6 Reasons Reader Support Is Independent Media’s Only Shot at Survival

If you’re here reading this, you’re probably familiar with Autostraddle and our history as an independent queer media outlet, but maybe not. Autostraddle’s been surviving as a small, indie, queer and feminist publication since 2009, when Autostraddle was founded during an economic recession. In all those years, we’ve made it work, but Autostraddle has never escaped the ever-present threat of closing down. Our experience does not exist in a vacuum. We’re not the only independent media outlet out there, but we think there is one thing we all have in common — and that’s that reader support is the absolute only way for indie media to survive. We’re past the age where we can expect content for free, because the thing is, for this content to be made ethically and sustainably, we need support, and that support can only come from you, the reader.

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1. It’s Far Too Easy to Lose the Places and Publications You Love

We’ve all seen some of our favorite lesbian and queer spaces disappear or fade into shadows of their former selves over the years, and especially this past year. We’ve lost spaces for us and our voices, from publications to bars — like a coffee shop I once visited frequently that wasn’t explicitly queer but was somehow always 99% populated by LGBTQ folks. When AfterEllen shut down in 2016 (before it was bought by TERFs), Heather and Riese mourned its passing. Even then, five years ago, Riese spoke to what we’re still talking about now:

“There is only one way for sites like ours to survive and it is with your support. If you can’t join A+ or buy merch or donate, share our content on Facebook or other social media, or do your online shopping at Amazon or Wildfang or Babeland or wherever through our links. Tell your friends about us. Leave comments that bring joy to the hearts of our under-paid writers. I’m proud that we still exist, but we’re often on the brink of not existing anymore, and this job has never been easy. It’s always a struggle. But we love this work, we love you, and we are more determined than ever to do everything we can not to leave you. Also because I have abandonment issues.”

Autostraddle’s worked really really hard over the years to make sure that our writers and team are paid more fairly and we keep this goal centered in our budgeting. But the rest? It’s the same. We’re always at risk of disappearing.

The thing about losing queer spaces and publications is that when we lose those resources, the people who need them are still here. If you get rid of a queer indie publication, the queer people who read it remain, just now without a space we needed. If we lose a feminist space, one that validates abusive cis men is not a substitute. We’re just left less connected, more isolated. These publications don’t disappear because there isn’t demand — they disappear because they’re starved of resources.

2. This Is Because Capitalist, Heteropatriarchal Interests Don’t Want Independent Media to Survive

I know that you know this, but, at the risk of sounding like some cisbrodude, the financial starvation of independent media under capitalism is a feature, not a bug.

Independent media is inextricably linked with independent thought, criticism, and community. If we can shout out Bitch Media for a second here, their whole thing is looking at society and culture through a feminist perspective, and not taking what we’re fed at face value. At Autostraddle, our writers engage with every topic — from celesbian vapid fluff to TV recaps to pop culture commentary — from a critical lens and queer perspective. We don’t churn out pointless clickbait to artificially drive up numbers for advertisers. We know our readers look to us, because our voices aren’t easily found anyplace else. Last summer, when uprisings for Black lives swept the United States, Autostraddle stopped our regular coverage for two weeks to solely focus on educating our community about prison abolition, teaching each other how to practice community care for those most vulnerable instead of calling the cops, and stripping down our own queer and trans histories back to the radical roots of our Pride in a series edited by our Trans Subject editor Xoai Pham. We regularly publish compassionate, thoughtful queer analysis of US and world politics, along with personal essays that stick to the ribs of our readers long after they’ve clicked away. We publish columns to help our community feel held and seen, that build skill sets and offer romantic advice, pieces to make you think, and reminders again and again and again that the status quo is NOT okay — instead we’re cultivating hope and laying down some bricks for building queer futures.

This is the nature of independent media. We’re serving queer communities, the communities of LGBTQ women and trans people of all genders — but independent media, across the board, exists to call the status quo into question, motivate change and mobilize resistance. If it didn’t, would the world need organizations like the Media Development Investment Fund — who specialize in supporting the growth of independent news and media organizations in countries without a significant free press? Let’s cast aside any illusion that MDIF’s reasoning for financially supporting independent media doesn’t also apply to the United States:

“One of the most effective ways for governments to stifle criticism is to starve independent news businesses of finance – news outlets that don’t have capital to grow are condemned to die, unable to compete with competitors subsidized by politicians and oligarchs. In many countries, the only capital available comes with strings attached: investment in return for editorial influence.”

