The future of journalism – an interview with Farrah Storr

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Farrah Storr is the editor of ‘Cosmopolitan’ (UK) and author of ‘The Discomfort Zone: How To Get What You Want by Living Fearlessly’

Farrah Storr is an authoritative name in women’s journalism. In 2017, she was named one of the thousand most powerful people in the UK. She was one of only seven BAME women included in an analysis carried out by The Guardian in collaboration with Operation Black Vote. Cosmopolitan has one of the widest circulations of any women’s magazine in the UK and Storr, as editor, has taken it in a new direction. She says that the magazine has moved on from being ‘just about sex tips’ (a change that can be seen across much of the women’s magazine sector) although ‘sex is still a really important barometer of what is going on in the world culturally’.

Indeed, Cosmopolitan recently launched a series, ‘The Polyamory Diaries’, chronicling a husband’s transition from a monogamous marriage to a polyamorous one. The change is initially instigated by his wife, but the writer explores his emotional journey of becoming more interested in the potential of polyamory as an alternative to conventional monogamy. Storr explains that the column is about the writer ‘struggling to make sense’ of ‘this unusual relationship that had happened in his marriage’. ‘People are talking about it more and so I thought, well, we are a magazine which has always been famous for writing about sex, but actually we’ve never really spoken about this’ – ‘the whole job of Cosmo is to not make anything taboo’. The magazine regularly courts controversy, recently over its use of plus-size model Tess Holliday as a cover girl, a decision which Storr has strongly defended but which led to some backlash over supposed normalisation of unhealthy body types. This follows, of course, repeated attempts by the creative industry to reduce the number of dangerously thin models seen in the media because of the damaging effects that such images have on mental health, especially that of adolescent girls.

In recent years, the magazine industry has struggled, with print being the most affected area. Magazine sales have fallen from 820.1 million print copies across the UK in 2011 to 422.3 million in 2017. Storr is candid about the difficulties that print journalism has faced with the advent of digital media. However, she has a clear strategy to ensure the long-term success of the print magazine without compromising digital circulation. It is very much ‘survival of the fittest’, she tells me, ‘people get nervous and think “how am I going to compete”?’ For Storr, ‘magazine and digital are very different […] both have a place in a reader’s heart’ and ‘the answer is not to make your magazine, which I’ve seen people do, copy what digital does, they do completely different things’. She explains that ‘on digital you know what you’re looking for, magazines you turn the page and you have no idea what you’re going to learn about’. Storr uses an effective analogy for this comparison: ‘digital is like Nando’s, it’s amazing, it’s so delicious, but you go in there, you know what you want, you eat it really quickly […] you’ll go back again the next day’, whereas, ‘magazines are more like a Michelin starred meal where you go in, you don’t know what you’re going to get, you trust the chef to deliver you something surprising and delightful […] its really memorable and some of the things you will have tasted you will have thought “I don’t like that” but actually that chef has tested you’. This is very much how she views her own role as a magazine editor: ‘when you close the magazine, you’re like, I didn’t realise I was going to read about that today and that’s made me think differently about things’.

She is passionate in her belief that ‘women’s magazines [should write about] the most interesting conversations going on at the moment’, which can be both in widespread socio-political changes but also localised debates. A good example of the role of magazines in this respect is ‘The Polyamory Diaries’; it has the desired effect of sparking conversation, which Storr believes is ‘now more important than ever’, and the prevalence of such series and columns will ensure that ‘magazines that produce brilliant content will always survive’. Her confidence in her own publication is evident: ‘with Cosmo I don’t see any competition […] if you discover us through snapchat discover you will then […] discover us in the magazine, discover us on the website’. With this attitude, it is clear why she insists that ‘magazine editors […] cannot give up’. Cosmopolitan is always looking at new and exciting ways to disseminate its content, sometimes indirectly, and Storr mentions two such initiatives: Cosmo houses which ‘house young women who can’t afford to start their career in London’ and a sex education programme being implemented in secondary schools, both of which will likely see raised levels of engagement with the Cosmopolitan brand but also the magazine.

Storr is proud of the hard work she has put in to get to where she is in life. Her book, a mix of self-help, inspiration and her own memoirs entitled The Discomfort Zone: How To Get What You Want by Living Fearlessly’, which was published this year, challenges some of the preconceptions people may have about her. Her message is an important one, she tells me, because ‘all the success I’ve had in my life, when I look back, has always come out of very uncomfortable situations that I have either been forced into or have put myself into and I don’t think it’s a message that young people get today’. Storr’s sentiment is that ‘we know exposure therapy works […] the answer to things that scare you […] [is not to] retreat from them, [but] bit by bit you expose yourself to them and what happens is you become braver’.