My So-Called Media: How the Publishing Industry Sells Out Young Women

Rookie is the latest publication for young women to shut down. How do you survive a system set up for you to fail?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 10 minutes (2,554 words)

On November 30th, Tavi Gevinson published her last ever editor’s letter at Rookie. The 22-year-old started the site when she was just 15, and in the intervening years it had spawned a pastel-hued community of girlhood, which, if not always sparkly, was always honest. The letter spanned six pages, 5707 words. In Longreads terms, that’s 20 minutes, 20 minutes of Gevinson agonizing over the site she loved so much, the site that was so good, that was now bigger than her, that she couldn’t figure out how to save. “Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media,” she wrote, “to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person.”

The market had won, but Gevinson was fighting to the death. It was hard to read. You could sense her torturing herself. And she was. Because in truth there was nothing Gevinson could have done, because the failure of Rookie was not about her, or even about the poor state of media as a whole. It was about what it has always been about, which is that as much power as women have online — as strong as their voices are, as good as their work is, as valuable as it is to women, especially young women — its intrinsic worth is something capitalism, dominated by men, feels no obligation to understand. This is what ultimately killed Rookie. And The Hairpin. And The Toast. And maybe even Lenny Letter too.

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In her first ever editor’s letter, Tavi Gevinson explained that she wasn’t interested in the “average teenage girl,” or even in finding out who that was or whether Rookie appealed to her. “It seems that entire industries are based on answering these very questions,” she wrote. “Who is the typical teenage girl? What does she want? (And, a lot of the time, How can we get her allowance?)” She claimed not to have the answer but provided it anyway by not asking the question: by not inquiring, like other young women’s publications, whether her readers would like some lipstick or maybe some blush with that. Instead, Rookie existed in a state of flux, a mood board of art and writing and photography on popular culture and fashion and politics and, just, the reality of being a girl. In an interview with NPR in 2011, Gevinson noted the hypocrisy of other teen magazines’ feminist gestures: “they say something really simple about how you should love your body and be confident or whatever, but then in the actual magazine, there will still be stuff that maybe doesn’t really make you love your body.”

Writer Hazel Cills emailed Gevinson when she was 17 to ask if she could join Rookie. In her eulogy for the site, published in Jezebel, Cills described the magazine’s novel concept: “unlike Teen Vogue or Seventeen, we were overwhelmingly staffed with actual teenagers, and were free to write about our realities as if they were the stuff of serious journalism.” Lena Singer, who was in her 30s when she worked as Rookie’s managing editor, thinks the publication deserves some credit for the fact that adults are now more willing to defer to adolescents than they were when it launched. “Part of my role as an editor there was to help protect the idea — and I still believe it — that the world doesn’t need another adult’s opinion about teen spaces, online or elsewhere,” she says. “Teens say what needs to be known about that.” And when they didn’t have the answers, they chose which adults to consult with video features like “Ask a Grown Man,” where celebrities like Thom Yorke answered readers’ questions. The column would have been familiar to Sassy aficionados, particularly fans of its “Dear Boy” series which had guys like Beck offering advice. Which made sense, because Sassy was basically the OG Rookie.

Named by the 13-year-old daughter of one of the heads of its publishing company, Fairfax, Sassy arrived in 1988 and was the first American magazine that actually spoke the language of adolescence. Teen publications dated back to 1944, the year Seventeen launched, but Sassy was different. “The wink-wink, exasperated, bemused tone was completely unlike the vaguely disguised parental voice of Seventeen,” write Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer in How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine. And unlike Teen or YM, it did not make guys the goal and girls the competition — if it had a goal at all, it was to be smart (and preferably not a conservative). Sassy was launched as the U.S. iteration of the Australian magazine Dolly — they originally shared a publisher — and presented itself as the big sister telling you everything you needed to know about celebrity, fashion, and beauty but also drugs, sex, and politics. “The teen magazines here were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers,” Dolly co-founder Sandra Yates told the New York Times in 1988, adding, “I’m going to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money.”

