Fairfax’s new women’s lifestyle website, DailyLife.com.au, launched on Monday. In her introductory letter, editor Sarah Oakes called it “a smart and irreverent take on the news designed specifically for women”, but it’s basically six more days’ worth of Fairfax’s glossy lift-out Sunday Life, conveniently online to leverage advertiser dollars.

From a business point of view, Daily Life makes excellent sense. It’s the latest brand to join the Fairfax Women’s Network, a giant advertiser-wooing machine launched last October. Fairfax Women’s Network reaches more than 675,000 women through the print edition of Sunday Life, plus more than 2.75 million women through its digital brands Essential Baby, Essential Kids, Life & Style, The Vine, Cuisine, RSVP, Stayz and Find a Babysitter.

“In Australia we know there are more women than men online, and as an audience they are moving online at almost double the rate of men,” Fairfax Women’s Network general manager Melina Cruickshank said last year.

Daily Life is in direct opposition to former Sunday Life columnist Mia Freedman’s popular website Mamamia, which is aligned with advertising network SheSpot. Fairfax rival News Limited acquired SheSpot last June as part of a reported $45 million purchase of its parent site KidSpot.

Daily Life makes also excellent sense from my business point of view as a freelance writer. Several of Daily Life’s featured contributors are my friends and acquaintances. They’re good writers and I’m glad a major media organisation is paying women for their work. I wouldn’t rule out writing for the site myself.

The calibre of editorial in Sunday Life has actually improved markedly since I criticised its relaunch in 2009. Rather than simply the soufflé of food, celebrity gossip, beauty tips and shopping that so often characterises women’s lifestyle content, its stories increasingly address cultural issues with which its readers often grapple. Sometimes it even engages the zeitgeist and sparks wider debate, as Rachel Hills’ profile of controversial anti-p-rn activist Melinda Tankard Reist did in January.

So why am I so hesitant to like it?

I’m not the only one. A Twitter backlash using the hashtag #dailywife began as soon as the site launched. Let me summarise the main criticisms:

  • The site does not truly offer a female perspective on hard news, but rather is an entertainment site with a superficial focus on celebrity and consumerism;
  • Even the idea of a “female perspective on hard news” is patronising to women, who already consume the “regular” news, and whose commentary should be mainstreamed within Fairfax’s regular news sites rather than relegated to an explicitly gendered space where male readers are unlikely to seek it out;
  • By suggesting social and cultural issues are only of interest to women, it belittles these complex, politically fraught topics and doesn’t allow us, as a culture, to take them seriously;
  • While there are well-considered, thought-provoking articles on the site, they’re hard to find within the overall mix of traditional lifestyle content; and
  • Fairfax, which controls a disproportionate share of the resources that enable innovative media projects, had an excellent opportunity to offer something really exciting and different to female readers in the online space, but instead is offering more of the same content it was already producing (in the print edition of Sunday Life).

These critiques are not unique to Daily Life; they’ve previously been discussed, eloquently, by feminists Jessica Valenti and Hannah Rudge, and broadly, I agree with them all. On her blog, Hills has also argued that we need to begin valuing “lifestyle” content if we are to combat the institutionalised marginalisation of women’s voices in mainstream media.

Of the content at Daily Life, I feel the decent stuff is found in the “News and Views” and “Life and Love” sections, especially the news features. Highlights include Corinne Grant on why gay male comedians tell misogynist jokes, and Julia Baird on how female politicians must choose between power and popularity.

Most of the rest is filler designed to placate advertisers. This isn’t to say that people — men and women — don’t enjoy flicking through red-carpet photo galleries, dreaming about a delicious meal or smiling at a throwaway internet meme. But it shouldn’t be packaged as smart, or as news.

Daily Life also got me thinking: well, if I don’t like this, what kind of women’s lifestyle websites do I like? (I certainly can’t go for Mamamia, with its weird fixation on body image and repetitive outrage at exploitative advertisements.) I’m too old to be Rookie’s target audience, but it’s surprisingly wise about cultural and s-xual politics, and I’m too young for Wendy Harmer’s The Hoopla, but that site has a terrific roster of smart writers and a level-headed, no-moral-panics approach to social issues. The Hairpin is perhaps my favourite women’s site; it excavates pop culture in a smart, original way and makes bras and nail polish funny rather than asinine. Even the cutesy Hello Giggle is beautifully calibrated to a hip target market that hates thinking of itself as a target market.

Perhaps this reveals that no one website should be viewed as the antidote for women’s difficulty being taken seriously in the media. And perhaps women don’t always want to identify with “serious women’s issues” — we want enjoyment and consolation from our online reading, too. After all, for our pinstripes’n’policy needs, there’s always Crikey.

Peter Fray

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