Feature image via Glassdoor, caption reading: “Celebrating 100 Employees,” November 2017
this post was co-written by Riese and Rachel
Today it was announced that INTO, the Grindr-backed digital magazine catering to a wide spectrum of LGBTQ identities, will be folding after Grindr suddenly laid off the entire editorial and social staff as part a vaguely announced pivot to video, although former associate editor Mary Emily O’Hara reports the video team was also let go. This comes a few weeks after Grindr Chief Content Director and INTO Editor-in-Chief Zach Stafford left Grindr for The Advocate.
The shuttering of the year-and-a-half old publication is terrible news for the LGBT media professionals who devoted themselves to the platform and for the LGBTQ freelancers who relied upon the rates that corporate could offer for their journalism, including many with work currently in the pipeline that is now effectively abandoned. “Mass layoffs with little to no warning like this have become frighteningly common in media over the past few years,” tweeted Harron Walker, who wrote for INTO in 2017.
It’s also an unsettling harbinger for the state of LGBT digital media as a whole — if this is how 2019 is starting for our industry, one has to wonder what it will look like by the end of it.
At its inception, INTO seemed in like the next step that many in queer media had been waiting for. A major barrier had been that sources of financial backing and advertising had refused to recognize the depth and engagement of the LGBT audience — that we existed at all, and that we were worth speaking to and advertising to if we did. After its widely covered launch, INTO quickly earned big ad buys from Halo Top Ice Cream and FX, two companies we’ve never managed to seduce ourselves. AdWeek noted that advertisers considered INTO “content they’d never seen before,” noting its “mix of lighter articles and more hard-hitting pieces about LGBTQ issues.”
The fact that INTO could secure the financial stability of Grindr’s backing seemed like a new milestone — it meant they could pay freelancers the rates that they deserve and that the market dictates ($200 – $400 per 900-to-1,500 word post); that they could afford resources that are unremarkable in most mainstream media but distant, unrealized possibilities for most LGBTQ pubs, like a brick-and-mortar office, a video production crew, or a budget for a dedicated, full-time social media team. These are the sorts of resources publications like ours can only dream of; we publish a similar number of posts every day as INTO, but our “social media team” is Heather at 5 AM before she does a million other things to keep our website running and Valerie when she can catch a minute between tasks at her full-time day job.
They created content with the broad spectrum of the LGBT community in mind, effectively combating an argument often leveled at queer women’s media when seeking funding, which is that queer women are a population too small and too poor to be a viable market.
Trish Bendix, INTO’s Managing Editor, formerly of AfterEllen, told us “I can say that when I was first approached to work at Grindr, I didn’t see how I would fit in. I’m a lesbian, a dyke, a queer cis woman – not the Grindr target audience. But my colleagues/INTO’s first hires Zach Stafford, Nico Lang, and Mathew Rodriguez convinced me INTO would aim to reach every facet of the LGBTQ community and queer women were valued part of that, and they wanted me to help bring those voices to INTO. I loved working with writers both experienced and green to have a platform where they could feel seen – much like Autostraddle does and has been doing for many years.”
During our nearly two years, we created incredible, award-winning content for and about the LGBTQ community worldwide. We have been awarded with a GLAAD nomination and honored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA); we were also given a special award from the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF). We told stories of transgender prisoners forced to endure nightmarish treatment behind bars, LGBTQ asylum seekers looking for hope and refuge in the United States, and drag queens fighting for space and community in small town Tennessee. We shared the hopes and joys of the LGBTQ community, our successes and setbacks, and our triumphs and heartaches during a vulnerable political moment. We aimed to give a voice to those who need one now more than ever, a platform for them to see themselves represented wholly.
In that time, we built one of the largest LGBTQ platforms in history—using the power of social media to reach queer audiences around the globe. Others took notice. Our reporting was cited in notable publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vanity Fair. We were the first national outlet to interview Christine Hallquist about her groundbreaking candidacy for the Vermont governorship, which would have made her the first trans person elected governor of a U.S. state. We helped start a national conversation on Girl, a Belgian film our publication termed “trans trauma porn.” We pushed the year’s biggest LGBTQ films to allow queer media publications access after years of being shut out and ignored by studios.
It seems unbelievable (and is incredibly sudden!) (especially, it seems, for their employees who were expecting paychecks and their writers who were expecting publication!) for INTO have folded — so much so that some on social media are speculating that the publication’s decision to cover seemingly anti-gay sentiments held by Grindr’s president (without asking him for comment) led to a retaliatory shuttering.
