This Business of Art

Within the past two weeks: The San Francisco Examiner and SF Weekly executed 40% cuts in hours and salary, company-wide. G/O Media laid off 14 employees. Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers in 25 states, gave paycuts or furloughs to its entire staff. Vice media enacted paycuts for top earning employees, halted 401(k) matching, froze hiring and cut salaries for those earning over $100k. Maven Media Brands, which owns 300 media properties, laid off 9% of its employees, including 6% of Sports Illustrated’s staff, and reduced salaries for senior management, citing a $30 million reduction in revenue for 2020. Buzzfeed cut salaries between 5% and 25%. Group Nine, publisher of Popsugar and Thrillist, among others, has cut executive leadership pay by 25%, frozen hiring, eliminated its summer internship program, and indefinitely suspended benefits. Gannett, publisher of USA Today and other newspapers, is implementing furlough for all staffers below executive level and a 25% pay cut for executives. Regent is furloughing 70% of its staff for a minimum of two weeks. The Stranger temporarily suspended print and laid off 18 staffers. Dozens of local newspapers have shut down, laid off staff or done massive paycuts.

Yet somehow this small independent queer woman owned website is still standing. For now, at least. If we don’t exceed our fundraising goals, we’ve got about two months left — which wasn’t intimidating to us in February, when we started talking about this fundraiser, one of two we’d planned for 2020.

But the reason we’ve made it this far is because of you, and if we’re going to stick around — that will also be because of you. We’ve always relied on you — not on advertising, or corporations, or venture capitalism. Just… you.

We rely on you. In 2019, 81% of our revenue came, in some form — merchandise sales, donations, A+ memberships, A-Camp tuition — from you. Over the past week, our hearts have warmed and exploded a dozen times to witness you supporting us, even now, during a global pandemic.

We Don’t Have Investors; We Have You

Autostraddle was born out of the personal blogging era, when thousands of aspirants were typing away for small-to-medium audiences for free with no real viable pathway towards profit. We wrote about things that mattered to us, for people who cared, and with all our powers combined under one website, figured we could do even more of that. We launched in March 2009, right in the thrilling disaster of the Great Recession. We had no capital, no business or journalism experience. In April I met a girl in a bar who offered to help us find investors, but two years of attempts yielded no fruit.

These days, though? I’m pretty glad we’re not reliant on investors or a parent company. There are good owners out there who are investing in growth. But most investors and shareholders are in it for profits, which has never been a concern for us. All of this is explained clearly in the Vaulter storyline of Succession, which is a true television show about real life.

In September 2018, when The Outline fired all of its writers and slashed freelance budgets three months after raising a $5.15 million dollar funding round, its freelancers circulated a petition which noted, accurately: “When venture capitalists, which media companies increasingly rely on to survive, demand profit, it is staff writers and freelancers who pay the price.” Six months later, The Outline was sold to the Bustle Digital Group. Last week, Bustle shut down The Outline as part of 24 layoffs executed across the company.

Autostraddle was touch-and-go for a long while: catastrophes, crying, long hours, financial disasters, personal stress, screaming, drinking — and not a lot of money. I know this sounds corny and convenient but it’s true: we kept at it because we had a feeling we were onto something special. We’re still here because you agreed.

If we’d gotten investors in 2009, my guess is that they would’ve shut us down by 2011 — a year in which we spent $73k and earned $77k.  If a Board of Directors had seen our income rise by 17% while our expenses rose by 47% in 2016, I imagine they would’ve suggested firing some people or replacing employees with independent contractors or contractors with unpaid interns. When ad revenue dipped by 39% in 2015, which editor would they have replaced with an ad salesperson? What about 2018, when we spent more than we made?

But we’re still here because we don’t depend on them. We depend on you and on each other. And depending on you means being accountable to you, and to each other.

We’ve Never Relied on Advertising

I thought, based on what I saw at other publications, that as our traffic grew, our ad revenue would grow in tandem. But in addition to being a no-go for many advertisers because we actually talked openly about lesbian sex, very few were interested in the queer women’s market. We made more from advertising in 2012 than we did in 2017! Nothing made any sense!

Because of this inconsistency, I never counted on ad revenue when building our annual budgets, and we built other revenue streams from the jump: merchandise, camp, periodic fundraisers, and our A+ membership program, launched in 2014, which put us in a good position to weather the subsequently shifting winds of media, including the present one.

Prior to the internet, publications required both subscribers and ad revenue to survive (while free alt-weeklies depended on classified ads). It was popularly believed that the scale of the internet would somehow compensate for eliminating reader support entirely. They were wrong. But we’d known that already for a long while.

