Somewhere in some distant and undoubtedly frightening corner of the internet, there may already be a backlash against the backlash.
The basic premise is a simple, stupid, and unfortunately familiar one: a man decided to do something for women and finally do it RIGHT, dad gum it, ignoring that there were already women doing this thing, and despite his own total cluelessness about the topic at hand. The man in this case is Bryan Goldberg, founder of the also not-great media outlet Bleacher Report.
Goldberg decided it was time for a “women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips.” He managed to raise $6.5 million in venture capital to do this. (Bustle’s editorial team is entirely female [UPDATE: There are at least two men writing regularly for Bustle], and Goldberg has indicated an alleged lack of interest in editorial decisions with the statement, “Knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner is not my job,” but the company is very clearly headed by a man.) Maybe the reason Goldberg didn’t realize he was years behind the curve on this idea is that he thinks Vogue and Glamour are the frontrunners of online women’s media, theorizing that since Vogue had “fewer than 1 million unique visitors in June,” there was an obvious void for Bustle to step into. (Jezebel had 2.1 million unique visitors per month three years ago, and now has 5.1 million monthly visitors.) (And Glamour does include politics with its beauty tips.) Ironically, one of the publications Goldberg identified as being “aimed at men,” Business Insider, has even posted a piece covering women’s frustration with this move. All in all, it’s quickly become abundantly clear that Goldberg decided to execute a bad idea without deciding to learn anything about it first. And still got financing for it.
In this unbelievably misguided launch piece, Goldberg dares to assert the following:
“Women’s publishers have completely lost sight of which decade their readers are living in. This is a country where women out-graduate men. They are also closing the “income gap” quickly, and in many cities, they out-earn their male counterparts. But magazines like UsWeekly talk to women as though they were children, and they fail to connect popular culture with any form of social commentary.”
“You imply that marrying pop culture and fashion with feminism and politics is something new, innovative and uniquely YOURS, which completely glosses over – even erases – the hard work and vision of dozens of (female) editors and writers who have been doing this exact thing for years, myself included. … It’s intellectually dishonest, bad faith bullsh*t, and you know it. Furthermore, your posts imply that if these aforementioned editors and writers – or their publishers – just wanted it enough, they too would be able to bring in tens of millions in revenue. That’s really patronizing.”
The idea that women in media (and specifically in women’s media) could be making millions of dollars if they just tried is a laughable one, and no one is more aware of it than the women in women’s media. The fact that someone with money, connections, clout and most importantly — white cis male privilege — can swoop into a space where women have been working sixty hours a week for years and declare that what they’re doing is either inadequate or not even there is rage-inducing.
The thing is, though, that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. For women who work in women’s media — especially if it’s media that includes content for “niche” readers or demographics like women of color, and especially if you don’t have men in some way backing or funding your company — it’s a regular fact of life to roll your eyes when other outlets are lauded for content that you’ve been publishing for a long time. It’s familiar to see something that you were doing first become popular, garnering millions of unique views and thousands in advertising dollars, because it happened on a website that was in some way backed by men, whether that means it was founded by them, funded by them, or is a women’s vertical of an already established site that was established by men.
Of course, this all comes down to money. A lot of the outrage at Goldberg’s website isn’t just because it exists; it’s because he was given $6.5 million, and it doesn’t even sound like it was that hard to get. (For comparison, Autostraddle’s start-up budget was $324.) Goldberg’s blithe comment that “a lot of very wealthy advertisers… care about reaching young women” caused enough eye rolls to see from space among women in media or who have tried to raise venture capital for any project ever. His follow-up, the idea that “if we can become the largest website in the Female 18 – 34 category, then we can become a billion dollar company,” made it even worse, implying that websites already catering to women had not had this thought occur to them. It seems safe to say that every woman who has ever been involved in online publishing would also like to be given $6.5 million and then use it to create a website that would become the largest website for young women and make a billion dollars, but they can’t, because they are well aware that no one is going to give them that kind of money. Often, no one is willing to give them any money at all. As Karen Schulman Dupuis put it at Medium:
“If a woman led initiative had come to any one of these VCs and pitched their business as piss-poorly as Goldberg obviously did, with this kind of tepid writing, and storify-ing stealing interface, they would’ve been laughed out of their offices. Soundly. And with good reason.”
