The feminine mistake of blogging unsustainably

I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of veteran feminists in Santa Fe while I was visiting my parents. Many of them had heard of Feministing, and had minimal familiarity with the blogosphere in general, but few of them really understood the ways in which our blog and others function to analyze the news-of-the-day through a young feminist lens, make news that has been neglected by mainstream outlets, mobilize readers for various actions (corporate responsibility, legislation, and other kinds of advocacy), and learn about and support grassroots organizations. When I described some of our successes and challenges, there was a palpable sense of relief in the room. Imagine fighting for the feminist movement for decades and truly not realizing that there was a whole new generation coming up behind you, innovating new ways to take on old issues, and identifying new issues to take on borrowing old strategies. I was waxing poetic about our work and then one woman asked, “So what’s your economic model?”

Um…well…um…

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about the fact that what we do here is essentially unsustainable. All of us have either full time work formally, or the equivalence of it in freelance terms. All of us struggle to make a living to various degrees. All of us stretch ourselves pretty thin to keep this blog populated, radical, and running. And I know we’re not alone in this lack of sustainability. We’ve had lots of ideas about how to attempt to solve this, but mostly we’re too busy keeping the blog going to actually step back and make a plan (I’m not convinced we could actually succeed with any for-profit model anyway.)

So I’m sitting here, mindful of my own legacy and very struck that what one might reasonable argue is the most robust, powerful medium for feminism today is being created in a truly unsustainable way. I start to daydream about all of the amazing things we might be able to do if we actually had the funding, space, and time to do more than keep our heads above water. We could be more proactive rather than reactive. We could make sure that our bloggers don’t naturally gravitate towards an economic class that can sustain unsustainable work. We could be more intentional about collaborating with grassroots organizations all over the country. The possibilities seem endless.

So as I plot new ways to bridge this divide–the older feminists who need the optimistic jolt that comes from realizing the next generation is kickin’ and screamin’, the young women who are working our arses off without enough resources and support–please weigh in. Do you have ideas for a more economically sustainable feminist blogosphere? What would the benefits be of a funded feminist blogosphere? What would the risks be (and let me be clear, I’m aware that there are some real risks to funding what we or other feminist blogs do)?

I just can’t shake the feeling that one of the biggest mistake my own generation is making is accepting the status quo of an unsupported blogosphere and losing the opportunity to make an even larger impact.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted August 25, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I’m assuming that no amount of ads on this blog would support a full-time editor or 5. One potential choice would be a subscription model a la NPR. Jesse Thorn has used this to become a full-time podcaster.
    The problem with having a philosophy that is somewhat anti-consumerist is it doesn’t lend itself well to ads or corporate sponsorship ;) .

  2. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It’s not a feminist problem. It’s a generational one. Those of us younger than boomers were taught from the start of our careers that the top rung was already taken. Add to that the culture of free stuff that the internet insists upon, and the only way out is a trust fund or a day job. I’m on food stamps and living off of my kids’ child support.

    That said, podcasting is one way that participants in the liberal political dialogue seem to be happy to open their pocketbooks. We usually ask for five dollar contributions and occasionally get more at The Professional Left Podcast. But make no mistake, podcasting is really hard work, even once a week. I’ve had to abandon daily blogging to accomplish this, and there is no way I make minimum wage doing the podcast. That said, the community and lively exchange the podcast provides is amazing. But yeah, it does not pay for itself.

    As your post points out, the other thing our generation seems really bad at is self-marketing. We’re above it, and we really should not be. Have a contest that is ONLY open to those who contribute five bucks. Give away a t-shirt, buttons, etc. I mail out notepads to anyone who gives us over fifteen dollars. Again THAT IS WORK, and also requires leaving my house and laptop to go to the post office. Don’t tell me to take my smart phone with me. I can’t afford one.

    Thanks for the post and the opportunity to think about this stuff. I would not trade where I am for a corporate boardroom where I had to worry about my politics showing. Blessings.

