Don’t Look Down: It’s Like Wile E. Coyote Running Off a Cliff

My first job at Autostraddle wasn’t a job; it was an unpaid internship. This wasn’t unusual at the time, both because unpaid internships were commonplace and encouraged (I juggled it with unpaid internships at a children’s book press, lgbt ebook publisher, and a literary agent who worked out of her Davis Square apartment) and because without any revenue streams at the time, pretty much everything at Autostraddle was unpaid. It was 2010; still the age of the blogosphere; although Gawker had $20 million in revenue in 2010, almost everyone who made the work me and my friends read was doing it on private blogs hosted on Blogspot or WordPress, or increasingly, sort of Optimus Prime coalitions of multiple bloggers on similar themes – like Feministing or Racialicious.

After a few months of interning – emailing other websites to ask to be put on their blogroll, because that was still a thing that meant something; doing things poorly in spreadsheets – I started a new life as an unpaid writer, mostly because there was no one else at AS yet who was willing to write 4000 words a day recapping each day of the Prop 8 trials in California. I used to go to the campus center at my East Coast college (because I was in college!) to work on them late each night after the California courts closed and transcripts were released, so I wouldn’t keep my roommate up. I was 21; I graduated college and kept writing. I was working 35 hours a week as a barista to pay rent in the apartment I shared with three roommates, and I’d come home after closing to check for Riese and Laneia on gchat. My phone broke (still a Nokia!), and I replaced it with a refurbished Blackberry so I could scroll through emails on it more easily.

an old school screenshot of autostraddle.com...with a feature of Green Day on broadway of all things!

By 2012, I had moved to Michigan and taken on a vague editorial/writing hybrid role that I believe we called associate editor, and also become a graduate student, arguably even less impressive and legible as a career choice. My job at Autostraddle now paid a whopping $500/month, while my graduate school stipend was $11,000/semester; I took a third? job working at the university writing center, which was enough to pay the $550/month rent on my one-bedroom (it was incredible! I should never have moved out of that place). I would run to campus for the classes I was taking and was teaching, and answer my Autostraddle email while my students did in-class writing assignments and discussion groups; when I got back to my beloved little apartment, I’d clock into the haphazardly MacGyvered system of Skype, gchat and incredibly unwieldy Gmail threads we “ran” our “magazine” on. A business consultant we were working with, a kind corporate vet lesbian who offered to mentor us for free, had just put us on to the idea that we should probably talk to each other in realtime once a day to say what we were doing, like a “meeting;” we were trying it out, although we weren’t very good at it.

2010 and 2011 were the years an epidemic of LGBT teen suicides were sweeping schools across the US, with kids 14 and younger dying by suicide, sometimes in clusters, after enduring homophobic bullying. Riese and I were on what we grimly called the suicide beat, and I felt like I was writing about a new death every week, then going off to (poorly! I was 23) teach kids not much older. Social media didn’t really exist yet, not the way it does now; if we didn’t write it, we felt, it would be a community loss that the larger community didn’t even find out about.

We were on the verge of pioneering the idea of creating a table in a google doc with the week’s schedule so we could write down what articles were slated to publish on what day, rather than passing that information down like an oral history. A major part of my job was researching links about potentially relevant gay-adjacent news and emailing them out to our team of writers daily to see if anyone wanted to cover any of them, an email thread which daily devolved/evolved into what we’d now call a group chat; on October 8th, 2012 I sent out three links to have Kate Severance respond “wait guys i’m also doing the queer zodiac relationship guide this week right?” and to later in the same thread advise Liz “as a taurus you should be seeking our virgos and pisces for romantic needs and capricorns for the sexual needs. that might help.” (Liz is now married to a Gemini.) The queer zodiac article Kate asked about (which we eventually published almost six months later in March of 2013) still regularly ranks in our top traffic performers.

another screenshot of an old autostraddle page, now with a small fundraiser ad in the mock vintage clipart popular at the time