As Dupuis points out, women are the recipients of only 4.2% of venture capital funding in the US. It becomes less likely with each added intersecting identity marker that a woman has, like “of color” or “queer.” We’ve yet to hear of any queer women’s online or print magazine garnering venture capital within the last ten years. Isn’t this just because marginalized women are reaching out to marginalized groups, who are less able to spend money, and therefore a less advisable group to spend investment money on? Sort of. But the fact that the story is so different when it’s a man reaching out to write content for women than a woman creating content for women is telling. It strongly suggests that the issue is not procuring funding for women’s media or projects aimed at women, it’s an inability to access funding for women themselves. Clutch‘s (which is targeted at “today’s young, hip, progressive Black woman”) founder, Deanna Sutton, talked to us about the differences in her experiences pursuing venture capital than those that Goldberg apparently had:
Naturally, it’s exciting when anyone can get venture capital funding for a web site. It gives you hope. But there’s something about Bryan Goldberg’s story that really dashed my hopes, rather than uplifted them. He made it seem as though sites like my own, Clutch, and others like The Hairpin, Autostraddle, XO Jane, Jezebel, The Frisky and many, many others didn’t exist (and to be frank, those are his real competitors, not Vogue), but he also made it seem as if women were not pursuing venture capital funding.
Clutch is a site that receives more than 800k unique visitors a month, yet in my own efforts to raise funding I am told my numbers need to be higher, my audience larger and that investors are not interested in “content.” Yet, in Bryan’s case they were interested, and interested in a site that hadn’t even been established yet and a content site at that. You want to be happy for him, yet his site lacks the diversity of other women sites. You want to be excited for another site that reflects women’s views and hires women writers, but it’s telling that a man could get VC funding for a woman’s website before a woman, let alone a woman of color, with an established brand. It is a sad truism of our society that there is inherent unfairness in the system, that it isn’t simply about working hard and proving your worth, but again, it is about who you know and how well connected you are. I hope Bryan listens to the feedback he’s received and checks out those sites I named above, his real competition, and actually learns some more about the market he’s entering with such a huge financial advantage. I wish him the best, but I also hope he realizes that his privilege is showing. Perhaps he should check that before he alienates the very audience he is trying to cultivate.
We had a similar experience looking for venture capital, advertising or angel investors, which brings us to the problem within the problem: even within this conversation about Bustle’s ignorance of similar websites, there is an ignorance of the full scope of these similar websites. “Niche” and/or women-founded sites — Clutch, Everyday Feminism, BlogHer, The Toast, Essence, AfterEllen, Autostraddle, Bitch, Bust, Curve, Elixher — are rarely even mentioned in conversations about “women’s media,” and weren’t mentioned in the conversation about Bustle, even though they’ve been doing what Bustle purported to want to do — put discussions of celebrities, pop culture, and fashion alongside discussions of book reviews, analysis, and political, social and cultural issues. They aren’t even mentioned in criticism of women’s media, like Molly Fischer’s So Many Feelings on n+1, a piece which took issue with the sociolect of women’s media and the way in which communities of women interact within it while leaving out many strong examples of those communities who have those Many Feelings. A recent New York Magazine feature on the Feminist Blogosphere included a list of prominent feminist blogs on which Autostraddle was so egregiously excluded that we got several e-mails asking about it from readers. The further your “niche” market is from networks of cis white men, the harder time you’ll have being seen. We’ve explicitly billed ourselves as a site that covers both queer and feminist issues from day one, but like other intersectional sites, our queerness will trump even our feminism when it comes to industry recognition from mainstream publications.
Although it’s certainly not something to blame on the individual women’s publications garnering mainstream attention or their editors, the message seems to be that unless there’s a major male-owned media corporation or a singular male holding a briefcase of money behind the scenes, there’s an internet glass ceiling for how far your writing is going to reach and how much press it will be able to earn. It’s hard to drum up enthusiasm about the future of online media for women when it’s so blatantly clear that men are women’s publications’ best chance of financial backing and success (and therefore stability and longevity). It’s no comfort that, again, even those successful publications piloted by women are usually verticals of sites owned by men or otherwise supported by one. Jezebel is owned by Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, The Hairpin spun off from male-founded-and-led The Awl, xoJane belongs to male-founded Say Media, Rookie is another brand under the Say Media umbrella, and The Frisky is a product of male-owned Spin Media.
And although it may seem obvious, the fact that it’s indescribably difficult for women to get money to write words for other women (and therefore make money doing so, it takes money to make money, etc) is bad for the industry of women’s media as a whole. It hurts content, it hurts women editors, it hurts women publishers, it hurts women writers and it hurts women readers by giving them something much less amazing than they could be getting. Women editors and publishers who aren’t getting the venture capital that Bustle did aren’t able to send writers on trips to cover stories, pay photographers to create original visual content, pay members of their organization enough that they don’t have to juggle other jobs and deliver a less than totally engaged performance as writers or editors. They can’t afford to pay those writers who (fairly and understandably!) refuse to or can’t afford to write for free or next to nothing, which means readers of these publications are exposed to voices from a very specific socioeconomic class. And because they can’t necessarily publish the quality or quantity of content they have in mind, they can’t make the money they could be if they were a better website, the publication they know they can be.