So she hired Jane Pratt, an associate editor at Teenage magazine, who matched her polka dot skirt with work boots, who donated to a pro-choice organization. Pratt “cast” writers like Dolly did, then went further to reinforce their personalities by publishing more photos and encouraging them to write in the first person, with plenty of self-reference, culminating in a sort of reality TV show-slash-blog before either of those things existed. Sassy became ground zero for indie music coverage thanks largely to Christina Kelly, a fan of Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz who wrote the way teenagers talk. “I don’t know how to say where my voice came from,” she says. “It was just there.” Like the other writers on staff, she offered a proto-Jezebel take on pop culture, a new form of postmodern love-hate criticism.

At its peak, Sassy, which had one of the most successful women’s magazine launches ever (per Jesella and Meltzer), attracted 800,000 readers. But this was the era of the feminist backlash, where politicians were doubling down on good old American family values. The writers and editors at Sassy weren’t activists, per se, but they were the children of second wavers, they went to universities with women’s departments, they knew about the patriarchy. “Sassy was like a Trojan horse,” wrote Jesella and Meltzer, “reaching girls who weren’t necessarily looking for a feminist message.” Realizing that adolescents were more sexually active, receiving letters about the shame around it, Sassy made it a priority to provide realistic accounts of sex without the moralism. They covered homosexuality, abortion, and even abuse, and were the first teen magazine in America to advertise condoms.

In response, right-wing religious groups petitioned to boycott Sassy‘s advertisers; within several months the magazine lost nearly nearly 20 percent of its advertising. After several changes in ownership, including the removal of Sandra Yates and a squarer mandate, the oxymoronic conservative Sassy eventually folded into Teen magazine in 1997, the alternative press devoured once again by the mainstream.

But Sassy left behind a community. A form of analog social media, the magazine united writers with readers, but also readers with each other. Sassy even had its readers conceptualize an issue in 1990 — the “first-ever reader-produced issue of a consumer magazine” — the same year Andi Zeisler secured an internship at Sassy with a hand-illustrated envelope and the straightforward line, “I want to be your intern.” Six years later, she co-created her own magazine, Bitch, a cross between Sassy and Ms. It had the same sort of intimate community where, Zeisler explains, “there’s somehow a collective feeling of ownership that you don’t have with something like Bustle.”

Bustle, a digital media company for millennial women, is often cited as the counter-example to indie sites like Sassy, Bitch, and Rookie. It has more than 50 million monthly uniques (Bustle alone boasts 37 million) and is run by a man named Bryan Goldberg, who upon its 2013 launch wrote, with a straight face, “Maybe we need a destination that is powered by the young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses.” While Sassy had to struggle to be profitable and sustainable in an ad-based and legacy driven industry, now corporate entities like Bustle manspread sites like Rookie into non-existence. “The one thing that has stayed the same,” says Zeisler, “is the fact that alternative presentations of media by and for girls and young women is really overlooked as a cultural force.”

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Tavi Gevinson was born the year Sassy died, but Lena Dunham arrived just in time. Recalling her predecessor, she described her feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, which launched in 2015 as “a big sister to young radical women on the Internet.” Delivered to your inbox, Lenny, backed by Hearst, mimicked the intimacy of magazines past, the ones that existed outside Twitter and the comments section. It included an advice column and interviews (the first was with Hillary Clinton) as well as personal essays touching on various sociopolitcal issues. It was more activist than Sassy, more earnest than ironic, more 20-something than adolescent. It even had a Rookie alum, Laia Garcia, as its deputy editor. Lenny’s third issue launched it into mainstream consciousness when Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about pay disparity in Hollywood, which provoked an industry-wide conversation. Then three years after launch and without warning, on October 19, a final letter by Dunham and co-creator Jenni Konner claimed “there’s no one reason for our closure” and shut down.

