, under current editor Janet Chan, moved near the head of the circulation class. Is Offspring doomed to follow the same course?

"When people say others have tried this in an earlier decade, I think they might have been ahead of their time," says Swartz. "One of the dangers we're very mindful of here -- particularly with parents of younger children -- is that it's hard for them to make the time to read. We've got to make this as engaging as possible. And as provocative as possible, but what's more important than your kids?"

Most parenting magazines have concluded that parents don't have time to read (while most parents have concluded that they don't have time to think). Offspring may yet make some concessions to the conventional wisdom of the genre (there are, in fact, numbers on the cover of the June/July issue), but without sacrificing gray matter. Right now, they're out to prove a magazine for parents can be smart without being stuffy.

"We are definitely a service magazine," Swartz insists. "This is not the Atlantic of parenting."

Well, that's encouraging. You don't want to put your readers to sleep. But if they could just find a way to knock these kids out ...

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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