New York Times

Healthy Babies Need Irony
New York Times
December 10,2006

At the Web magazine’s office in SoHo are, from left, Ada Calhoun, editor in chief (with her son, Oliver); Rufus Griscom, a publisher (with his son, Declan); and Alisa Volkman, a publisher and Mr. Griscom’s wife.

Published: December 10, 2006

THAT Babble, a new online magazine for parents, should be introduced by the slinky literary sex site seems at once ludicrous and altogether logical.

Sure, it stands to reason that after nine years of being sexually titillated and encouraged by the editors of Nerve, its readers have produced results. Yet in an era in which babies are overprotected and practically dipped in Purell, it’s hard to imagine people seeking insight into sleep training from a Web company that publishes personal essays by former teenage prostitutes.

“From an editorial perspective, launching Babble is extremely natural and very exciting,” said Rufus Griscom, 39, founder of Nerve Media and a new father himself. “But clearly there’s an element of irony to it.”, set to begin on Tuesday, aspires to appeal to educated, culturally engaged urban hipsters who are knee-deep in baby gear and seeking not just advice but the humor in it all.

“We’ve found that there are a lot of taboos around parenting, as much as we felt there were around sex when we launched Nerve,” Mr. Griscom said. “There are a lot of things you can’t say, like, ‘We wanted a girl, but we got a boy.’ Or, ‘We’re pregnant with a third, but we don’t know if we want it.’ ”

Babble, he says, will say it, and with wit and style. Or at least with irreverence.

The site, which will be updated almost daily and feature interactive community-building features like video sharing and message boards, will attempt to cater to its prospective audience’s sensibility by mixing low-brow and high — archly observed commentaries on Kelly Ripa’s children or the latest wacky gadget for harried moms and literary satire with contributions by A-list writers, such as the novelist Walter Kirn and the screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson.

And the indie band Mates of State has been invited to chronicle the experience of taking the toddler daughter of its keyboardist and its drummer on tour.

But if Babble is to succeed, the site must do more than overcome its association with its naughty sister. Store shelves and library archives are filled with current and departed parenting magazines, and today the Web is full of mommy and daddy blogs, message boards like UrbanBaby and social networking sites like Maya’s Mom and MothersClick.

Some numbers are in Babble’s favor. Seventy-eight percent of women ages 30 to 44 are mothers, according to Census data from 2004. It’s clear that men — a big target readership of both Nerve and Babble — are more attentive to their children than previous generations. A study by the University of Maryland released in October, “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” found that married fathers spent 6.5 hours a week on child care in 2000, up from 2.6 hours in 1965.

This is also a generation that sees raising children a bit differently from the way it is portrayed in most parenting magazines. Many have a knee-jerk skepticism toward mainstream corporate parenting culture and a determined reluctance to give up the vestiges of their own youths.

“This is a new generation of parents who are interested in taking their existing lifestyle, sense of self and priorities into parenting, as opposed to checking them at the parenthood door,” said Julia Beck, founder of 40 Weeks, a consultancy serving the expectant- and new-parent market. “They’re looking for ways to infuse their personality and aesthetic into this new phase of life, and all this new lifestyle parenting media reflects that.”

Ada Calhoun, 30, a mother to 3½-month-old Oliver and Babble’s editor in chief, intends to avoid the fear and didacticism she sees as endemic to the parenting magazine category. Rather than issue a dictum on whether to circumcise, for example, the site will post a range of opinions by a variety of experts, and a brief “Babble” take on the issue, encouraging readers to decide for themselves.

Not everyone believes that what Babble is setting out to do is all that radical. “It’s not as if this is a new idea,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, a founder and an editor of Brain, Child, a magazine that reaches 36,000 readers, three-quarters of them paid subscribers. “The whole ironic absurdity of parenting, absence of dewy-eyed-sentimentalism thing is what the mother-lit movement — starting with Mothers Who Think on Salon and the ‘momoir’ genre — has been doing for the past 10 years.”

Still, Ms. Wilkinson says, “If Babble can get men to read it in anything close to the numbers women do, that will be a real feat.”

Greg Allen, 39, whose blog for new dads, DaddyTypes, attracts up to 300,000 visits a month, thinks the audience is there. “A lot of dads want to get involved in all aspects of raising their kids, but feel they’re ignored by the people who make baby products and by the parenting media,” he said. He will soon be a columnist for Babble.

But magazines for dads have a tarnished pedigree. Three that started since 2001 — Dads, Offspring and Real Dad — closed after just a few issues.

Mr. Griscom said that Babble is not aiming for elitism. “We do not intend for this to be a little literary magazine,” he said. “We intend for it to be wildly commercially successful.” To do so, Babble’s executives said, they need an audience of two million to three million readers a month.

Mr. Griscom said that Nerve is profitable, with a projected profit margin of 20 percent on more than $3 million in revenue this year. But half its revenue stems from personal ads and subscriptions, neither to be offered on Babble.

This leaves the magazine dependent on advertising, and a much smaller percentage of revenue is expected to come from licensing and publishing deals.

According to Denise Fedewa, vice president and planning director for Leo Burnett USA, Babble has the right idea, at least in terms of the target reader. “It’s a very valuable psychographic in that the urban hipster lifestyle is something that a lot of people aspire to, even if they don’t technically live it,” she said. “These are the kind of consumers advertisers want to reach in order to get a trend started that will then filter out to a broader audience.”

So far, smaller design brands have signed up as advertisers.

Whether the big spenders like Target and Johnson & Johnson, companies that Babble is keen to reach, will advertise may depend on whether they are comfortable with the site’s affiliation with Nerve, say experts. Ms. Volkman, Mr. Griscom’s wife, insisted that “there will be no crossbreeding between Nerve and Babble,” with no visible Internet links between the sites.

Alan Schanzer, managing partner at Mediaedge: cia, a media buying and planning agency, said it helps that the new magazine is confined to the Web. “In general, advertisers are a lot braver with the online space than with other media, so I think the majority will be open-minded,” he said.

At least some parents seem tantalized by the possibility of a reading alternative. Deva Dalporto, a 32-year-old actress and children’s clothing designer in the San Francisco Bay area, said the traditional parenting publications are “a bit too kitchen-country-gingham” for her taste.

“The smart, edgy magazine doesn’t exist for women, and it certainly doesn’t exist for parents,” she said. “It would be great to have a magazine with more wit and a sense of humor. After all, there’s so much that’s hilarious about this whole process, from childbirth to raising a child.”