Many women writers, on the other hand, would like to be writing for women-owned and/or feminist publications. But because they need to pay their bills, and more commercial publications that are owned by men are more likely to be able to pay, they end up writing for Bustle, or for someplace comparable. In what may be the only public comment on this controversy by one of Bustle’s all-female editorial staff, managing editor Kate Ward told Business Insider:
Of course we’re all fans and readers of those sites [like Jezebel and the Hairpin]…But [Bustle is] able to bring on so many different writers from so many different backgrounds and allow them to give a unique perspective to so many stories… we think more adding more female voices to the Internet is never a bad thing.
Ward is absolutely correct — but what she’s saying isn’t a defense of the criticisms of Goldberg and Bustle, it’s a confirmation of them. Bustle will indeed be able to bring on a lot of different women and different perspectives if that’s what they truly aim to do (although, as Sutton points out, that seems debatable) because Google Ventures, Rothernberg Ventures, Time Warner Investments, Social + Capital Partnership, and 500 Startups, among others, all decided that Goldberg deserved $6.5 million. It is, of course, possible that they would have made the same decision had Goldberg been a woman, but as Dupuis says, that seems unlikely.
Upsettingly and ironically, even when women make the choice to work for women’s publications funded by men like Bustle that have actual operating budgets, they’re not necessarily woman-empowering workplaces. Bustle boasts an entirely female editorial staff, but those editors have made virtually no comment about the last day’s online explosion and didn’t write the website’s press release, which begs questions about who the real decisionmakers are and who has real power at Bustle. Given that Goldberg made it all the way to his launch without seeming to be aware that other women’s websites have hit upon the idea of publishing book reviews, even though some of his editors have worked at those magazines, it also raises questions about how much input the female editorial staff has actually had in this project, and to what extent their ideas and feedback have been solicited and valued. The editorial staff at Bustle seems experienced and talented — their resumes include work for Glamour, Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood.com, Nerve, xoJane, Jezebel, Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Time Out New York. Senior editor Rachel Krantz spent eight years as a reporter for Youth Radio, a project for underserved youth. Senior editor Meredith Turis spearheaded 2012 election coverage for Glamour. All of these women seem experienced and informed about their fields, and are almost certainly much more able to talk intelligently about women’s media than Goldberg, yet Goldberg has intentionally made himself the center of this launch story. Needless to say, it wasn’t Nick Denton who wrote Jezebel’s launch post (it was the ladies of Jezebel), nor was it The Awl’s boys writing The Hairpin’s launch post (it was Edith Zimmerman).
Even worse, although Bustle committed to paying its women writers in its launch announcement, it was quickly made public that Bustle’s concept of compensating writers is nothing less than Dickensian. In a job posting that has since been deleted, Bustle offered writers “$100 a day, and will be expected to produce roughly 4-6 posts per day, 3 of which would be ready for edit by 10 AM, EST and the remainder produced throughout the rest of the day… A minimum commitment of 3 days per week is required, with the possibility for additional days should a writer prove themselves indispensable.” Producing a minimum of 12 articles each week for only $300, and necessarily holding down at least one other job because living on $1200 a month is virtually impossible for most people, is a jaw-droppingly ridiculous idea and speaks volumes about how much they actually value women journalists — and the quality of content they expect these journalists to produce. Especially given the astronomical amount of money Bustle has to work with, it’s difficult to know where to even begin with this knowledge. It’s become clear almost immediately that, as Bitch says, the amount Bustle thinks it can pay writers is “less than half of the rate paid by all the sites Goldberg thinks Bustle should be able to leave in the dust.”
Because this website is the best example we have to compare: it’s also less than one-fourth of the per-short-post rate we would be paying our writers, as per our 2009 business plan, had any investors actually cared to invest. Presently, 92% of our budget goes towards paying the seven people responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and growth of this community, and we rely on readers (A-Camp, merchandise sales and reader donations) to make that happen. I spoke to Riese Bernard, Autostraddle’s editor in chief, who is frustrated by what people with money choose to do with it:
Since Bustle’s announcement, I’ve been singing “If I had $6.5 million dollars” in my head on repeat, and the only thing stopping me from making a list of “What We Could Do With $6.5 Million Dollars” is my fear that somebody with 6.5 million dollars might steal our ideas. Unattractive amounts of jealousy towards well-financed websites with parent companies and ad salespeople is a day-to-day reality for me — despite nearly 700k monthly uniques and four years of hard work, we pull in $2,000 from ads and affiliates on a really good month — but this one cuts a little deeper than usual.