Then: in 2018-2019, advertisers finally began turning up. We did big, incredible, exciting campaigns with clients we loved working for like Bleecker Street, Showtime, HBO, The CW, REI and Tegan & Sara. We went into 2020 feeling very optimistic about growth in this area for the first time ever. Still, I kept my projections conservative, hoping for around one-third of what we made in 2019 from advertising.

Was that estimate conservative enough for a global pandemic? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that TV/film production is halted; travel is cancelled; the types of branded events we did last year (like the Gentleman Jack reading) won’t be possible for some time. The New York Times reported last week that advertising across all media has “hit the brakes,” with overall spending on digital ads 38% lower than expected. Digiday says 73% of media buyers’ clients are “pausing” spending.

But we’re not making the kinds of cuts you see at Vice or Buzzfeed because we’re not reliant on advertising, but also ’cause there’s no room in our budget for cuts. Also, I don’t do cuts.

Let’s talk about that for a second.

Turns Out Being Risk-Averse Has Its Rewards

We’ve partnered with a series of other media companies, like Say, Evolve and Pride Media, to run display ads on our site when we don’t have any pre-sold inventory. Almost every time the relationship eventually becomes them owing us money, making excuses, not sending checks, delaying payments, often eventually leading to lawyers getting involved.

Why? Because they’ll take money from advertisers for ads placed on our site, and instead of passing 50% of that money onto us, they spend it on themselves to compensate for their own budget shortfalls. Pride Media still owes us money for ads going back to Spring 2019.

Honestly, what surprises me most about the situations with these companies is that somehow we, a small independent queer-owned property who by all means should be the closest to death’s door, are able to survive despite networks like theirs taking up to an entire calendar year to pay us, while they cannot survive another month without taking our money. They allegedly don’t even have any credit they can use to pay us. We have so much credit!

I always thought we were the ones doing it wrong. In many ways, we were and are: not being able to pay ourselves or our writers the money they deserve is doing it wrong. (That’s how I define success for us: eventually being able to pay great rates to freelancers and offer industry-comparable salaries.) We’ve fucked up in many more ways than that over the years.

But also, we’ve been shrewd and careful — by design, and also by circumstance. “The problem with raising [VC] money early on,” says Basecamp founder Jason Fried about how VC money is killing media, “is you get good at spending money. You don’t get good at making money.” Over the years I’ve been openly jealous of new publications offering rates and salaries we could never dream of, launching new verticals, issuing glossy magazines with high-profile photoshoots, developing video and podcast production studios. But then, just as brightly as they burned, they burn on out in a pile of budget cuts, cratering debt, layoffs and regret.

Meanwhile, we’ve been building intentionally. We’ve never been unable to pay a bill, made a late payment, not paid our entire credit card balance or been unable to pay our writers and staff promptly. We’ve tried to provide, if nothing else, consistency. When our revenue increases, I wait a few months to ensure the upwards trend will continue indefinitely or we’ve stockpiled enough cash from the temporary upward trend before raising rates and salaries and hiring more people. I’d rather do that then make flashy new hires just to fire them a few months later. And honestly, after drowning in piles of credit card debt in my early twenties (to the tune of $35k), I’ve been terrified of debt.

We’ve never laid anybody off for financial reasons, never cut anybody’s pay or benefits or decreased our per-post payments. Every year, revenue goes up and so does what we pay our people. We’re not a haphazardly run business who, in moments of crisis, must beg our readers for money. We’re a carefully run business that relies on reader support purposefully because it’s proven to be the most sustainable, ethical model.

We keep overhead minimal. We’re not paying rent for offices in Beverly Hills or hosting lavish launch parties. We work from home. Our salaries are modest.

94% of our monthly budget (which is around $75k) goes straight to queer people or to taxes and benefits for those queer people (we now have 8 full-timers). The other 6% is like, Mailchimp and pens. Everyone here is gay: our accountant, our SEO consultant, our web developers, our podcast editor, our lawyer, everyone. We are keeping your money extremely gay. If straight people donate, their money immediately becomes gay. That’s the law!

As soon as the software existed to facilitate payroll for employees in six different states, we signed up, rescuing our full-time workers 1099 purgatory. As soon as that software — Gusto, and yes I will get money if you use this referral link to sign up for it yourself — enabled me to offer health, dental and vision insurance to employees in seven different states, we signed up. After our summer fundraiser, we got 401(k)s. Our employees have always had unlimited vacation and sick leave. During the COVID crisis, we’re extending paid sick leave to freelancers who get sick or have to care for a sick loved one, and have established a $10k Writer’s Relief fund to help freelancers who’ve lost other work. You can read more about what we’re doing for our people here, and read Heather Hogan’s story of her own experience with COVID here.

Who gives us the confidence to do this? You.

What a Reader-First Website Looks Like

When it comes to advertising, we work with clients who really value our audience and our ideas. We don’t sell invasive ads that climb all over your screen or start auto-playing audio. We aim for sponsored content that’s just as fun and entertaining as the rest of the site.