By 2018, I was once again living in a (one bed)room of one’s own – I had gone through an entire marriage and divorce since my last time living alone, and was in a new city and state. I had moved from Michigan to Wisconsin with my then-husband, then divorced him and stayed in Massachusetts with my family for six months saving up to start anew in Minneapolis. I found another one-bedroom ($860/month this time) a stone’s throw from the same Anoka-Hennepin school district I had reported on a suicide epidemic in; I had been working full-time for Autostraddle as an editor since 2014. My latest title was managing editor (still is), and I was lucky that Riese was starting to figure out how to make health insurance for six full-time employees who were all in different states of the US a reality, because now that I couldn’t stay on my husband’s anymore I had no other options. We had gotten on Slack a while ago, and paid for a comprehensive enough plan so that we could also host the dozens of team members it now took to keep our website afloat, from writers to columnists to web developers to full-time staff. We could create channels and groups for specific topics, like books or news or vapid fluff, and even talk to each other with our voices or on video? It felt like the closest thing to an office I could imagine us having. Towering industry giant Gawker had functionally shuttered, and its verticals like Deadspin and Jezebel were no longer the defining standards in culturally relevant digital media; between a $140 million dollar lawsuit and crises of both ad markets and algorithms, it was like the last tree in an old-growth forest had been cleared. The blogging era was long over, but increasingly the era of digital magazines that followed it was also faltering; industry-wide problems like the doomed pivot to video and the collapse of advertising meant that platforms were shutting down left and right, especially LGBT ones — even some of the outlets that had launched with enviable VC backing.

When we launched our membership program, A+, in 2014, it got a mixed reception, which was frustrating when all of us were still cobbling together income from multiple sources and barely scraping by. After the 2016 election (which Yvonne and I had liveblogged!) and the ad crisis suddenly even prestige news platforms had paywalls and it didn’t seem so unheard of anymore; everyone now understood media wasn’t free to create and couldn’t always be free to consume.

Join A+

By that point, thanks to the growth of A+, affiliate income and A-Camp, full-time staff were making small salaries, and after Gusto launched in 2016 it finally became possible for us all to be paid as employees rather than contractors (a huge difference during tax season). Still, it wasn’t enough of a salary that I wasn’t broke; I was freelance copywriting in my downtime and dogsitting on Rover for extra money, taking the bus to clients’ houses and to get groceries because my ex had kept the car. I answered work messages on the Slack app on my phone on the bus, or used headphones to dial in to calls. We were going to try out this new thing Airtable; I was trying to find time to learn how to use it while also starting to apartment hunt, because my building was about to raise the rent. We really need to hire an A+ director, we kept saying, we really need someone to be working just on fundraising. We can’t keep going like this.

another screenshot of autostraddle.com but newer!

I’m writing to you now from a space that feels both more stable and more fragile than ever before. We’ve built so much from what you’ve given us over all these years: created salaried positions where there were none; raised rates and paid a real accountant to handle the invoices; moved our merch to an actual distributor rather than a bunch of boxes in Alex and then Riese’s and then Bren’s apartment; built a real infrastructure of workflows, project management systems, and communication that really fucking works. Today I checked in about my week’s responsibilities on our dedicated channel for it in Slack, updated my projected pub dates for the freelancer projects I’m editing in the editorial calendar we’ve built in Airtable, did a phone interview with a source and uploaded the recording to transcribe in our Otter subscription, talked with Sarah about potential packages to offer a queer client interested in paying us for sponsored content, added assets to the Airtable database I’ve built to organize info about participants in upcoming sex & dating projects, worked with Nicole (our full-time fundraising director!) and Riese to look at drafts of emails for this very fundraiser in Mailchimp, built out graphics for our therapy miniseries in Illustrator, and made lists of book content to organize into categories to easily shop on our Bookshop interface. We have meetings scheduled to talk about plans for upcoming video workshops, podcasts, special issues with guest curators, newsletters and more. I have just one job for the first time in… my whole life? (Although I do still have a roommate; even in the Midwest, one-bedrooms are expensive, and they did end up raising the rent on my old place.) It feels like so much is within our reach that never would have felt remotely plausible to any of us at any previous point; I can’t imagine telling the 21-year-old trying to figure out constitutional law and legal precedent from SCOTUSblog transcripts that Natalie interviewed Mary Bonauto last year.