  3. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    As I’m sure you’re aware, there are blogs pull in substantial revenue. It seems like there are several ways to do it.

    1. Produce absurd amounts of content/posts laced with tons of Google SEO and make a slight margin off of traditional display ads. Arianna Huffington pulls in something like $40 million/year doing this.

    2. Setup some sort of paywall/subscription model like the NY Times or WSJ.

    3. Aggressively expand more into multimedia and podcasting, with targeted embedded ads that sell at a higher rate. Leo Laporte has done very well with this strategy.

    4. Support the blog through other sources of income. Techcrunch, for example, makes a lot of money off of the conferences it hosts. Maybe this could work for Feministing, as you are already recognized for having a very strong feminist brain trust.

    However, seriously attempting any of these strategies will probably require some heavy capital for you and the other editors to rebuild the site, produce more content, etc. Is Feministing interested in taking investment money?

    More to the point, does Feministing want to be a business?

  4. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent question, and one that needs to be asked more and more by every feminist/activist blogger out there. I left a job as a Display Advertising Product Specialist where my entire job was to make the company money on website ads, so I know exactly HOW blogs and websites make money – yet I struggle to apply that to my own site. As a personal blogger with a respectable amount of traffic, I walk a very fine line between feeling guilty that I’m making any money at all, and wanting to be validated for my work. I accept sponsorships in the form of banner advertising, and usually have anywhere from 6-12 running at once. I’m extremely picky about the brands I will accept, and they are completely responsible, small (women owned) businesses. The “small” part means they’re not rolling in cash, so I’m not charging them exorbitant rates. In the interest of full disclosure (because I find that nobody will really tell you these things) I brought in 508,000 page views, and over 129,000 unique visitors in the first half of this year. Because I do not operate on a CPM advertising model, and my sponsorships are a flat rate, my total sales in the first 6 months came out to about $3,000, but many of those dollars were year-long buys, meaning I’m not making any more money of them in the second half of the year. (I do not run an ad network or operate the cpm model because I find that ad networks will subject my readers to brands I would not endorse or support, and it’s VERY hard to prevent them from appearing on your site.)

    Most of my readers appreciate my sponsors, but I’ve had a few act like I’m selling out because I have any ads at all (no matter how relevant and responsible they are). Those are the times I feel guilty for getting paid. However, I’m offering a valuable resource, and my time should be worth something – yet so many of my own think I should be treated my blog as a hobby that I should enjoy paying to keep going. And Feministing should know, it certainly costs money to blog. Between domains and hosting and our time, it’s an expensive “hobby.” I also just recently paid to have my name trademarked after some devious trolls began using it in the most unscrupulous of ways. That wasn’t cheap.

    (this response could have been a post – sorry) Let me just end by reiterating that this is a worthy discussion, and one that we all should have had long ago – before people came to expect us to provide important and entertaining content for free. We’re worth something. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    • Posted August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your thorough repose. I appreciate your honesty, and I especially agree that this is a worthy discussion. Your contribution is appreciated.

  5. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Your first problem is not believing you can make money. Who said a group of women with a feminist business can’t achieve sustainability? Don’t feminize your problem. Being economically unsustainable is not a “feminine” mistake! What might be your mistake is hoping for it to turn into a full-time job without looking at it like a full-time job. Most people put 50+ hours a week into their FT work, and even more into start-ups and ventures. Trust your abilities–if you devote as much time and imagination to this blog as you would FT work, it most certainly would pay off!

    Your second problem is confusing economic sustainability with being for-profit. You don’t have to be a for-profit company raking in the dough–you need to be a non-profit like every other non-profit that pays its employees and makes a little money on top of that to allow it to grow. This is a robust activist community–there is a lot of 501-c3 knowledge and experience ready for you to mine!

