What I learned while freelancing at Cosmopolitan.
As I walked into the elegant Hearst Tower, home to many of the country's top magazines, with gleaming white floors and a two-story waterfall, I was sure my life was about to change forever. I was 23, wearing a gray hand-me-down wool dress from Bergdorf Goodman that my mother's friend gave me, and I was reporting for duty for my first job in publishing: fact-checking at Cosmopolitan.
When I moved to New York City a few months before, I had a vague but highly determined notion that I wanted to be a writer. I got jobs baby-sitting and working as a catering waitress. I obsessively read books about how to write magazine pitches, took "secrets of publishing" classes, and dutifully followed alumni networking leads. One of those leads, it so happened, led a frazzled research chief at Cosmopolitan to call me one Monday afternoon in January. "Was there any way I was free to come in and fact-check for the rest of the week on such short notice?" I burst with joy as I replied in as soothing a tone as I could muster. Yes, after checking my schedule I could be available to fact-check for the rest of the week. She told me the pay was $25 an hour and gave me the Hearst Tower address.
I was sure it was my big break. I would be meeting editors! I would learn how the publishing world worked from the inside! Cosmo was owned by Hearst, which owns many interesting publications! I would be working in the glamorous halls of the glossy mags! My foot was truly in the door!
Once I had giddily called my parents to tell them this life-changing news, reality started to set in. First off, not only had I never fact-checked; I had only a vague sense of what fact-checking was. I had mentioned in networking coffee dates that I'd like to try it, mainly because I knew I'd be a terrible copy editor and I thought fact-checking seemed easier. Mild panic set in. I Googled.
Fact-checking, it appeared, was verifying the accuracy of statements in articles using research and calling previously interviewed sources to verify quotes. That seemed like something I could handle. But another large, looming question entered my mind: What kind of facts could Cosmopolitan possibly have?
Wasn't Cosmo the mega-blockbuster magazine that features perfectly Photoshopped models with miles of cleavage and screaming headlines like "17 Sex Tips That Will Leave Him Breathless for More!" and "Why Naughty Girls Have More Fun in Bed"? I didn't qualify as a Cosmo girl. I'd never given more thought to cosmetics than could fit into a few quick and baffling trips to makeup counters in department stores. My fashion sense deeply lacked direction. And I'd never been one to gush about my sex life. Cosmo and facts immediately produced cognitive dissonance in me.
But once I entered the spotless Hearst Tower with pre-programmed elevators and sweeping views of Central Park and the Hudson River, I was committed to checking facts of any sort. The research chief I was to be working under was a tiny woman with an Italian name. She whisked me through the office, which seemed to be filled with high-heeled women who avoided eye contact, to my workstation.
"Here's the first article—it's on mascaras. All of the backup research is in the folder. I'm not sure what kinds of pens and colors you like to use, but here's a few."
Pens. Colors. This must be a test.
"Um, so is it OK if I write directly on this printout? With the colored pens?"
She looked at me, slightly puzzled. "Sure, that's fine. Just let me know if you have any other questions," she said with some hesitation. I could see the question lurking behind her eyes. "Have you done this before?" She probably already knew that the answer was no.
I opened the folder on mascaras with a level of excitement I have never personally experienced from applying mascara.
All advice in Cosmo, I quickly sussed out, is provided by "experts," whether their area of expertise is lip liner or liposuction. Any material that is vaguely health-oriented has to be verified by a medical doctor or published medical literature. All descriptions of beauty tricks must come from interviews and are cross-checked with follow-up emails or calls from the research team. And every product must be checked for correct spelling and price. Every word in Cosmo, surprisingly, is verified with a professional rigor that far exceeds virtually all Internet publications and daily newspapers.
The days flew past and I stumbled my way through my first week and got asked back for future fact-checking sessions. My semi-regular stints at Cosmo now consisted of sitting in a cubicle in an open area next to a middle-aged office manager who wore leggings as pants every day, while drilling down on the truly important life questions: Is it scientifically true that when men spend time away from their partners the number of sperm increases the next time they climax during intercourse? Could a biology professor confirm for me that guys thrust more quickly and deeply during sex if they suspect their partner may be cheating? Usually the experts that I talked to were mildly annoyed that their thoughtful advice and explanations had been so oversimplified, but they also knew that their most recent book was getting mentioned in Cosmo after their name.
While other recent college grads might be placing orders for office supplies or turkey sandwiches, my side of phone conversations went something like this:
"Doctor, we're describing the technique of a 'hand job with a twist that stimulates the penis and G spot simultaneously.' Can I read you our description of this technique?"
"Oh. OK. So it's not accurate to call it a G spot. Only women have G spots? So you are saying it's important to call it a 'male G spot' or a 'P spot.' OK, I'm making a note of that to tell the writer."
"So here's the description: 'Wrap your hand around his shaft and gently bend it toward and away from his belly button.' Would this motion would be similar to moving a … joystick? Is that accurate?"
Katherine Goldstein is the Innovations Editor at Slate, involved in site-wide innovations related to social media, traffic, and new editorial technology.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.