Media as we know it is changing, and 2018 saw a significant shift. Below, Man Repeller’s editorial team discusses why that is and what it might mean for us and the future of publishing. Give it a read and then let us know what you think in the comments. We’re eager to hear what you have to say and cherish your perspective, especially given the context.
Haley Nahman, Deputy Editor: Hi! I know we’ve discussed the news of Rookie folding in bits and pieces, and we’ve all read Tavi’s letter. I want to talk about it in more depth for two reasons: the first is that the news came as one domino-tip in a row of others (Racked just folded, Lenny Letter just folded, Mic was just acquired by Bustle after a massive round of layoffs, etc.); what’s happening in media right now?
The second reason is that Rookie has a similar ethos to MR in that it started as a passion blog for a previously untapped audience and stayed relatively true to that mission over time, so curious how you all feel about Rookie, specifically. Especially you, Leandra. How did that final editor’s letter make you feel?
Leandra Medine, Founder: One thing I’ll say about the difference between Rookie and MR is that even though I launched it just for fun with no real ambition to turn it into a business, once I realized I could, that’s what motivated me. My version of editorial purity is probably somewhat different from Tavi’s. The parts of her letter that deeply resonated with me mostly touched upon this mutual viewing of ourselves as performers, first and foremost (sometimes I see myself as an entertainer before anything else). But I have never viewed capital, or monetization, or making a decision for a financial reason as a necessary evil — to me, it is more of a privilege, a proof that what you are doing is working.
Haley: For sure, but you have expressed not always enjoying the business side of this creative project, right? Or you used to? (“Business side” meaning simply running a company.)
Leandra: I don’t think of Man Repeller as a creative project, but yes, I have had a uniquely difficult time nestling myself into a boss position. Running a business is fucking hard no matter who you are, but doing it when you are creative first and everything else second is probably harder. There have been periods where I have felt implicitly like I am being forced to confront my weaknesses to such a degree that I forget I have strengths, but I’m learning more and more that being a great leader doesn’t necessitate being a great boss, and that’s totally okay. Someone else might not be a great leader, but is definitely a great boss. They should do that job! I’ll do mine!
Haley: That’s really interesting. I think that push and pull between business and creative is really evident in the challenges media is currently facing, and why in some ways all the business-driven foldings feel sad to me.
Leandra: What’s sad?
Haley: They feel like the death of a kind of creativity that might not be lucrative, but that I appreciated nonetheless.
Harling Ross, Fashion Editor: It makes me a bit sad too, Haley. I don’t want to put words in Tavi’s mouth, but my interpretation of her letter is that Rookie as it exists now and has existed since its genesis is not equipped to successfully ride the wave of how media is evolving, because it is a relic of another time and of an identity that she has since shed, and funding aside, the creative oversight on her part that it would take to get it to that place is not something she wanted to undertake. Which I think speaks to what you’re saying, Leandra, because being a leader involves shouldering that all of the time, even when it’s challenging and even when you’re changing.
Haley: Yes, I really related to that part of Tavi’s letter. Sometimes I don’t feel entirely set up to withstand the demands of the modern internet.
Leandra: I was admittedly never a consumer of Rookie — I admired (and do admire) Tavi, but never considered myself a Rookie girl. Do you think there’s something to that? I know her audience is younger than we are.
Haley: Exact same. I don’t feel sad necessarily that Rookie is folding, moreso what it says about media right now. It always felt too young for me, even though I respected it and am a huge fan of Tavi. I only ever read her editor’s letters.
Leandra: Does it folding say anything new about media?
Harling: I think it says that people are never going to stop wanting to consume stories, but they are going to want to consume them differently, and media at large is struggling to accommodate that evolving desire.
Haley: The part that makes me sad is understanding/learning that content that drives the most traffic (i.e. what keeps media brands in business) is not necessarily the highest quality, and that has become increasingly true as publications that put out good work flail, and those that put out, say, celebrity gossip or SEO-clickbait thrive.
Leandra: This all depends on what you consider “quality content.” I love a traffic win but won’t sacrifice quality to create one, and that mindset hopefully generates a piece that is fulfilling to interact with (veggies) but fun too (candy).
Amelia Diamond, Head of Creative: Did you all read that Business of Fashion article about Instagram killing the fashion magazine?
Leandra: No, what was the thesis?
Amelia: Largely that, point-blank, Instagram is where our attention is. And it’s good at keeping us there and keeping brands there, and it works no matter your initiative: sharing content, being creative, making money, getting people to buy your product. In this one little app you can do it all. Which we all know.
Haley: Right — it’s all about social now, which is designed for five-second attention spans.
Leandra: Does Instagram foster community perpetuation, though? One of the most valuable assets we own is an understanding among our readers that more than reading stories they’ll want to engage with, they are reading comments they’ll want to reply to. There’s no easy way to do this on IG (yet).
