Last week, Rich White Man Bryan Goldberg announced that he’d raised $6.5 million in venture capital to start Bustle, a “women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips.” In response, everyone on the internet who has ever worked for, read, or vaguely heard of the scores of other popular, established, women-owned-and-operated publications of this kind announced that they were ticked off and confused. Why did Goldberg start this publication? What possessed him to frame it as the first of its kind? Why the heck did so many people throw money at him to start a women’s website, when they’ve been holding that funding back from actual women?
On August 15th, Goldberg posted an “apology” letter on startup blog Pando Daily, which has gone some distance towards repairing his epic gaffe, but not quite far enough. As Jezebel editor Jessica Coen told AdWeek, “I applaud the effort, but it does read like he was parroting what he was told in the comments. I find it hard to believe that he would do a total 180 and completely understand the issue over the course of 36 hours.” Former Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers told Adweek that although his apology seemed “sincere,” she’d wait and see if he ended up following through: “In terms of whether he addresses the issues: we won’t know until we see a product that really does work for the audience.” At Flavorwire, Michelle Dean excavates how precisely his apology failed to impress, zooming in on statements like “most women are completely open to the idea of a man starting a company aimed at women, and hiring a large team of women,” and citing his lack of “common sense and actual knowledge of your market.”
When I posted Rachel’s article about the launch on my Facebook page the same day Goldberg issued his apology, I got an interesting comment from a friend named Raphi (we have omitted her last name for this piece because she is currently job-searching) — it turns out that once upon a time, I’d been considered for a job at Bustle. Well, kind of: earlier this year, Raphi had gotten in touch with me to ask if I’d wanted to do some paid writing for a women’s site. I said yes, but when she got back to me a few weeks later, it was to regretfully inform me that her boss had requested fewer “smart” writers.
As revealed in Raphi’s response to my Facebook post, that boss was Bryan Goldberg. I asked her if she’d talk to me about her time at proto-Bustle, where she interned for three months before leaving for greener pastures. According to her recollections, Goldberg’s original vision was far different from the one we heard about last week.
Since Goldberg introduced Bustle to the public, he has positioned it as distinctly feminist (to quote his launch announcement, “you’re damn right this is a feminist publication”). Based on his statements and interviews, it seems fair to say that Goldberg has, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the concept of feminism — while it’s a broad and controversial term for sure, most people who have bothered to read up on the subject seem to agree that part of being a 21st-century feminist includes embracing intersectionality, questioning stereotypes, being aware of your privilege, and letting women speak for themselves. Goldberg’s brand of feminism involves “letting female writers cover Real Housewives AND the Middle East” and “accepting that women can care about makeup AND not care about yoga,” which may be why he seems to have trouble upholding those more central principles, even when interviewing potential employees. According to Raphi:
“Our first meeting was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had. We met at Peet’s Coffee and he was very intent that I call his bag a briefcase. I guess some of his friends had called it a man purse and that had bothered him. Then he goes ‘So what makes you qualified to work for me? No offense, but you don’t look like someone who will cry if she can’t get her hands on the latest Gucci purse,’ so that should give you a pretty good idea of how he was approaching this whole thing. He talked a lot about making money and how great it is to be rich, then wrote a check to me without asking me to sign anything… I think he really liked showing people how easily he can throw money around. Then he said he basically only called me because I went to [a well-known liberal arts college] (he went to Middlebury and expressed distrust for state school kids). [Later] I specifically remember talking about body positivity and him and he was mocking it… he said [redacted] was really into body positivity and he was totally making fun of the idea of it.”
Of course, he’s far from the only women’s media professional with these priorities — Vogue, W, and other publications that cater to women who will die without the newest Gucci purse also don’t tend to be notably body-positive. But while there’s nothing officially “wrong” with launching a publication devoted to things like designer fashion and “bikini bodies,” it’s a far cry from what Bustle now claims to represent.
