Sandra Yates – Sassy magazine

Sandra Yates’ career in magazine publishing is truly impressive: she led highly-regarded feminist magazine Ms to its highest ever circulation, and did the same for the Australian version of Time Magazine. She’s a prominent member of way too many boards (UNICEF, Musica Viva, Australian Council for Women), and in the late ‘80s floated her company Matilda Publications Inc. on Wall Street for a cool twenty million. Perhaps her strongest legacy, though, is launching Sassy, an LA-based magazine for teenage girls which housed whip-smart writing, possessed a natural air of indie-cool, took a liberal, informed stance on sex and drugs, and was actually steered by women in their twenties: all anomalies in the teen-mag universe at the time. Sandra Yates talks to The Monument’s Nathan Jolly about the lasting legacy of the magazine she launched in 1988. 

What was the landscape like at the time of Sassy’s inception in regards to magazines marketed at teenage girls?
There were three titles aimed at teenage girls in the US market place in the late ‘80s.  The largest by far was Seventeen, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and edited by a 60-year-old former nun. All three were written by people much older than their target audience. Art direction was very busy – lots of tiny, brightly coloured pictures.

Did you know [Editor] Jane Pratt before Sassy magazine?  How did you become aware of her?
Jane Pratt was located by the search firm we hired to find an editor for Sassy. At the time she was working for a very small teen title. She was the only candidate who was under 30, knew the names of all the best indie bands, and looked and sounded the part.

The magazine had a very odd staffing structure: half Australian, half American?  How did this work from a practical point of view?  What were the reasons behind such a structure.
The editor, all the writers, and the great majority of Sassy’s staff were American.  The Art Director, Cheryl Collins, was Australian, because when Jane visited Australia to learn all about Dolly, she was hugely impressed with Cheryl and insisted she come to work on Sassy.  Cheryl’s assistant, Neil McCutcheon, eventually joined her in New York.  The head of Ad Sales was Australian, as were several of the administrative staff – whose role it was to protect the Fairfax investment.  Certainly the structure was never divided by where people came from, and proportionately the overwhelming number of staff members on both Sassy and Ms were American.

How hands on were you with directing Jane throughout the first year?  Did you clash over editorial decisions at all?
Although I always wanted to know what the main stories would be for each issue, and signed off on every cover, I did not interfere with the day-to-day editorial direction of the magazine.  With the benefit of hindsight I should probably have interfered a bit more!  Jane and I clashed only once over editorial content – she had included a question from a reader which was basically “If I let my boyfriend come in my mouth, can I still get AIDS?” This was during the advertiser boycott, and the question struck me as needlessly provocative! (Still does!) We had to reprint an eight-page section of the magazine to ensure the offending question came out.

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One of the best Cobain/Love interviews.

What are you most proud of in regards to Sassy?
I remain enormously proud of Sassy – I think the editorial product was first rate, and I really admired the terrific young women who produced it. I’m also proud of the fact that my partner, Anne Summers and I, were able to raise $20 million on Wall St to buy out Ms and Sassy, when Warwick Fairfax put the magazines up for sale.

Do you feel the landscape has changed since ’88-’89 in regards to the balance of female/male publishers?
Magazine publishing has always been a good career path for women – was then, and from my observation, still is.

You were also instrumental in driving up circulation of Ms magazine.  What things from Ms did you carry over to Sassy?
We increased Ms circulation by providing more relevant, contemporary editorial – there was very little cross-over between the two titles (except, of course, in back-room operations, such as circulation and distribution).

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Is it true Sassy was based on Dolly?  Or is this overstating things?
Without Dolly there would have been no Sassy. Sassy was the US version of Dolly – it evolved over its brief lifetime to more directly reflect the US experience of teenage girls, but Sassy owed its existence to its Australian heritage.  Jane spent six weeks in Australia working with the Dolly team before returning to New York to prepare the launch of Sassy.

Sassy has obviously had a lasting influence, its effects are still being felt in regards to publications like Yen, Frankie through to things like Jane [Pratt]’s XO Jane. Was the initial goal to change the landscape for teenage magazines aimed at girls or were the goals less grand.
I don’t think any of us realized how unique Dolly was until I began the research that led to Sassy’s creation. These days the notion that magazines should be written by people who have something in common with their target audience would be regarded as an oxymoron. Dolly was the only teenage magazine being written by young women for young women, addressing all the things young women were interested in – we looked at teen magazines in UK, USA and Japan, and there was nothing like Dolly – so we knew that a US version of Dolly, in such a large market, was potentially a game-changer.

In the early days did you receive much negative feedback, due to the strong feminist leanings and liberal attitudes towards sex, drugs, etc.
Yes – although proportionately the thousands of letters that poured in from Sassyreaders convinced us we had to persist.

When Lang took over publishing (in October ’89), did you completely cut ties with the magazine?  Did you follow its progress through to its demise (in ’96) or were you focused on over things?
I cut my ties with the magazine when Lang took over publishing, although of course I have always remained interested in all things Sassy – it’s certainly the most exciting thing I ever did in career terms.

Finally, how do you feel about the current media landscape?  Do you feel young women have a stronger/weaker voice than back when Sassy was thriving?  Are there any publications at the moment that you feel share a similar spirit to Sassy?
I feel sad for my many colleagues in the media industry who are worried about their futures. Women’s magazines in particular. Perhaps as a result of my eleven year as Chair of Sydney Writers’ Festival, I read much more contemporary fiction than magazines these days.

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