Why can’t independent feminist websites stay afloat?

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In the beginning, news websites had advertising.

But for the news industry as a whole, relying on advertising as a revenue model is no longer as sustainable as it was. News organizations have to compete for eyeballs online, and that competition gets harder all the time. As a result, other ways of attracting revenue—like subscriptions and memberships—are being tested with varying degrees of success.

This has created an environment where job stability for journalists is rare, news about layoffs is not uncommon, and sites are often fighting just to stay afloat. And seemingly, since the beginning, independent, feminist media publications have had some of the biggest struggles in this ecosystem.

Just since 2018, the Establishment, the Riveter magazine, and Rookie Mag—all beloved, independent online spaces—were forced to shut down. And other sites pushing feminist-lensed content toward female audiences, including some under umbrella companies, are forced to find creative ways to keep running. Broadly operated for about four years within Vice Media’s portfolio of sites and was shuttered in May. It’s now part of Vice.com and the site’s identities section. 

There are interconnected problems—from revenue struggles to conflicting management interests—that are eliminating spaces for important journalistic voices and publishers, including that of feminist, independent media. These sites tend to cover issues through an essential analytical lens that might not be found on other sites geared toward women. To continue to lose these voices and online spaces is to deprive the modern-day feminist movement of vital discussions. 

The Establishment published stories about a variety of topics, including period sex, an introduction to the anti-racism movement, and how to end rape culture during its three-and-a-half-year-run that ended in April. By its own account, the site published “more than 4,000 stories by more than 900 writers,” often by writers sidelined by mainstream media. But after trying a variety of strategies—like subscriptions, gated content, and creating events—its creators never found a sustainable revenue model, per the site’s farewell post

Rookie Mag, founded in 2011 by then-teenager Tavi Gevinson, was geared toward a predominantly teen audience. Its style was DIY-inspired, and content was centered around a monthly theme. Rookie also published a Rookie Yearbook series (basically, a hardcover book version of its website) before closing in November because “Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable,” Gevinson wrote in the last editor’s letter. She also announced her decision not to move forward with funding options like asking for reader donations or including investors. 

2018 also saw the shuttering of the Riveter magazine, home to long-form stories covering topics like books, women in politics, and Q&As with diverse voices. Co-founders Joanna Demkiewicz and Kaylen Ralph ran the magazine for five years while working full-time jobs and without paying themselves. In the site’s early stages, fellow journalism students contributed to the magazine for free. According to Demkiewicz, the fact that they couldn’t always pay for content in the early days was something that both founders weren’t happy with.

“We wanted to try and create a business model that did not rely on advertising,” Ralph told the Daily Dot. “Our business model was completely driven by subscriptions, and though I think that is still a very admirable method, it didn’t really allow us to scale proportional to the interest people had in our product. Nor did it allow us … to competitively pay writers for the type of work we wanted to publish.”

Ultimately, the lack of money was a big factor in the Riveter’s farewell. Demkiewicz told the Daily Dot in an email,Simply put, we weren’t able to establish a financial and business model to support ourselves or our staff, or consistently and competitively support our contributors. We wanted to cease print and online publication before it reached a point where we would be cutting our originally established—and modest, comparatively—corners.”

It’s not easy for legacy or independent media sites to stay afloat financially, even if the target audience isn’t female-identifying. According to Erica Gruen, however, women tend to be bigger media consumers than men, and there are many ways for advertisers to reach them. Gruen is a principal at Quantum Media and television, advertising, and digital media veteran. 

The current media landscape means that competition for advertising dollars is fierce across platforms, she explained.   

“I think really the name of the game … when looking to make money off of advertising is basically volume of viewers,” Gruen said. “If you don’t have enough people, it’s not just the content of what you’re doing but it’s the actual share, raw number of people that you have accessing your content.”

Even with loyal readership, feminist-driven sites are faced with funding problems that threaten their futures, too.

Last year, Wear Your Voice Mag, a site that calls itself “intersectional feminist media,” almost closed because founder and CEO Ravneet Vohra had run out of money, after five-and-a-half years, for the self-funded venture. She told the Daily Dot that the online magazine was saved by donations from readers who answered the call for support. 

As Vohra described it over the phone, the online publication centers the stories of queer, trans, Black, indigenous, people of color. She started the site in 2013, having grown up of Indian heritage in the U.K. and not seeing herself represented in mainstream media, feeling that there were crucial conversations that needed to be had. She said once her daughter was born, she “realized that the world I was bringing her into just hadn’t changed from the world that I lived in.” 

Now Vohra has secured one outside investor, billionaire and Shark Tank mogul Mark Cuban, and is looking to establish partnership deals with different corporations and nonprofits, among other initiatives. One recent example was the Summer of Sex campaign, launched in July in partnership with Planned Parenthood, through which Wear Your Voice Mag is publishing Planned Parenthood-sponsored stories on sex and marginalized voices. Vohra said Cuban has been supportive. 

READ MORE:

The Riveter and Wear Your Voice Mag were both founded in 2013, but a longer online presence isn’t necessarily a factor that determines financial stability. 