No worries, though, right? After all, Goldberg is only the CEO — as he pointed out in his launch announcement, his job “is to hire the right people… [not to know] the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner.” When it comes to writing for Bustle, “the right people” are young women who “have spent much of their free time enjoying sites like The Hairpin, xoJane, Rookie, and Jezebel.” But why not, as Riese asked, hire the people who have spent their (under)paid-for time actually writing for those sites? Raphi, whose job included headhunting for writers, thought the same thing:
“We had a big database with hundreds of names of potential writers. He specifically wanted ones from small towns who would work for less than people based in SF or NY… he asked me to search for talented writers in Poughkeepsie or Pittsburgh or “other crappy cities that begin with P.” In one of our meetings we went through some of the writers I picked… some from Jezebel, HelloGiggles, xoJane, etc. He had them up on the projector and we went to their sites and rated them on a 1-5 scale. There was a list of criteria — ‘good grammar,’ ‘frequently updates blog.’ Then there were qualities he didn’t want — i.e. ‘angry,’ ‘man-hating.’ And everyone was rated on this scale. He told me not to contact so many “smart” writers (I think he meant something very specific by “smart”) and that many of the ones I liked seemed to have big chips on their shoulders. He’d never heard of Bitch or xoJane, and I don’t think he knew about Bust magazine before I told him about it… I told him about Bitch and he snarked on the name and said ‘advertisers must love that.’”
We contacted Bryan Goldberg to ask if he could answer some questions about the hiring process and its evolution, but after asking us if we were aware that we’d already written an article about Bustle, he declined to comment. We also reached out to the senior staff of Bustle and have not heard back, although Goldberg did tell us that his editors were free to speak with us.
We would love their perspective, especially if Goldberg has indeed changed his focus along the way and is not just paying lip service to a bunch of “angry feminists,” otherwise known as the consumer base he is apparently now hoping to target. Looking at the bylines that have been appearing on Bustle’s homepage, it’s apparent that Bustle’s hiring hasn’t been restricted to Pittsburgh or Poughkeepsie; there are many writers from NYC and LA, and many articles about topics important to feminism. Something about Bustle’s philosophy of hiring has clearly changed since Raphi left — it could be that Goldberg came around to hiring “smarter” writers, that he eventually put someone else in charge of these particular decisions, or that Pittsburgh didn’t yield the writers he was hoping for. We’ll probably never know what happened (or why) without someone inside Bustle telling us. But it’s also clear that some things haven’t changed since Rahpi’s time there. For instance, many of Bustle’s writers seem young and inexperienced in the writing industry — which doesn’t mean that they’re not great writers, but does mean that Goldberg might still be hiring based on who he feels is “willing to work for less.” (A strategy employed out of necessity by publications without $6.5 million budgets.) Bustle’s contact page also informs us that right now, unsolicited submissions aren’t being paid at all.
Furthermore, Bustle seems to have hired at least two white men as regular writers, and the generally better-compensated behind-the-scenes positions are also filled by men: both their “Head of Product” and their Engineer, according to Linkedin, are white men.
Raphi’s experience also begs the question — why would a guy who doesn’t seem to know what feminism is, and who didn’t originally want to hire feminists who didn’t fit a certain mold, start a purportedly feminist website in the first place? Was it because, as he said in his “apology letter,” he “believes it to be important that women’s publications, especially ones with a feminist voice, are able to achieve commercial success”? Was it because he wanted desperately to “try to find great voices who have yet to achieve mainstream recognition”? Or was it because of the non-compete clause he signed when selling Bleacher Report to Turner Broadcasting for nearly $200 million dollars? Non-compete clauses are traditional elements of these contracts and prevent involved parties from creating a product that would compete against the product they just sold for a set period of time. Raphi cleared this up:
“He told me that his contract, when he sold Bleacher Report, stipulated that he couldn’t make another site targeting the same demographic (i.e. males 18-34). So that was why he decided to make a site for women… he said he was hoping to make “the biggest site for women” on the web, because he couldn’t target men anymore. It had nothing to do with actually being interested in women’s issues… he never used the word “feminist” to describe it to me at all. I found [his characterization of it that way in the launch announcement] sort of surprising… he clearly envisioned this as more of a Vogue/Cosmo-type publication, and along the way I guess figured that there was money to be made in co-opting feminism.”
This system is consistent with Goldberg’s intent in March 2013 when he boasted on PandoDaily “I’m starting another content company and I plan to make a fortune.” Not a feminist publication — a content company. Fortune noted:
“What kind of “content company” Goldberg has in mind doesn’t seem to really matter — at least to him, apparently. He offers no clue. “Content” is “probably the single best venture sub-sector to create,” he wrote. Statements like that, along with his repeated references to “the content space,” and his breakdown of the economics of “content,” make it clear that neither the pursuit of quality nor the desire to connect with readers in any meaningful way are part of his calculations.”