Lenny’s demise came nine months after that of another site that had a loyal female-driven community: The Hairpin. Founded in 2010 by Edith Zimmerman under The Awl umbrella, the site that had also published writing by Lenny editor-at-large Doreen St. Félix claimed “a natural end” — the same words The Awl used for its closure. NPR’s Glen Weldon suggested more specific reasons for their termination: the decline in ad revenue online, the sites’ unwillingness to compromise, their independence. “The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the ‘70s, Spy Magazine in the ‘80s, Sassy in the ‘90s and McSweeney’s in the aughts,” he explained, adding, “Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.”

Two years before this, a similar site, The Toast, founded by former Hairpinners Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Ortberg, also closed. The publication was created in 2013 to be an intersectional space for women to write basically whatever they fancied. They even invited Rookie to contribute. The Toast published multiple features a day, stating, “we think there’s value in posting things that we’ve invested time and energy on, even if it comes at the expense of ‘You won’t believe this story about the thing you saw on Twitter and have already believed’ link roundups.” In a lengthy message posted in May 2016, Ortberg broke down the financial circumstances that left them weighing their options. “Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever,” Ortberg wrote, adding, “The only regret I have is that Bustle will outlive us and I will never be able to icily reject a million-dollar check from Bryan Goldberg, but that’s pretty much it.”

It says everything about the American media industry that Bustle, a site with an owner who mansplained women’s sites to women, a site which acquired the social justice-oriented publication Mic only after it had laid off almost its entire staff, has outlived the ones that are actually powered by women. If you look closely, you will see that the majority of women’s sites that continue to exist — from SheKnows to Refinery29 — have men in charge. Even HelloGiggles, which was created by three women, is owned by the male-run Meredith Corporation. That means that, fundamentally, these publications are in the hands of a gender that does not historically believe in the inherent value of women’s media. Women, including young women, are valuable as consumers, but if their interests cannot be monetized, they are worthless. Yet the same year The Toast closed, Lauren Duca wrote a Sassy-style essay, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” in Teen Vogue which dominated the news and garnered 1.4 million unique visitors. “Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for,” Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, reminded us. “We’ve seen an immense resonance of political coverage with our audience.” Seventeen and ELLE have also capitalized on wokeness, their spon-con sharing real estate with social justice reporting, blurring the boundaries between protesting and shopping. “The inner workings of those places are not about feminism,” says Zeisler. “They’re about selling feminism and empowerment as a brand and that’s very different from what you would find at Rookie or at The Toast or The Hairpin.”

It seems fitting that a new print teen magazine launched last year called Teen Boss. On the fact that it had no ads, Jia Tolentino side-eyed in The New Yorker, “unless, of course, it’s all advertising — sponsored content promoting “Shark Tank” and JoJo Siwa (both appear in each of the first three issues) and also the monetizable self.”

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Teen girls are the “giant piggybank of capitalism,” says Zeisler, and it’s an apt metaphor. Their value is their purchasing power and they are sacrificed, smashed to pieces, to get to it. When Ariana Grande obliterates every sales record known to man, man still asks why she is on the cover of BuzzFeed. Man never seems to ask, however, why sports — literal games — are on the cover of anything. This is the world in which Rookie and Lenny Letter and The Hairpin and The Toast attempt to survive, in which all that is left when they don’t are floating communities of women, because the industry refuses to make room. As Gevinson wrote, “that next iteration of what Rookie stands for — the Rookie spirit, if you will — is already living on in you.” As Dunham wrote, “Lenny IS you: every politician, every journalist, every activist, every illustrator, every athlete who shared her words here.” As The Hairpin wrote, “We hope when you look back on what we did here together it makes you proud and not a little delighted.” As Cliffe and Ortberg wrote, “The Toast was never just a chance for people to tune in to The Mallory and Nicole Show, it was also a true community and it will be missed.”

These publications did not die by their own hand. Zeisler notes that to this day, she sees people tweeting about missing The Toast. These sites died because their inherent value did not translate into monetary value in a capitalist system run by men who only know how to monetize women by selling them out. As bright and as hungry as young women are today, they are entering a world designed to shut them down. And the future looks bleak. “If media as an industry doesn’t figure out how to value [independent sites for young women] in a way that really reflects and respects the work that goes into them,” says Zeisler, “we’re just going to have a million fucking Bustles.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.