Autostraddle was co-founded in 2009 by Riese Bernard and Alexandra Vega, following the creation of a virtual community that followed Bernard’s blogs about the cornerstone Showtime series The L Word. Autostraddle has been operational for a decade, and it’s self-described as “an intelligent, hilarious & provocative voice and a progressively feminist online community for multiple generations of kickass lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends).” 

But Bernard—Autostraddle’s CEO, CFO, and editor-in-chief—told the Daily Dot that last year, she doubted how much longer she could keep up the pace of work with an overworked managing editor. 

“We definitely need more money coming in so that we can hire more staff to support us because we’re like almost literally dying a lot of the time,” Bernard said. By her account, she still mails handwritten packages to subscribers on a monthly basis, and later this year, the site will be conducting a large-scale fundraising campaign. 

Bernard wrote in an email that the future of Autostraddle largely depends on the success of the campaign, which includes explaining to potential donors why the fundraising is needed and how the money raised would be used. 

Insufficient funds have also threatened the existence of Bitch Media, an independent, nonprofit, feminist media organization that was founded as a zine in 1995. Bitch Media went online in 1997 and was established as a nonprofit in 2001. For the first six years, the Bitch team had worked full-time jobs in addition to running the publication. In 2001, Bitch began to pay its staff and rebranded in 2008 as a multimedia organization, founder Zeisler wrote in an email. The organization covers topics including body positivity, femininity, government policies, and activism. Like the Riveter did when it operated, Bitch publishes a print magazine along with web content. 

To establish different revenue streams and build community, according to co-founder Zeisler, Bitch couldn’t just be a website and a magazine. One of the most visible initiatives, a membership program that makes the paying members stakeholders, was launched in 2009.

“Money has always been our chief struggle and it’s been difficult to operate without a fraction of the resources that we see in other verticals that are targeted to women and sort of incorporate feminism,” Zeisler said. “But at the same time, for us that has been a choice based on the idea that we can’t truly be a feminist site that critiques the way media relates to, and stereotypes and targets women, we can’t do that working within the system that depends on outside revenue and ownership.”

It’s not just existential dilemmas that are affecting feminist media: Poor management is likewise hurting the morale and positioning of long-trusted publishers. And there are cases where men are at the helm of feminist sites, which leads to the question of who gets to have a voice in digital, feminist media. It’s complicated.

Jezebel is a feminist site on celebrity, politics, and more that operates under G/O Media, which acquired Gizmodo Media Group and the Onion earlier this year. The Daily Beast reported that the new G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller allegedly suggested to Jezebel’s Editor-in-Chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd that the site’s slogan should be changed from “A Supposedly Feminist Website” to “We Champion Women.” The slogan change was not a popular idea, according to the Daily Beast, because “the site has built a brand differentiating between actual feminism and the corporate, shallower brand of feminism the slogan suggested.” 

Spanfeller has apparently run afoul of many of the high-level staffers that work for different sites within the company that Jezebel is a part of. (Shepherd did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.) Megan Greenwell, the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, Jezebel’s sister site, quit this month because she had been “repeatedly undermined, lied to, and gaslit,” amid other issues with company leadership, the Daily Beast reported.  

There’s also the dynamic between consumer-driven feminism and mission-driven feminism, to echo the terms used by Zeisler of Bitch Media. Marketing and feminism are intertwined to market and sell “empowering products” to individuals, sometimes called femvertising.

I don’t think that consumer feminism or feminism that focuses on things that aren’t specifically activism—it’s not that I don’t think that there’s any value in those things,” Zeisler told the Daily Dot over the phone. “But it does underscore the idea that when people talk about feminism they want to talk about the easy aspects of it and not the really complex aspects that are having tangible, demonstrable effects on our lives, our politics, our economy, etc.”

As feminism and empowerment have entered the mainstream and become a marketing strategy, what happens to the critical analysis?

As independent, feminist media deals with the realities of the landscape overall and its relationships with advertisers, there are no easy answers for how these media sites can prosper in the future. But there are lessons to learn.

According to Zeisler, it’s important for independent, feminist publishers to show that they are mission-driven and to have open conversations with netizens about funding. 

Gruen said she sees big changes happening in advertising and online media. “The original birth of newspapers and radio was basically free and supported by advertising and I think that advertising model is slowly going away,” she said. “We’re not gonna think in the future of media as being a vehicle for ads. It’ll be supported in some other way.” 

All of the responsibility doesn’t fall on the independent publications, however. One of the Riveter’s co-founders, Demkiewicz, told the Daily Dot over the phone that “investors need to show up and change their investing behavior or patterns.” At the same time, she said, mentors “need to show up and offer support, resources, and training to women, queer folx, nonbinary folx, trans folx, and people of color who have a vision for consistent, dynamic, and equitable media. Both parties—investors and mentors—need to be open to helping establish new models and ways of approaching news and storytelling.

Demkiewicz added: “Magazines need more money, but they also need leaders with integrity.”