Also, I think there is another reason all the diary-esque sites that have existed and enlisted cult-y followings have had to shutter. XOJane, the Hairpin, Rookie, Lenny Letter…they had the community thing downpat, but I do wonder if fundamentally, they saw themselves as businesses. If they respected the commerical aspect of what they did.
Nora Taylor, Managing Editor: I think it also says something about this supposed democratization of who gets to be a writer, or a certain kind of writer, without having to shift gears — and how that really only lasts for a few years. Sites like XO, Lenny and Rookie were jumping off points for a lot of young women writers, largely with personal essays, and they were easier places to start off than somewhere like The New Yorker. But eventually, as these writers are climbing up the career ladder the folding of these publications means fewer jobs for folks who maybe don’t have a “traditional” media background or interest in “traditional” media, so the initial sense of it being a more open field isn’t necessarily true. It becomes largely legacy publications and people who can weather the shifting buyouts.
Haley: That’s really interesting, and something we’ve been talking more about recently at MR: How can we flex our perspective beyond just our own experiences? I think we’re all realizing that moving the needle requires more than just personal essay — pushing ourselves outside of that realm has begun to feel important for our own and MR’s development.
Leandra: The internet is like a giant tabloid, right? It’s so easy to let the flashy pictures and headlines draw your attention, not to push yourself out of your intellectual comfort zone and honestly, we can’t expect that we will control what draws people in. What we can control is what makes them stay.
Harling: Yes — and in that sense it’s functioning more and more like a giant Instagram.
Haley: The challenge now is to get people’s attention and then offer them more than they expected.
Leandra: Yeah — that’s exactly it, Haley. The perfect mix as I have come to define it feels like using the bait — appearing as if I am appeasing the tabloid — but employing the mechanisms that I value in a good reading experience (emotional connection, coming away feeling like I did a positive service — which could mean many things — for myself).
Amelia: To Nora’s point, what the internet still allows for — and will always allow for — is the person as publisher. No matter what happens now, whether IG takes over or collapses, if websites take over magazines entirely, people will be able to publish their thoughts on a medium that has a capacity to go viral. I understand that’s still different from someone making a career out of being a writer online. But it means there’s still a world where talented people can have their work seen, and even get “discovered,” without the help of a brand name platform. …Even though I suppose these instances are considered outliers.
Do you feel like all of the flashy-ness that we’re talking about will eventually push us all offline, and back in person, for community gatherings, or for “these crazy new things called print publications”?
Leandra: Yeah, nope!
Harling: I think people are changing and the world is changing but most forms of media are still clinging to the old paradigm. Just like you can’t just copy/paste the kinds of stories that used to be disseminated in print and expect them to function the same online, you can’t rely on old models for engaging people.
Haley: But I think we DO have new models. And they champion low-quality content.
Amelia: Do you guys fear there won’t be room left for the indie publishers? I feel like new ones will pop up.
Leandra: There is still a place for all the things we love to thrive! It’s just not going to look the way we have seen and known it, and that’s okay. More than okay…it’s thrilling. We’re are still deeply embroiled in a seismic shift, where product companies are also media companies and media companies are also product companies.
Haley: The media landscape is adjusting and MR is trying to create our own version of thriving, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sites that are weathering the storms are largely SEO hunters. Every editor I talk to is sweating their traffic goals and sacrificing their ethics to hit them.
Leandra: Haley, if our entire calendar was based on writing for SEO, I am positive we would still derive meaning and joy from the content. Because we’re smart thinkers and adding our perspectives to what can seem like otherwise boring or disgusting topics makes them less so.
Haley: Right, but I am also, in my heart, a fan of slower thinking/writing, and I think I’d prefer (in my FANTASY) an internet with less noise, that gave everyone more time to process and develop their ideas before spitting them out online, even if the quick hits did succeed in going deeper than fluff/gossip.
Harling: Do you think that’s a result of our age? I wonder how people in Gen-Z feel about this changing landscape. Speaking for myself, I agree with you Haley that “sometimes I don’t feel entirely set up to withstand the demands of the modern internet,” but I wonder if this kind of seismic shift happens in each generation and it feels equally uncomfortable every time
Haley: I’m sure that’s true. Maybe this is our time to mourn slow writing.
Leandra: I remember having a conversation with a really passionate DJ like six years ago and he was talking about how no one cares about good music anymore — how everyone wants him to play the top 40 and they have no idea what the art of mixing is truly about, and it became clear that he was out of work because he refused to appease what his former employers expected of him. I remember thinking that this guy had a choice — to take what he loved about his work and apply that to music that he might not be aligned with personally, or continue to begrudge the change.
I also understand that this mentality is a bit more focused on doing the best in a system that already exists as opposed to trying to break down the system. It’s more of a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality. But if you join them, then get to the top, you actually have a shot at beating them. That’s way more interesting to me.
Amelia: I feel like Tavi understood this in her letter — she understood that to succeed, she’d have to join them, and she made the choice to not. But also, when we talk about where and how media — THE MEDIA — is struggling, I don’t know that it helps to compare Tavi closing Rookie to a Mic shutting down.
