What the closing of Rookie Mag means for the future of women’s media
After seven years of sharing essays, art, advice, and writing for teenagers, the online magazine Rookie Mag has been closed. Launched by fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson in 2011 — when she was only 15 years old — Rookie attracted a million views in six days and went on to become an intimate, authentic, and feminist lens for its primarily young female audience to look at and speak to the world.
It’s been almost two months since Tavi Gevinson posted her final editor’s letter on Rookie. Founded when Gevinson was just 15 years old, the personal six-page letter outlines her struggle of running an independent, online magazine as a financially viable business in the current media climate. As Rookie is yet another name added to the list of recently folded female-led sites (Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, Toast) it’s sparked many a conversation on what the future holds for online communities and content, as well as what alternative options are out there for young girls.
Before we look forward, we must look back. Gevinson started Rookie in 2011, now eight years ago. I started Sister magazine in 2012 and can confirm that the media landscape then was entirely different from the one we see now. Instagram was in its infancy, and thus a world without influencers, sponsored posts and fake news was a reality. It’s hard to imagine that you would write or create something without the sole purpose being for it to be shareable.
In a piece published last December named ‘What Does the End of Rookie Magazine Say About the Future of Media?’ Man Repeller’s deputy editor Haley Nahman says “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.”
This is overwhelmingly apparent with the homogenization of major news/lifestyle outlets churning out daily Buzzfeed style, clickbait content – “19 times people on the internet accurately summed up female friendships” or “I tried working out like a celebrity for two weeks and it was hard as hell” or “11 television dramas to watch in 2019” are all headlines from three totally different women’s sites.
Being socially conscious wasn’t a la mode in 2011 either. Teen Vogue wasn’t politically engaged, Forever 21 wasn’t selling feminist slogan t-shirts and people openly wore native American headdresses to festivals. It wasn’t cool to care about the planet or climate change, and women’s rights were not being spoken about in the mainstream media the way they are today. Rookie provided an alternative to Cosmopolitan quizzes, and to content which was aimed at young women, but focussed on male approval (how do I give my boyfriend the best blow job, etc, etc, etc).
As women, I like to think that we’ve managed to move away from that era due to social change and simply demanding more. However, the truth is that most big corporations headed up by mainly white, cis, older men have seen the trend for activism and inclusivity which are at the core of so many indie outlets and are simply selling these ideas back to us.
In the way that Marc Jacobs’ grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 1992 was lifted from the subculture, he saw happening around him, the creative industries are built on stealing ideas from youth culture, putting them through the marketing mill, and selling them back to the people who were doing them in the first place.
It’s with that point I’d like to highlight that whilst this debate feels particularly current, it is in fact nothing new. Of course, the internet is new. The invention of smartphones and apps has thrust us into a place where we are constantly shifting and adapting how we do almost everything, but the divide between independent and mainstream culture, no matter the medium, has always been apparent. The set-up of rich, fat cats at the top, with the power to make or break your career, and poor, struggling artists at the bottom is a tale as old as time.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
We make up what regular magazines lack––being advert free, featuring genuine voices and listening to our community, all whilst being largely self-funded. But when it comes to growth, we face the same pitfalls as Rookie. Most creative people don’t start a project with the intention to make a ton of money or with a pot of it readily available. As Tavi says “Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media; to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person.”
You see a group of people who aren’t being spoken or listened to, or maybe even seen, and want to create something with and for them. However, that doesn’t mean you know how to sustain and fund the project, or how to turn an organic idea into a profitable business. You are constantly battling with yourself and your authenticity. “It has sometimes felt like there are two Rookies: There’s the publication that you read, that I also love reading, writing for, and editing; and then there is the company that I own and am responsible for. The former is an art project; the latter is a business. Each one needs and feeds the other.”
Tavi explored every option available and found that none were right for her or for Rookie––fair enough. At the moment, it very much feels like an “if you can’t beat them, join them” situation in terms of content, media and information. If you aren’t willing to compromise your integrity, sell your soul or ask your audience for money it seems like the end of the road. And naturally, that is sad. Nobody likes change, or better yet, nobody likes good things to end.
As Kurt Cobain famously said “It’s better to burn out, then to fade away” and to take control of your own destiny and your business is an empowering decision to be applauded. To recognize that the world has shifted and something which worked almost ten years ago now isn’t working is a brave thing to do. It doesn’t make Rookie any less special, any less revolutionary or mean any less to all the girls who grew up reading it.
What we do now need to worry about, is if the young girls of 2019 are reading anything besides their social media feeds. We need to find a new model and a new way to reach them and to provide them with the community that Rookie did back in 2011. Where there’s a will, there’s a way––it’s just the beginning of a new era.
Beccy Hill is the London-based editor in chief of Sister Magazine.