Before its launch a few weeks ago, frenzied reports of the coming of xoJane.com had the same gossipy, mythic quality that accompanied James Franco's academic career or, say, the birth of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt: confusion, rumor and a little cattiness.
It isn't surprising that the website's launch was greeted with such mixed feelings, because it's the new online women's magazine from Jane Pratt aimed at the audience that she helped raise, first as founder of the teen magazine Sassy in 1988 and then of Jane magazine, aimed at the 18-34 market, in 1997. This time, Pratt , 48, also hopes to include her age group, making the target demo 18-49. (xoJane will be followed in a few months by a little sister blog whose name keeps changing. It'll be "an xoJane.com for teenagers," according to Pratt, who has partnered with 14-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson.)
Pratt forged a reputation in the magazine world for talking to girls and young women in a more intimate and confessional voice than her competitors. And she managed to build a hard-core, loyal audience, even inspiring a book, Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer's "How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time."
Despite a successful Sirius XM radio show (and a couple of short-lived TV talk shows), Pratt has been largely absent from media conversation since she left Jane in 2005. Will the now-adult audience that absorbed Pratt's sensibility — indeed, it's Pratt who is often credited with the snarky, tell-it-like-it-is voice of women's blogs like Jezebel and the Hairpin — flock to xoJane? Can she translate her magazine voice to the online medium, and does she fully understand the rules of the space she's entering?
"I realized that less and less was I going to the newsstand and buying magazines and more I was going online. That's where I felt like the audience of women that I'd been talking to was," said Pratt, who brought in investors Say Media about four months ago.
"I felt like so many of the things I tried with Sassy were very primitive," she said. "I really wanted to get a lot of reader involvement and get the readers' voices into the magazine. But at the time, it meant doing a contest, waiting for the mail, then flying people to New York. Or even the letters to the editor, how long it took to get peoples' responses.... Now the technology existed for me to do it in the way I really want to do it."
In an area of xoJane.com called Jane's Stuff, readers can access video, notes, emails, and texts on her iPhone. One post was a picture of an outfit Pratt was wearing; she polled readers on the question: "Outfit good or ridiculous?" Elsewhere on the site, writers join in the comments-section conversation.
But is Pratt too late? She's entered a space already crowded with lady-bloggers brandishing the chatty, intimate voice she helped hone when many of them were just young Sassy readers.
"I don't see that this is filling a space that was empty"," said Jessica Grose, managing editor of DoubleX, the women's site on Slate.com. "There's Shine. There's Jezebel. There's the Hairpin."
As for whether Pratt's audience owes her a debt for the tone that runs rampant through these sites, Grose said, "I don't want to downplay how much Sassy affected people. But I think it would be overstating the case that there would be no Internet confessional culture without it."
Pratt herself doesn't take credit for anything that's on the Web right now, and she doesn't suggest that xoJane will start another revolution.
"Is this going to be radically different compared to what is accessible to this audience now?" Pratt asked. "No, I don't think so. Is it giving people stuff that they're not getting from other places? Does it have a feeling of community that people are going to want to come back to? I really hope so."
But in trying to hard to capture the voices of 18-, 35- and 49-year-olds, the tone is rubbing some people the wrong way.
"I am struck by how much the site seems like a self-parody," said Ada Calhoun, 35, an author and journalist who wrote an extensive, disappointed critique of the site on her blog, 90swoman. "Sassy was a character, like a person you knew. xoJane seems robotic, like it was programmed to spit out these phrases."
Even the woman who literally co-wrote the book on Sassy had harsh words about xoJane. "It has the feel of magazine people doing a website," said Jesella, 35, who is also a former Teen Vogue editor. "Do you really want to read a story that long about wearing a nude body suit on the Web?" The piece in question is 1,000 words.
The criticism doesn't surprise Pratt. "Everyone hated Sassy when it came out," she said. "A few years later, people said that Sassy used to be good but now it's terrible. Then, with Jane, people said it was no Sassy. Then it was, 'Jane used to be good, now it's terrible.' I fully expect people to say the site didn't live up."
Pratt says she is experimenting with what works online; more pertinently, she's still adjusting to how to adapt her editorial quirks to the quicker pace of ongoing publication.
"It's challenging for me to get something out there every day and only have 20 minutes to work on it," Pratt admitted. "With print, I could spend a day or more writing the same length."
XoJane's tiny staff also doesn't allow the kind of editorial cushion a vast glossy magazine team offered. There are just three full-timers, managing editor Emily McCombs, beauty editor Cat Marnell and deputy editor Anya Strzemien, plus about 12 contributors, though the site is still hiring.
But after Pratt gets the hang of it, her print experience won't necessarily stand in her way. "There's a long list of people who have gone from print to online and been successful," said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital media and dean at Columbia School of Journalism. He lists Tina Brown, Michael Kinsey and Brandon Holley, the editor who succeeded Pratt at Jane and then went onto start Shine, as editors who have made the switch successfully.
Sreenivasan thinks Pratt's real challenge is xoJane's wide-ranging demographic.
"It's very tough to hit 18-49," he pointed out. "I can see why a 35-year-old women might not be excited. When you're trying to cater to the 18- and the 49-year old, you're going to have a certain percentage of articles that are absolutely unappealing to the other audience."
XoJane has articles such as "Hotness Tutorial: How to Do the Olsen Twin Wavy Hair Thing (Even If You … at Doing Hair)" to "My Rapist Friended Me on Facebook (And All I Got Was This Lousy Article)" and "Jane Pratt, Worst Mom in the World: Sext Edition." This attempt at broad appeal could backfire online: A recent website user study says that 17% of page visits last a mere four seconds. How will she prevent people who are turned off from leaving?
Pratt said the metrics make her optimistic. "The amount of time people spend tells me there's enough on the site keeping people engaged," she said, declining to give specific numbers.
Sreenivasan insists that early criticism shouldn't scare Pratt. "It's easy to denounce things fast, but things take time to come into their own. Jane has been successful as a magazine editor, and that's the other part of this story."
Pratt isn't worrying; she said the criticism makes her strangely proud.
"I would hope that the people who were readers of Sassy would now be independent and be critical and not like everything they read," she said. "It's like kids. You want them to grow up and not need you."
After a moment she reconsidered. "Well, you still want them to need you, but you know you shouldn't."