We don’t litter our site or waste our writers’ time with hundreds of daily posts designed to hit on the same SEO trends to keep empty eyeballs popping. [Just google “when does [tv show] come back?” and see hundreds of sites peddling the same story (and btw they often don’t even know when the show us coming back!), all for SEO.]

We rarely employ pop-ups, or require you to kill your adblocker before reading us (although we’d love it if you would!). I swear you have to close like five windows to read a website these days! We do not do that. There’s no paywall, besides some bonus content for A+ members.

What We Can Do With Your Help

Last year’s fundraiser and our increase in ad revenue changed everything for us. After ten years of just getting by, we finally began building building processes and structures to professionalize our office, which was hard to do when working here felt like more of a personal favor than a job. Last fall we were able to do what we’d never done before: address areas where we needed help or transformation with real solutions, rather than either ignoring them or finding the cheapest fix possible.

I was nervous, though! Like I said, I don’t take a lot of risks. Hiring so many new people, including full-timers, increasing our budgets across the board, all while taking a break from A-Camp — it required a leap of faith rivaled only by the one I took starting this thing to begin with. We knew it’d take a few fundraising campaigns, a big increase in A+ revenue, and a solid amount of ad revenue to pull off.

I think it’s kinda rad that we’ve managed to be the cockroaches of the internet, seemingly still standing when everything else crumbles. We’re defying every expectation, and beating every odd. That speaks to us, sure, but it truly, really speaks to you, and to the power of queer community. “A funny thing happens once you completely focus your business around making paying customers happy,” writes Ahalogy’s CEO. “Your product gets better.” We hope to still be around to keep getting better for you. To keep getting better with you.

Because of this community, we were able to unlock $23,000 in match funds on Tuesday and are well on our way to meeting $100,000, the minimum we need to keep the lights on for another few months. (We have also applied for an SBA loan, which we hope will help carry us a little farther.)

We ask that you support if you can. Every dollar matters — all the people who give $10, or $25 or $100, become multiplied into a big collective decision to keep Autostraddle around. You can join A+! (And access an archive of A+ content!) If you’ve given already or can’t afford it right now, you can help by asking your friends — or your straight friends even! — to support. You can help by sharing our fundraiser posts on social media, and by coming back to this site and being a part of this space and community. For anything you can do, thank you.

Contribute To Our Fundraiser Now!

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2844 articles for us.

17 Comments

    • Providing benefits and taking care of your employees is actually the top most level of fiscal liberalism you can achieve.

      Fiscal conservatism kind of sucks. It’s no benefits, no social support and tax cuts for corporations. It’s impossible to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You need liberal fiscal policies to provide a safety net to individuals and for example basic healthcare. That can’t be done by being fiscally conservative.

  1. I love you all so much!!

    My 3 yrs as a worker in a worker cooperative, 1 as a member (co-owner), has made me more deeply, viscerally understand what’s wrong with capitalism. Most of our ‘profits’ get rolled back into things that benefit our clients and make our organization more sustainable. The only way to have ‘profit’- the kind that investors are looking for so they can buy more lobbying power or a vacation home or whatever – is to take more, often a lot more, than you give. Stated that way, it is so obviously wrong. And it is wrong, and it is unsustainable. (With tiny businesses like ours where owners are also working huge amounts for low pay, profits on the books that aren’t rolled back into the business aren’t more than we give) Getting paid enough to live and care for loved ones while we do work that is valuable to others, and getting paid by them, I think is more sustainable and better. While we envision and build a world that runs less on money and more on caring and sharing. CHEERS for A+ members, these awesome match donors, and readers and everyone contributing for paying yall enough to take care of yourselves and the org, and stay the hell away from being liquidated into some rich person’s ‘profit.’

  2. “We are keeping your money extremely gay. If straight people donate, their money immediately becomes gay. That’s the law!”

    *wild west voice* looks like this fiscal model IS queer enough for the both of us

  3. Riese, I’m continually amazed at your ability to do so many different things so well. It’s not just that you’re a good writer, podcaster, editor etc you have somehow managed to run an ethical business….successfully??? I am in awe! You should be so proud!!

  4. Thanks for sharing, this is all so interesting. The transparency is so refreshing. I’m sure it’s scary to say “hey, this amazing thing we’ve built will end if you don’t help” but I think that kind of honesty is important.

    Beautifully written as always, your writing is such a treat Riese.

  5. These are all the reasons that although I havent been working for weeks now, I consider my A+ membership as important as my internet bill or such. I will be shrinking my budget elsewhere before canceling. I hope it wont come to a point where I’ll have to make a decision, but for now, not even considering it.
    This community is so strong and important to me

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!