Our goal, and the goal of many similarly-minded websites, is to truly represent what women want and who they are, but achieving that quality and diversity is challenging and exhausting with such small budgets. With a budget like Bustle’s, I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t hired the women who are currently speaking out against him — there are so many gifted writers we’d love to hire if we had the money. We’d like to hire business/marketing professionals, launch new verticals, pay all our present writers, get an actual office, go on tour, produce investigative journalism, expand our video content, host international camps, diversify the team — the list goes on.
I think the world needs to see what sites like Autostraddle, Bitch and Clutch could do with $6.5 million dollars. I think it would look a lot like a revolution.
Just a few months ago, Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe founded The Toast, a publication not as explicitly packaged for women as Bustle but certainly one that treats women better. Even without $6.5 million in venture capital, they’ve still been able to pay writers more than Bustle has offered. Ortberg spoke with us and confirmed that, given the budget that Bustle is working with, it shouldn’t be difficult to eke out a little more.
Based on the headlines I’ve already seen on the homepage and that ridiculous PandoDaily press release, I think content is on the very bottom of the list of Bustle’s priorities. It’s a pageview mill, I think, and the fact that their (now deleted) jobs post was offering $100 for up to 3 days’ worth of work says a lot about how much they value people’s (read: women’s) time and expertise. Look, if you’re a scrappy upstart with a skeleton staff and next to no budget and you’re really upfront about not being able to pay writers right away, that’s one thing; but if you’ve got $6.5 million to spend, spend it on good writing.
What’s interesting is that so far, it doesn’t seem like Bustle has actually said very much about even wanting good writing. They’ve said (which really means Goldberg has said) a lot about innovative content, about audiences, and mostly about money. But even when talking about the website, good writing hasn’t come up much. In Goldberg’s overwhelmingly condescending non-apology to the backlash, he said:
“I should have recognized that there are many great female-focused and feminist websites out there. xojane, Jezebel, The Hairpin, Rookie… But what separates Bustle is that we are trying to reach a level of mainstream appeal and financial success that has not yet been achieved for a female-focused website with a strong feminist conviction. I believe it to be important that women’s publications, especially ones with a feminist voice, are able to achieve commercial success.”
In short, he thinks Jezebel and all that is nice, but have they tried making money? Well, they have: all the sites he mentioned do, in fact, turn profits. Jezebel in particular has done very well. What’s more is that in our experience, the women working for places like Jezebel, Bitch and Feministing have been incredibly supportive of us and, we assume, one another. There’s a lot of back-scratching, cross-posting and community-building happening within women’s media, and surely we’re not alone in our commitment to paying it forward whenever possible by giving smaller sites the exposure sites like Jezebel have given us.
Meanwhile, Bustle was never really conceived as a journalistic or community-building venture, but a purely capitalistic one. Which is why, as Sutton and many others have rightly called out, it doesn’t seem to cater to “women” so much as “white women with disposable income” — because that’s where they think the money is. Women’s stories and journalism don’t make money; publications that sell products to women that they don’t need are what make money, and the model of male-puppeteered women’s media that Bustle represents is all that’s really about. If you’re wondering what’s feminist about that, the answer is nothing.
Even Goldberg doesn’t think he can do what women’s websites do any better than they can, but he feels very confident that he can make more money at it than they can. And so far, he’s been proven right. Not only did Goldberg not realize or care that women have already realized his idea better than him, his investors didn’t either — and that’s what’s saddest and scariest about Bustle’s crawling out of the primordial soup of Goldberg’s head onto an unwelcoming shore. He’s unapologetically doing a half-assed version of what women have been doing for decades — but he’s succeeding at making money doing it, money that women’s media run by actual women desperately needs. And if it’s a slap in the face to spaces like Jezebel and The Hairpin, then what does it mean for places even lower on the ladder of funding, places that aren’t even being granted the consolation prize of angry commiseration because they’re too low-budget to make it into the big names of women’s media?
It chillingly confirms what we pretty much already knew: there isn’t much hope without money at the end of the tunnel, and without men around somewhere, that money is going to be hard or impossible to come by. We should be angry about Bustle using $6.5 million to post link bait about Anna Wintour’s thoughts on Kimye, yes, but we should be angrier about the fact that Bustle is really just a single crystallized example of what’s been true for years: women’s media is still defined by what men think it should be, and until women (especially women who aren’t white, cis, and straight) have equal access to economic resources and funding, it will continue to revolve around men.
ETA August 23rd - Check out our follow-up piece by Cara Giaimo: Underneath His Bustle: How Everyone’s Most Resented “Feminist” Website Actually Began.