At the same time, and not to be one of those divorced people who makes everything about their divorce!, but getting divorced will really teach you that nothing about making something “real” or deciding you’re all in makes it any more secure. We’re doing things we never thought possible; we’re also working weekends and straight through til we go to sleep a lot of the time (I’m writing this in bed right now). I’m terrified every day of losing this, and of telling all the people who work here that they’ve lost it, too. It’s always been a tenuous ideal, a pipe dream really – but when everyone knows it’s a zany fantasy, when it’s just a side project or a hobby or a thing you do with your friends, it’s somehow easier to keep the anxiety at bay. It’s Wile E. Coyote in the moment after he runs off the cliff but before he looks down; the momentum can carry you forward for a long time. We’re past that moment now, the kid years where falling out of trees or running into walls just doesn’t faze you somehow, and you get up and keep going. Because of your support we’ve been able to build something much more significant and that benefits a lot more people, from readers to the queer and trans creatives we can pay and the creative and cultural opportunities we can give people space for. It’s a much stronger and more robust ecosystem than could ever have been sustained by the L Word or internet in-jokes or the personality cult of a few of us; by the same token, it’s not something that can be held together indefinitely by elbow grease and a few late nights anymore, either. Nothing of this size, shape and velocity that I know of has been possible without corporate money before; to be honest, I don’t know if we knew it was possible; I think on some level we thought that to get where we are now we’d need a corporate owner. But we don’t have one of those; we have you, and it’s infinitely better. It also means that we need to be a continued investment so we can do the continued growth.

You’ve made this space something bigger than any of us with your support, continued relationship-building and persistent, compassionate urging for us to be better; we’re asking you now to invest in what we’ve built so we can honor the opportunities you’ve made possible in the present and the ones we know are still ahead of us; the room we have to grow into something even better than we are now. You’ve taken us so much farther than I would have imagined possible; the idea of following our community’s direction (directions! bless us, you contain multitudes) to find where we need to be doing the work in the future fills me with peace and certainty. I’m incredibly confident that you know what the next steps are to keep digital spaces alive for dynamic, challenging queer community and creative work; I’m grateful to you for giving us the resources and tools we need to follow your lead, time and time again. Thank you for investing in this work; I promise we’ll make you proud.

Rachel's signature

Join A+

Support Autostraddle

P.S. Autostraddle is fundraising to cover the gaps in our budget left by a serious decline in ad sales. A+ members and people who gave to our 2020 fundraisers are the only reason we’re still here. Still, 99% of our readers haven’t given. Will you join A+ or give to our fundraiser if you can? (You can even get perks with your gift.) Every dollar counts!

Before you go! 99.9% of our readers don't support Autostraddle. Still, it takes funding to keep this indie queer publication running every day. And the majority of our funding comes from readers like you. That's less than 1% of our readers who keep Autostraddle around for EVERYBODY. Will you join them?

Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. additional things i love about this piece besides what i have already expressed to you elsewhere:

    + it’s really interesting to trace our history through the various internet platforms we’ve used / could afford

    + kate saying on oct 12, 2012 she was gonna write a queer zodiac relationship guide that week and then it taking until march 2013 for it to be realized is just so very the epitome of autostraddle bc we (although most chronically me) are all really good at having ideas that seem doable for Friday that are actually not doable until next summer

    + “We were on the verge of pioneering the idea of creating a table in a google doc with the week’s schedule so we could write down what articles were slated to publish on what day, rather than passing that information down like an oral history.” i lol’ed

    + “Happy Birthday Rachel!” being one of the posts on the feature image carousel and another being “The Lamanda Interview” which I stared at for a long time before realizing it was two characters from The Real L Word

    + ” I can’t imagine telling the 21-year-old trying to figure out constitutional law and legal precedent from SCOTUSblog transcripts that Natalie interviewed Mary Bonauto last year.” RIGHT?!

    also I will always fondly remember staying up til 2am to proofread and publish (and make graphics, i think?) for those prop 8 recaps as when we first really worked together on something big. you will *truly* always be a legend for making a civil rights trial as entertaining as a tv recap, but also WITH FACTS AND INFO. just perfection

  2. I work for/in/help lead a very small organization and have since 2011; there are things about that experience that I have never seen articulated out in the world until reading this. We are much smaller than Autostraddle and that changes things, but the way you write about evolving systems, changing in an evolving culture, working your ass off to do work you believe in even when it’s not clear how to draw the line from that work to paying your bills, figuring out how to talk to community about what kind of care is needed to keep things going and to support those doing the work — I feel seen in ways I didn’t know I needed. Thank you for writing this, and thank you for your devotion to this corner of the Internet for all these years.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!