It makes sense, as Goldberg is great at content companies — Bleacher Report, his first venture, went from four college friends brainstorming in a coffee shop to a multi-million dollar enterprise in five years. He did this by prioritizing the “company” part over the “content” — by, as journalist Joe Eskenazi pointed out last year in his exposé of the company, “valuing site growth and pageviews over any semblance of journalistic “quality” or even readability.” This is not to say that he plans on making exactly the same decisions this time — as Raphi told me, “he wants to make something better.” And to some extent, this does mean better content — Raphi reported that in a brainstorming document from early on, back when the publication was called “Lovelace,” Goldberg pledges that he won’t repeat mistakes like “producing poor quality content in the beginning” and including “too much fluff to boost pageviews.” Plus, better content can be a good business decision: Eskenazi quotes King Kaufman — whom he calls “one of the best and most cerebral sports journalists on the Internet,” and who was hired in 2011 to turn Bleacher Report’s reputation around — saying that “Bleacher Report reached a point where it couldn’t make the next level of deal, where [another] company says ‘We’re not putting our logo next to yours because you’re publishing crap.’ Okay, that’s the market speaking.” Bustle investor Dave McClure clearly believes Bustle will succeed due to its content: he told business reporter Jill Krasny that he’s “not too worried about the initial shitstorm” and that “if Goldberg is clueless about women’s issues, he’ll fail. If not, he’ll be successful.”
I have my doubts. Judging from interviews and my conversations with Raphi, Goldberg is pretty clueless about his target demographic. But the bigger issue is that Goldberg and his investors define “success” very differently than many of the the people their publication claims to represent. This isn’t a new problem: despite its financial dominance, Bleacher Report came under constant fire from media outlets and other sports publications because it was not, in the end, a real sports publication — it was a content farm disguising itself as one, by gaming search engines and “tapping the oceanic labor pool of thousands of unpaid sports fanatics typing on thousands of keyboards.” Real sports reporters were especially peeved, because people had invaded their sandbox: as Will Leitch put it, Bleacher Report “was created by business people trying to game the system, the type of people who refer to all work as “content.” They didn’t care what was in the content; they just wanted as much of it as possible.” This is a realistic — although unpleasant — market strategy when applied to sports, or fashion, or entertainment, but it seems malicious when feminism — a movement and a mindset inherently and historically resistant to the wiles of capitalism — comes into play. (And honestly, the last thing us indie feminist publications need is a website poised to conquer its ‘competitors’ with advanced SEO tactics.) If Bustle.com succeeds, it will owe that to Kate Ward and the other editors — despite Goldberg, not because of him.
In a post for PandoDaily from December 2012 entitled “Losers Exist: Don’t Hire Them,” Goldberg gave some advice on hiring new employees: “if the applicant hasn’t performed even the most basic due diligence in preparation for the interview,” he says, “then they have no common sense.” If Goldberg thinks his personal opinions, goals, and hiring practices (at least as of March 2013) are in line with the the values of the movement he just nabbed $6.5 million to represent, he hasn’t done his due diligence, and he definitely shouldn’t have gotten the job. Despite this, Business Insider says that Goldberg was able to secure funding from one source “in just two slides.” After getting this behind-the-scenes tour of the mind that made Bustle, I hope neither of those slides namedropped the “f” word.
Goldberg’s attempt to cash in on a movement he had nothing to do with and knows even less about brings real harm to the work actual feminists have been doing for years, and the publications in which they’ve been doing that work — and even if Bustle becomes the feminist publication of the future, everything the writers there accomplish will be undercut by the fact that he and his investors are the ones ultimately rewarded. Goldberg’s branding of what seems to be a polished content farm as a feminist publication for intelligent women also insults its readership by assuming that they won’t be able to recognize the same SEO-driven tactics that Bleacher Report relied on if they’re used in service of articles about slingbacks and Hillary Clinton. And for that, and for hurting, ignoring, speaking over, and stealing from those who truly deserve the title, I’d like to use a different f-word when it comes to Goldberg and Bustle.