Deez Interviews: Meet the MEL Magazine deputy editor who’s pioneering “featurettes,” the future of brand-supported storytelling, and a men’s magazine for “men we actually know”
Happy Friday, Deezers! Today’s interview is with Alana Hope Levinson, who talked to us about her work at MEL Magazine, AKA, the coolest and most subversive men’s magazine on the internet that doesn’t rely on paid subscriptions or traditional advertising (more on that later!).
We’ve previously shouted out MEL’s amazing January body issue and dicks vertical, but you’re going to love absolutely every word of this Q&A, where Levinson talked to us more in depth about how the not-quite-spon-con model works, how media startups come without baggage, and how, as it turns out, “The more successful you are as an editor, the less editing you actually do.” Wild, delicious stuff! Enjoy.
The interviewee: Alana Hope Levinson (follow her @alanalevinson!)
The gig: Deputy editor at MEL Magazine
What does an average day look like for you?
Every day at 9:30 a.m., the editors have a meeting with our daily writers, where they pitch us story ideas based on the news of the day that they can execute quickly with a 24-hour turn-around. In this meeting, I’m offering editorial direction, selecting stories and helping refine angles, explaining to the staff why something is or is not a MEL story.
Then I get to the primary work of my day, focusing on the features desk, freelance writers, and special packages or investigations that are at the core of MEL’s editorial proposition. Part of what makes MEL different than your average online publication is that it’s features-driven. We really are making a magazine, on the internet. Yes, we have some criticism and service (the front and back of book equivalent) but the thoughtful, reported features drive the site and set the tone.
That being said, we’ve reimagined features so that they actually work online. I never really believed that extreme digital longform was more than a trend, and I think time has bore that out. I call what we do “featurettes,” which are around 1,200 words, have maybe one scene but a bunch of key sources. You get all the best things about a long feature — voice, narrative, characters — but in a smaller portion, a snack!
Applying a features sensibility to a short piece is an art in-and-of itself, and I wish we would acknowledge the digitally-native writers who nail this format more often! (Droning on for 3K more words than you need to is actually easier.) Anyways, the features writers work on at least one piece a week while also doing legwork for longer, more investigative pieces. We give them more space and time than most places, and you can tell. In the afternoon, I get to work with a rotating stable of about ten freelancers who fill in the gaps in this same style.
I also spend the day thinking about what topics and stories are going to be important in the coming months and build special packages or entire sections around them. A good example would be our yearlong exploration of the teen boy, which was endorsed by the New York Times, or our Father’s Day package of essay on drinking like your dad. Right now, I’m focusing a bit on expanding MEL into print and what that might look like.
Lastly, I do the managerial shit no one really talks about. People think being an editor is all editing. Oh no. The more successful you are as an editor, the less editing you actually do. It’s rare to find an editor-in-chief who has time to do any at all! So there’s hiring, firing, raises, sick days, negotiations, all that stuff. No one really told me this coming up, but the work of managing writers is less about the writing and more about the personalities.
A lot of readers don’t realize that MEL is an extension of Unilever's Dollar Shave Club, and there's been discussion about whether the magazine should count as "spon-con" or something in between. What attracted you to MEL originally, and what role do you envision for it to take in the industry?
“Spon-con” is kind of an outdated term at best and a bullshit one at worst — at least if you are doing it right. It describes a very specific kind of content that was all the rage maybe four years ago.
After grad school, my first job was writing “spon-con” and the client had control over literally every sentence I wrote. It was an ad, and it wasn’t fooling anyone, which is why the industry has moved away from it.
At MEL, no one from the brand approves our stuff. Part of the deal is we are given carte blanche to run a men’s magazine however we want; I’ve never even had a story reviewed or killed by the CEO. I have more freedom to do what I want here than I ever had at “traditional” media outlets because we aren’t feeding the beast of traffic and advertising. There aren’t things I can’t say because it will piss off Smirnoff. I don’t have to write an article about the new Jeep being super cool because our publisher has a meeting with them later. I’m not being sent to Mexico to report a tech story which I’ll only find out later is sponsored by a cell phone company (that really happened).
Readers and consumers are smart; they want brands to be authentic. The Dollar Shave Club's mission is to help men be their best selves inside and out. The products help with the outside and MEL helps with the inside. People who read MEL content tend to purchase more products and be more engaged with the brand not because we ever mention shaving — in fact, it bores us, so we don’t really cover it save for the occasional “how to shave your asshole” post — but because it elevates the perception of DSC.
This new business model is what attracted me to MEL in the first place. I’ve never worked at a legacy brand, because I always figured it’d be better to go down and get laid off trying something new than to do hospice care and slowly buy my time watching something die.
Earlier in my career, I launched my own for-women-by women zine, then I worked at Talking Points Memo and Medium, always with an eye toward figuring out a media business model that actually works. Have I done that? Not yet! But I think working closely with brands to make media properties is getting dangerously close. I suspect we will see more and more brands taking this approach.
It’s not easy and it takes a long runway (time) to make work — something DSC has graciously given us. Most of these brands and tech guys think they can build The Next [INSERT A 80-YEAR-OLD LEGACY MEDIA BRAND HERE] and Save Media in one year. Ha! No one has ever done built an enduring media brand that’s a cultural arbiter that quickly, and no one ever will.
MEL's mission is to cover lifestyle and culture from a decidedly "male point-of-view," which strikes me as kind of funny, since we still work in an industry (and like, world) where the male point of view is usually the default. What's your approach to purposefully crafting and exploring this point of view?
I love this question. Yes, the world is seen through the male point of view, but I’d argue it’s one that’s extremely narrow, toxic, and most importantly, doesn’t really embody the expanse of the male perspective.
When starting MEL, the idea was to make a magazine for and about men we actually know, not fictional ones that wear cravats or rank the tits of their female coworkers in a group chat. I do think there was a large white space and hunger for a male perspective that’s more nuanced and valuable to not just men but everyone. This is something we’ve seen women’s media do super well over the past 20 years, with sites like Jezebel and The Hairpin. Our point of view is super different from the typical men’s lifestyle publication in that it’s really more focused on the internal lives of men than the outward ones.
But I think that as we’ve shown that making more socially conscious content for men works, other places have followed suit. The problem is, it really doesn’t work when it’s inauthentic. For example, it’s hard to have a magazine that was built on exploiting women suddenly publish feminist content. Or, if your focus on bettering men has always been about money and fashion, you might not be able to pivot to giving a shit about mental health so easily.
Something I’ve always loved about working at media start-ups is their is no baggage; There’s no idea of what you should or shouldn’t publish. You are making it up as you go.
Finally, what's one piece or project from MEL this year that you're especially proud of?
I’m most proud of the feminist work we do. It would probably not be too controversial at a women’s magazine, but it’s pretty cutting edge and maybe even editorially risky at a men’s publication — probably because centering the equality of women is seen as “anti-male.”
Last year, for example, we did a lot of work around #MeToo, like service on how to not be creepy and support the women in your lives who have been assaulted. It was extremely difficult figuring out how to do this coverage without being rageful or condescending. But we figured it out! And that made doing this year’s Big Feminist Project on abortion and reproductive rights — which is ongoing, with the aim of publishing at least one piece a week — easier.
This time, we could easily access the kind of earnest and thoughtfulness “teaching” men about women’s issues requires. To kick that off, the features desk spent a month talking to men all about the country about how access to abortion has impacted them to create this definitive guide. Since then, we’ve covered things like trans men who get abortions and the five most useful things men can do in the fight for reproductive justice.
Don’t forget to follow @alanalevinson, and have a carte blanche weekend!