And where does that editorial influence take us? Either we see ourselves become sold off then and shuttered after not turning a profit for straights. Or we’re forced to gradually start catering to cis white gay men in order to sell more ads when times get tough like they are now. I’d like to emphasize that Autostraddle’s loved working with some of our partners, like REI and Showtime, who we hope to work with again and soon. But the advertising opportunities we appeal to will always be limited as the sex-positive, openly progressive company we are right now.

Autostraddle is lesbian-owned. We’re not trying to earn profits for some larger corporation; we’re just trying to cover payroll, increase rates, hire the folks we need and make improvements to pass on to you. And the reality is that we could still go under. So could any of your favorite indie media properties. We’re good with money, but we are a specific space for a specific community (YOU) and we will never have the same broad financial appeal as, for example, a website for straights, or cis male gays. This is not just an issue we face, but one that extends across queer women’s media, as detailed for Nylon by Autostraddle’s own Community Editor Vanessa Friedman. The underfunding of feminist, queer media is systemic and downright intentional. Advertisers have meetings with us and then don’t choose us for their campaigns because of our demographics, because of what we publish, and because of who reads us (or who doesn’t).

That’s why reader support is so important. When you’re not owned by a larger corporation, they can’t shutter you for not being a good space to sell ads, but the people who don’t want us around don’t even have to be so direct. When you lack a cushion, you’re left exposed to the volatility of the world and (shudder) market forces, and when you disappear — well, “they weren’t profitable” will be the excuse.

But… I just have to ask. Do we, or any indie media, have to be profitable in the traditional sense to be needed, relevant, vital?

I don’t think so. I think if we’re going to talk about how indie (especially queer, feminist) media is going to survive, we’re going to have to let the idea that we’re going to sell tons of ads or be “a #girlboss-money-making-machine” go — just push that thought right out the window.

Speaking of the market (and the manipulation thereof), this takes us to:

3. Social Media and SEO Aren’t Going to Save Independent Media — Only You Can

Yes, social media might have brought us together. Maybe you find your favorite new publications through Facebook shares or love interacting with writers on Twitter. But at the end of the day, the real winners are social media companies and their ad sales, and they’re not afraid to throw marginalized people under the bus in the pursuit of their cold, digital cash.

Salty Mag recently published a report on algorithmic bias on social media platforms. Their findings aren’t surprising to us. They validate what people in our queer community have been saying across Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok and more — there’s evidence that these algorithms are biased against people of intersecting marginalized identities, and against people or outlets that openly discuss sex. We could get into just how important it is that Autostraddle talks about sex, but we think you’re reading this because you know what a truly radical and healing act it is for so many of us in our LGBTQ community to read, write and talk about the sex we have and our desires, so we’ll move forward.

On top of that, we can’t afford to do the things other companies spend money on, like boosting their Facebook posts or placing ads. And speaking of algorithms, we had to hire an SEO consultant in June of 2020 after Google updated their algorithms, and for the first time ever, Autostraddle saw our posts on important topics such as how-to-have-lesbian sex ranking below the likes of Cosmo articles in Google search engine results. This is a big deal. Why should a one-off article in a straight magazine outrank the library of queer information we have? We don’t know, but we have very limited resources in hand to contend with this issue, and it means that fewer people will find us who need us.

4. Indie Media Offers Opportunities for Emerging Writers and Provides Launching Points for Writing and Editorial Careers

We have a number of things we frankly think we do way better than larger media companies. For one, we pay on time. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, you can look to the freelancers who sued Pride Media for the over $100,000 their publications collectively owed them. (Pride Media owed us money at that time as well, but that didn’t stop us from paying our writers. They have since paid up 100%.)

Secondly, our editors and senior team are committed to developing the platforms and portfolios of the approximately 45 writers and creators here, to publishing the work of emerging writers and artists, and to cultivating a space that is welcoming and intentionally feminist.

When you fund Autostraddle, it enables us to create more chances for our writers to expand their work and try their hand at new projects, from new newsletters to new columns and more! When you pitch an Autostraddle editor, you’re not pitching some straight guy about your queer experience — you’re talking to people from your community.

We work to build opportunities for paid work and creative exploration at Autostraddle, and then our writers are able to take those clips and bylines and build their work. We’re proud when current AS writers and AS alums alike get cool jobs, start projects from podcasts to their own sites, publish books and zines, and become editors themselves — as Abeni wrote about in her recent letter. Your support of indie media allows us to create a workplace that nurtures growth (that we are always striving to make more supportive), and it impacts the media landscape as a whole by supporting the careers of the people you want to see holding space and forging new paths.