Haley: I think it is fair to compare them! Not because they happened for the same reason, but because they were different results born of the same systemic challenges.
Leandra: Media is struggling because it’s so literal! We’re all in media! When you make stories and publish them as the sum of your work, it’s like dipping almonds in almond butter (10/10 something I would do).
Harling: Telling stories doesn’t have to mean literally writing stories, even though that’s historically been media’s “field” — we’re seeing that change too.
Leandra: Yes ma’am, Harling Ross — that was a key messaging point in the launch of Buffet.
Haley: This brings us to Leandra’s point about community.
Leandra: What gives MR a competitive advantage is truly the sense of community we are building. I see this every time I click into an article and begin reading the conversations happening under them. Where else on the internet does this kind of discourse occur? Where else are there bowling leagues and laundry leagues?
Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if there was no Man Repeller, and in many ways it would be much fucking easier, and in the short term probably more financially lucrative because I’d have more time to earn those influencer dollarz. But what enables me to get out of bed every morning and say bye to my kids is this deep-rooted recognition that as our lives become more digitized and further isolating, and as my heart breaks over and over again watching things that I don’t care about anymore — like fluctuating traffic or a diminishing interest in “time on site,” I actually have the power to fix it by pushing our work forward. Truly connecting people. Inspiring them. Making them feel good and hopeful in a world that is largely driven by fear — fear of being irrelevant, uncool, alone.
Haley: This is all what drives me too!!! And I think what makes me sad is that the internet isn’t currently set up for that model to inherently make money. People are so used to getting content for free online (myself included), that every company who wants to create that sense of community and put tons of labor into doing it thoughtfully has increasingly huge hoops to jump through, like a certain number of clicks to generate so that ads get eyes, or a certain amount of sponsored content, which people largely dislike (I hope and think we are the exception to this since we work so hard to make partner stories feel just as thoughtful as everything else).
As we’ve learned from the recent Facebook debacle, people (a.k.a. “pageviews”) don’t like being the product, but that can be incongruent with the desire for free content. And until paid or subscription models really take off (and who even knows if that’s ideal vis-a-vis the democratization piece), it’s going to be a tall order to make a media company thrive on just thoughtful content. A tall order we are dedicated to meeting ethically and creatively at MR, no doubt (especially given we are not a traditional media company and don’t care to be), but that doesn’t change the situation for everyone else, you know? It’s a tough world out there, and hot-take clickbait is winning.
Harling: I think it’s winning now from a traffic standpoint, but I wonder how much longer that will last. Leandra’s point about fear is interesting because I think fear is the subtext of most typical media “clickbait” (fear of the unknown, fear of what’s filling your head when you’re not distracting it with something frivolous, fear that your life is nothing like that of X celebrity). It’s cheap like a Twinkie though, in terms of nourishment.
Haley: Very true.
Leandra: There are hope brands and there are fear brands. Brands that sell you confidence and those that feed on your insecurities to make you buy or read shit. Clickbait is going to last — we are literally discussing the difference between mainstream culture and indie culture. This has always been The Great Divide.
Haley: That reminds me of a piece I read yesterday in The Atlantic about Victoria’s Secret being one of the last lingerie brands with “mean girl” marketing. It posits that people are becoming less motivated by feeling like shit about themselves. (It also reminds me of this piece by Robin Givhan about brands selling different types of confidence, and what that means.)
Leandra: Do you think people are less motivated by that because social media constantly makes us feel like shit about ourselves? Like it used to work because it was handed off in doses that could have been processed as motivating?
Haley: I think the shift toward confidence marketing is more about alternative narratives finally pushing their way through — to Nora’s point about indie pubs being more democratized, and Amelia’s point about “person as publisher,” new ideas about what’s “beautiful” are sparking a long overdue conversation. That might be why people are so sad about some of those indie pubs folding. The loss of those voices!
Harling: Yeah, I think social media has the potential to make us feel bad but it also has opened up the world’s eyes from a connectivity standpoint to so many more people/experiences/perspectives that it also has shown us we don’t have to feel that way — it does both, which is what makes it so complex.
Leandra: What I want from my media experience is pretty simple: to feel like I’m connecting with smart people who have opinions that differ from my own, but who have been brought together by a mutual respect for a differing point of view, who don’t diminish my interest in something “trivial” like breaking down what I eat for breakfast, or why I want an expensive pair of boots, and who are willing to meet me on the other end of these curiosities where in unity, we’re all fleshing out who we are, who we’ve been, who we’re becoming. At the center of it, I truly believe that we need each other to survive. This is a founding principle of humanism in my view and the best that I can do as a leader is work to foster that.
Harling: Do you feel like you’re getting that elsewhere from media?
Leandra: I don’t! And I’m not even actually sure if I always get it from Man Repeller. That’s where my real work lies. In making that true 100% of the time.
Photo via Getty Images.