The broader context, though, of the media landscape INTO was part of is that shit is harrowing out there. INTO seemed to have everything it should need to succeed in terms of money, resources, structure and a vibrant community of writers, but for the past few years none of that has been a guarantee of success or even survival in digital media. From the erstwhile fate of Gizmodo Media Group to shuttering of big companies like Fusion and MTV News to the closing of beloved, independent and queer-friendly publications like Rookie and Design Sponge to the major layoffs at Mic, Vox and Vice — we’ve seen over and over again that even the most hotly hyped platform hiring the freshest voices with the most dedicated following can’t seem to stay afloat. It’s a messy combination of factors — traditional digital advertising models are no longer scaling effectively now that the vast majority of readership engages with content primarily through social media; the opaque algorithms that determine what you see on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter are incredibly challenging to work with effectively and change seemingly by the day anyway; intense burnout and urgent financial stress (often necessitating multiple jobs or freelance gigs) have deeply impacted the lives of both staff and freelance writers, dictating what they can or choose to write; the rise of clickbait and viral stories combined with the onslaught of fake news stories predating the 2016 election completely changed the ways both readers and algorithms find, consume, and share digital content, probably forever. The list goes on. At the end of the day, the point is that it’s never been a more challenging landscape for digital media, and as always, it hits LGBT communities even harder.
We are, of course, well positioned to speak to that reality. Nearing ten years of publication — it’s our birthday soon, did you know — we’ve come to this moment with a lot of perspective. We had no way of knowing that we’d make it this long, and we’re so glad we did — to be clear, it absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt would not have been possible to do so without the deep and boundless support of our readership and our community. Foreseeing some of these realities and frustrated with the consistent lack of access to funding models afforded to mainstream publications, we began our paid premium membership program, A+, several years ago with the hope that community funding models could sustain us when traditional ones couldn’t, and we have so far been right about that. We made our goal of 3k members by the end of 2018, and for that reason alone did not have to shut down last year.
If you had asked us ten years ago if we’d still be here today, we might not be sure; at the same time, if you had asked us what things would look like if we were still here ten years on, we might have expected things to have gotten easier by now. Truthfully, they haven’t. We’re still frequently short on content and short on money, supplementing our income with credit cards or side gigs, cramming five full-time jobs onto one person’s plate, working 10 hours a day and then all weekend, wistfully discussing stories and writers we’d like to publish but can’t afford to — the kind of stories that INTO often had the chance to execute and the writers INTO was able to invest in. We were, quite truthfully, often very jealous of INTO’s resources and output, as well as the mainstream attention they attracted so quickly.
We are endlessly grateful for the support of our readers, many of whom we know don’t have a lot of disposable income because neither do we. At the same time, we are hanging by a thread. The truth is we’ve only been able to survive as long as we have because we’ve been willing to work for so much less money than our counterparts in this industry, but how long can we keep doing that?
We’ve been ceaselessly seeking out new strategies and new financial solutions, anything to make this sustainable — including options we never would’ve considered a few years back — because despite our and your best efforts, as it stands things really aren’t. It’s sobering to watch INTO’s fate, not only because we know what it means for writers and editors we’ve worked with and respect, and that they’ll have to try to find a new place in a media landscape that grows thornier by the day.
Unfortunately (and off-brand for us, honestly) there isn’t a hopeful or reframing note to end this on; we don’t know what the future looks like or what the next steps are. It’s true that advertising alone has proven itself to be an unsustainable business model for online media — but over ten years, we’ve proven ourselves uniquely capable of surviving through diverse non-ad-based revenue streams, we have amassed incredible expertise and a lot of data on a specific market and built a thriving, dedicated community of readers — we’ve done everything right, everything the editors of big publications tell us they envy, everything so many folded publications never did, and yet.
“I hired many writers who had clips and experience from AS and I’m happy that despite this corporate ownership of lgbtq media and experiences, Riese and co have been able to maintain their independence and trustworthiness,” Trish told us. “Queer women are so undervalued, even within greater lgbtq spaces, and I am only one lesbian advocating for us within the media machine. I hope to continue working to elevate visibility wherever I land next.”
In conclusion, if you are an advertiser, consider advertising with us! If you’re not — have you considered joining Autostraddle Plus?