5. Membership Is Proving To Be the Most Sustainable, Reliable and Ethical Model for Funding Indie Media

From larger news outlets to Bitch, Salty, Tagg, Wear Your Voice, Fenix and The Brick House — media is using membership and direct reader funding to make it work. When Autostraddle launched A+ in 2014, it was a new idea on the very edge of what people had imagined would be possible; now, in 2020, we’re one of many spaces leaning into a membership model because those who haven’t are struggling or gone.

Memberships, especially recurring monthly or annual memberships, offer a stable, reliable, predictable source of income for media outlets that doesn’t fluctuate in the same ways ad sales do. At Autostraddle, if we eventually see enough members join, we’ll be in a much more stable place because of the predicatability this allows. (Are you an A+ member, yet?)

To this end, the Membership Puzzle Project has emerged in recent years with a mission dedicated to finding a road to sustainability for independent media and local news. They’re focused on membership BECAUSE that is the best solution we have right now, industry-wide, for one of the main issues we’re facing — that indie media is under-resourced.

Why is it more ethical? Because, when media outlets run on a membership model, they answer to their readers. It creates a much more horizontal, accountable, and transparent structure than “traditional” top-down funded media. YOU are the investor.

Even if you can’t financially support right now, when you engage with independent media, and you’re vocal about it — IRL, on social media, in the workplace, in your group chats with friends — you’re supporting media that aligns with your values and showing others that this is possible.

It is my deepest and dearest hope that you’re going to support indie media beyond just Autostraddle. For example, I’m a member of Salty Mag, Tagg Magazine, Bitch Magazine, The Intercept, Vox, and I’m a monthly donor to Wikipedia (not technically a publication but… also text-based and incredibly important). Not at high levels or anything, but I trust that I’m doing my part. You could support any one of the above, or your favorite local indie media outlet (or us!) and when you do, you’re taking a stand for the stories, information, reporting and discussion we need in our world.

The concept of membership is not dissimilar to everybody bringing just one dish to a potluck. Each person has a different part, and each person is equally critical, but we can’t do it alone. We make change together.

6. Indie Media Is Chronically Under-Resourced, and That Means Your Support Makes an Outsized Difference and is Needed More Than You Might Think

What if Autostraddle and your favorite indie (maybe even queer, feminist) media sites had the money other publications do?

  • What if each person on our senior staff didn’t have 2-3 people’s jobs and workloads, and we could afford to pay all the staff we need?
  • What if we had the resources to go deeper into editorial work, to put together even more special projects and original work across platforms for people to access for free?
  • What if you could read more writing by your favorite Autostraddle writers and by new people because we actually had the funding to pay for it and the time to produce it?
  • What if we could hire the business-side positions that we’ve been dreaming of to help make this space more sustainable? (We still don’t have anyone dedicated solely to advertising, affiliate marketing, live events, SEO or social media — areas that comprise entire departments elsewhere; our membership and fundraising directors are the same person.)

It’s not that we don’t have leads to investigate, stories to tell, ways we know how to make money if we only had the time, huge projects we would love to sink our gay fingers into if we had the chance — we just don’t have the resources or the means to get those resources.

On top of that, the wear of being perpetually under-resourced takes its toll. Sometimes the printer I use to print the labels for perks mailings malfunctions. Even as we’re trying to meet one of our biggest fundraising goals of all time, I still have to dedicate time in my day to battling a printer that was never meant to print as much as it does and which chews paper like gum. Yes, we’ve come a long way. Gone are the days of Riese constructing her desk out of cardboard boxes. We just managed to get Adobe licenses for a few more of our team and we can usually spare enough to invest in things like basic office supplies! But behind our slick digital exterior, we’re still really lean.

The longer you go under-resourced (and so many of you know what I’m talking about), the higher your pile of problems builds. When you fund indie media, you’re incrementally improving the everyday experiences of people just trying to make a place — a home and publication we love as much as you love — work. You’re helping to chip away at the buildup of obstacles to our shared success.

Thank you for anything you can do for Autostraddle’s fundraiser, and for indie media in general. Indie media exists for you, but it can’t exist without you, either.

Join A+ Support Our Fundraiser

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And A+ members keep the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you’re able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?

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Nicole Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction as well as aggressively gay and sometimes spooky fiction. They live in Pittsburgh with their partner, Sadie. They are also a gardener, project queer, witchy/wizardly human and BFF to a lovely senior rescue dog. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nicole has written 41 articles for us.

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