    -aggressively market the blog.
    -pitch articles and interviews to mainstream media orgs that will pay. (e.g., syndication)
    -advertise for pro-feminist companies and take a cut of profits from products/services sold via the blog. or do paid reviews.
    -hold real-life events like conferences. secure sponsors to cover costs for the events and charge admission/solicit donations.

    • Posted August 27, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      I second this comment. Incorporate as a non-profit a la npr, mother jones, or the nation, but still provide your content for free because that is an egalitarian democratic value that feminism supports (and plus, I would really miss it after reading it regularly for three years or so).

      Most importantly, women’s work should be paid. lucratively.
      :)

      Also, there’s kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/

      • Posted August 27, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        I forgot to add there’s a great place called the foundation center (http://foundationcenter.org/) and since ya’ll are based in new york city, it would be a great place to start exploring the possibilities of becoming a not for profit. They have a ton of free resources and free classes.

        If you go the non-profit route, your values would be protected and there would be a lot less compromising of views.

  6. Posted August 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I think at a certain point blogs have to look at themselves and ask, “Are we a blog or are an (fill in the blank) organization?”

    Blogs by their very definition are an unpaid venture–can they turn into something else? Sure, but it depends on your goals.

  7. Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I know capitalism is a drag and a cluster of inequities. With that said there is a way to make this sustainable. I feel that if political parties and extremism religious groups can find funding to propagate hate and ignorance then- why can’t feminists do it too spread respect and truth? In the land of boot straps there has got to be a way- many ways. When I win the lottery- right- Feminists blogs, organizations etc.. are my first choice of allies.

  8. Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    It would be nice if we lived in a magic world where organizing was free, but we don’t. There is no reason to feel bad that a site needs money to operate. A lot of webcomics and blogs make money through merchandise and their owners are basically full time, going to conventions and speaking and such. Basically typical branding of objects, mugs, clothes, music and crap like that.
    I always thought it would be interesting to have a foundation/donation type funding system for various parts of the blogosphere, but then you would be loaded down with whining about why this site got funding and this one didn’t and so forth, so it seems like that would never work. It would be kind of hard to locate a neutral party to allocate the money, plus finding people willing to provide said money.
    I guess you are mostly limited by self made restrictions on advertising and sponsorship. If you don’t want to run standard google advertisement deals like a lot of free browser games and such do, that restricts the avenues you have.

    Theoretically you could ask for donations from upper class supporters of feminism, but that again provides the problems with people arguing over whether a certain kind of feminist gets preferential treatment on classist grounds, and also that people who donate a lot of money often have requirements to be followed. What if a donor did something classist or racist and got mad if you talked about it, and so forth.

  9. Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Looking at your Alexa ranking, I can’t see you generating comfortable salaries for all of your editorial staff. Still, you are leaving some money lying on the table. If you joined Amazon’s affiliate program you could at least pick up some cash from the products that you do direct people to. C’mon, the “Not Oprah’s Book Club” feature should have affiliate links so that people who actually go purchase and read those books you cover. When you generate interest in a product, like that poet you just mentioned who was featured on Google, or in that supposedly $900 sex toy, affiliate links and you can cash in when people get interested and buy. If you do sex toys, I’ll give you higher payouts than Amazon, even though sex toys rarely come up. Books do though. You bring up a lot of books. Whether you give it a good review or a bad review, you might as well affiliate link it. Even if someone goes to laugh at a book you ridiculed and buys something else, you might cash in. I don’t know the exact workings and payouts of Amazon’s affiliate system, but I do know that people on your site most likely already buy at Amazon.
    If you can keep producing the material you want to produce, but earn a little more money on it, that’s a big win win.
    Just don’t follow the example of the sex positive blogosphere. They’ve generated a lot of free samples, but they’re mostly financially destitute.
    I know that it’s a different field, but in terms of generating an active community and inspiring a lot of commerce, Regretsy has done some amazing things. April Winchell doesn’t seem to have any feminine problem with unsustainability, even if she seems to mostly generate money for charity. It might be a different genre, and a lot bigger than Feministing, but you can borrow good practices anywhere.
    The affiliate programs suggestion isn’t close to a full solution, but it’s something. Good luck.

