All it took was a look at the East Meets West conference last November for Peggy Northrop and Laura Fraser to know what the other was thinking.
"We were hearing all the guys talk about longform journalism, and we said, 'Let's do this for women,' " says Fraser, a journalist and author. Fraser and Northrop had worked together for almost 30 years, Fraser as a writer for Northrop, Sunset magazine's editor-in-chief. "She has worked for me basically at every place I have worked. We've always had this good collaborative working relationship," says Northrop, whose credentials include Reader's Digest and Real Simple.
At the literary journalism conference in Berkeley, California, Northrop says they realized no one was thinking about the women's market. It was all male-focused. So she and Fraser began started brainstorming about how they could bring great female writing to the fore. "Journalism is going through a really dark time right now, and we wanted to figure out a way to keep writers writing," Fraser says.
And so the idea for First Person Female was born. The details of the e-publishing platform are still being worked out, but the goal is to publish short e-books for women, by women. "We're not going to be talking about dieting or plastic surgery," Fraser says. "We're going to be doing good longform journalism and very well-written memoirs."
The startup got a big boost in March when it was awarded a $14,000 grant by the McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneurs initiative. Out of 205 applicants, only four women-led news companies won the awards.
"We look for a good proposal, that they have a sense of their competitors and a sense of how to make their project happen," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, which runs the program with McCormick Foundation funding. "We look for promise of viability after our award ends. Our award isn't large. It's meant to validate their idea and get them some attention."
Over the years Northrop and Fraser have talked a lot about getting high-quality women's journalism recognized. "With my work in women's magazines and Laura's work as a writing coach and journalist, we know that outlets for women's journalism are shrinking rather than expanding," Northrop says.
Adds Fraser, "I have written a lot of features for women's magazines that have required a lot of reporting and effort, and then you go to one of the big boys and present your clips and they're like, 'Oh, you've just written for women's magazines.' "
When the two discussed First Person Female with colleagues, Northrop says they received huge amounts of support for the idea. That, combined with the grant, represented an important stamp of approval for the founders and fueled their determination to move forward with the project. A stipulation of the grant is that the business must be up and running within a year.
The two recently brought on a third cofounder, Rachel Greenfield, to take charge of the business side. "With her Harvard MBA and experience consulting for media companies for the last fifteen years, I really feel comfortable having her take control of the numbers and the rest of the business aspects," Northrop says.
Greenfield believes the digital world is a perfect venue for longform. "I think the changes in the publishing industry mean that one can publish longform journalism, where before the economics did not make it possible," she says. "Now that you're free from having to print it, you can publish it digitally. A gigantic market is opening up."
With startup costs at a minimum, the founders are currently developing a Web site and figuring out what they want to publish first. "What we have that a lot of other people might not have is this very wide network of people in women's magazines," Northrop says. They're working within this network of writers and editors to accomplish a variety of things. From commissioning original pieces to promoting First Person Female within the magazines, there's a lot in the works.
The founders are looking into subscription models and e-singles, and they're not sure which approach they will be using. "The beauty of the internet is you can test many things and you can change," Greenfield says.
While the main focus will be publishing e-books, the three also want to provide women writers with publishing services. "It'll be a place to go for editorial services and to work on your own writing," Fraser says. "We want to elevate women's writing across the board."
In their vision, Northrop says, First Person Female will be "a space for women journalists and memoirists where they can do fantastic work and get it out to a wide audience. I really want to use First Person Female as a way to showcase emerging voices. It's not just for people well established in their careers."
In terms of launch date, they're not positive as to when in the next year that will happen. Fraser estimates about six months. Northrop says, "We have a unique idea and a unique way of getting the word out, so I'd like to do it sooner rather than later."