    • Posted August 26, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

      I think that is a terrific idea. While it does produce an incentive to post more about products, Feministing does talk about them a lot and so it makes sense to get a small percentage of any sales revenue you direct to the products.

      I also agree with more frequent requests for donations. Grist.org just did a big round and they did a great job explaining the service they provide and where the money goes. Transparency makes people feel better about donations.

      Also others have commented about merchandise- I think you should go for it. Either make your own or ask feminists on etsy to donate a fraction of their revenue to you.

      On the topic of podcasts and the conferences – these things would require time and money to set up but can be a big payoff. A model that I’ve seen work is put out a solicitation for a position to organize a conference or some podcasts and pay them a commission upon successful completion of the event. The podcast or conference organizer would seek out sponsors and ad sales to get the money to cover the cost of the event, then any ticket revenue would go to compensate the contributors and organizer.

      It’s not the easiest way to make some money, but it is great experience for someone starting off- and if done right, it would pay better than an internship.

      Good luck! I look forward to buying my Feministing mug (or getting one for free after a $20 donation)

  10. Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I’d happily donate to feministing, if you put up a link and reminded me once or twice a year. I love feminsting. Read it every day. I’d be more than happy to contribute to keep the content coming & make your lives a bit easier. I don’t think I’m alone there. Same with merchandise. Can I please get a feministing T-Shirt?!?

    NPR does this sort of thing, and I really don’t feel like they have “sold out” at all. Just making sure their very talented, hard working folks make a decent living.

    You might want to consider asking for someone to join your team to do development work. They could be paid a percentage of the money they bring in for feministing or just work pro bono at first, like an internship.

    • Posted August 26, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I have read feministing semi-regularly since 2006, and I would have contributed if it were asked for. The reason why I subscribe to NY Times is not to get past their stupid paywall but to support the journalism that they do, because I think there is something qualitatively much better about the NY Times than sites like Huffington Post that’s worth supporting. I have also contributed to Bitch Magazine when they asked for it (which they do a lot). I would also volunteer for feministing as well – I am a developer and would love to put my skills to work on the site.

  11. Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    If you really want to go from volunteer to “pro,” I think the first step is to think about the kinds of sacrifices you’d have to make to do so. Given where things stand now, you’d have to either grow your readerbase or create “stuff” to “sell.” (subscriptions, affiliations, merchandise, etc) Both things would take a significant investment in time and brainpower to optimize and require tough decisions that might not sit well with long-time contributors. You might decide it was better to be a volunteer operation, even if it means you can’t reach as many people. Amateur blog operations can be prolific and powerful.

    Then again, there are a lot of good suggestions here to start with. To that, I’d add: look at what other activist blogs are doing, especially in terms of cross-promotional efforts. You guys already help each other out quite a lot, so it wouldn’t be much of a change to step up collaboration projects.

  12. Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hey Courtney– it’s probably because I just started business school, but I think you might want to consider applying to get free consulting from B-School students on this issue. I go to UC Berkeley, and we have a class here called Social Sector Solutions, in which students work pro-bono with consultants from McKinsey to on projects for non-profit and/or social sector clients. Other top business schools have these sorts of programs as well. Here’s more about ours: http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/innovation/innovation25.html

    If Feministing would like to apply to be a client, I’d be thrilled to help advocate for you.

    -Hallie

  13. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Meg Keene at A Practical Wedding has some awesome thoughts on getting paid for work you love, scaling your business and the importance of women in profitable positions. It really spoke to me at when I read it and I thought of it immediately when I read this post.

    http://apracticalwedding.com/2010/09/reclaiming-wife-on-money-self-worth/
    http://apracticalwedding.com/2011/04/reclaiming-wife-women-money-and-self-worth-part-ii/

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