Can Rookie’s redesign serve as a road map for increasing reader engagement?

All images courtesy of Rookie Magazine

When high school style blogger Tavi Gevinson co-founded Rookie Magazine in 2012, she wanted it to be what Sassy had been for a previous generation, a kind of indie alternative for the girls who didn’t see themselves in the pages of Seventeen. So Gevinson gave it her deprecating, wise-child voice, encouraged reader submissions–the majority of the site’s content is still created by teenage girls–and spoke to that awkward, funny, smart girl who has no idea how cool she actually is. In this way, Rookie was to teen magazines what Girls was to TV.

But keeping an online magazine alive and relevant is a gritty, strategic business, a game of numbers and metrics and data. Rookie has done well for itself (you may have seen a few of its viral video hits). After it launched in 2012, the site hit 1 million page views and drew 412,000 unique visitors in a month. And while Rookie declined to share exact numbers, Gevinson says she feels lucky that the site has sustained itself so well, despite her “not having much business savvy.” Still, driving more traffic is one of her goals. 

So last week, when the site unveiled a major redesign, it was a moment to see how Rookie would keep its spirit intact while bending to the pressures of the digital age. Some of the changes include new ways for readers to interact and find each other, more posts per day, and incentives for readers to submit more of their own work. 

One week later, it’s still too early to gauge whether these changes are affecting traffic and revenue. Yet they may be something of a case study, a road map that shows legacy media outlets, and even digital natives, how to build community, increase audience engagement, and reach a coveted demographic without pandering to young people, “trying too hard,” or relying on digital media lingo.

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A screenshot from Rookie’s redesign, launched last week.

 

“It’s interesting to think of it as reader engagement and audience participation because we’ve always encouraged readers to submit their work,” Gevinson says, as if those terms are new to her. I think that young people have really finely tuned bullshit meters. They can tell when you’re trying to sell something to them. So even as we start doing more content, I hope the vibe can still feel like, ‘Hey, we like this piece of writing, you might like it, too,’ as opposed to anything that falls into click-hole territory.”

In keeping with that philosophy, many of the changes to the site merely build on ways Rookie readers, affectionately known as Rooks, already interact with the site and with each other. For instance, in-person events are part of the lifeblood of Rookie’s community. So when the site sent out a survey and found, among other things, that readers wanted to extend those events to their online community, Rookie designed a way for readers to make “pen pals.” Now if readers register, they can create personal profiles that let them save their favorite pieces, connect with their pen pals, and share links to their work on other social platforms.

I think that young people have really finely tuned bullshit meters. They can tell when you’re trying to sell something to them.

“I can’t wait to watch people become pen pals, in an utterly non-creepy way!” reads Gevinson’s Editor’s Letter, which was published to signal the redesign launch. It’s also, no doubt, a strategic opportunity for the editors to understand more deeply who their readers are, how they interact, and what they want. This turns out to be valuable information for advertisers, too, whose dollars drive the bulk of Rookie’s revenue, along with sales of the annual Rookie Yearbook, now in its third year (the fourth edition is slated for release next month). Rookie doesn’t do subscriptions.

 

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“Rookie Yearbook Four” will be released in October.

 

As for direct engagement with readers, Rookie’s approach is in some ways increasingly analog, a not-so-distant echo of its DIY indie roots. And Rooks seem to love it. Dear Diary, a popular weekly feature designed to give readers the feeling of, “Wow, am I staring at my computer or am I literally sitting on the coffee shop couch from Friends with my buddies Mon and Chan??” as the Editor’s Letter explains, will now run every day. Meanwhile, the weekend links to stories  that contributors had followed on the internet that week, and which had become a regular part of Rookie’s content cycle, have been dropped. Instead, on weekends the site will post printable DIY items, such as a poster, quote, or other “tangible gem” made by an illustrator.

All of which should be encouraging news for the hand-ringers who worry that teenagers are addicted to their phones and have no appreciation for life’s more tactile, papery pleasures.

Even more instructive may be the kind of online community that Rookie is deliberately trying to foster–a community that, unlike so much of what’s published on Twitter and in comment sections, appears to be safe, encouraging, and anti-judgmental, and will probably only be strengthened by the new public profiles, pen pals, and the open-hearted rapport between editors and readers, who are encouraged more than ever to submit, no matter how “finished” a piece may be. 

The best illustration of this open-source vibe is a new weekly series called “Creative Prompts,” whereby editors give readers a “blast of inspiration or a funny icebreaker” to inspire them make a piece of writing or art. Each week, some of these “sparkling gems of creativity” will then be featured on the site. The inaugural prompt is to “Write a Letter from Space.”

“Some people are intimidated to submit a whole essay or a series of photos, so we’ve just been trying to think of ways for girls to be creative without the pressure that can come from sending your work, the fear of rejection,” Gevinson says. “It’s not this huge test, or an evaluation, which submitting your work can often feel like. It’s more like creativity is a muscle and you have to flex it.” 

 

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Rookie organizes its content by monthly issues, each based on different themes, such as “Force of Nature” and, this month, “Multiplicity.”

 

And yet, while Rookie’s mission may be to act as the digital best friend of a generation, it’s still a 21st-century media company, whose imperative, if it is to survive, is to grow and be relevant. Rookie has a captive audience that most every major media outlet and advertiser is dying to reach–namely teenage girls–so it’s no surprise that advertising dollars are one of its key revenue drivers (so are Yearbook sales, as Rookie doesn’t do subscriptions). And since there are few things advertisers love more than getting their ads in front of eyeballs, it makes sense that Rookie would want to boost its traffic, via an uptick in daily content.

Instead of three posts a day, a regimen originally designed around Gevinson’s high school schedule—so a post at breakfast, one at lunch, and another before bedtime—the site will now publish five. The subject of that content is shifting slightly as well, with an increased focus on current events. It’s not so much about news, Gevinson says, as it is about getting involved in current conversations, as they swirl across various platforms.

“Rookie would never be a news site. But we wanted to have a chance to respond more immediately to something that is happening in the world,” Gevinson adds. “I guess I’m blatantly just being like, ‘Yeah, look at your phone during school.’ But that was just something that people did in my school a lot.”

A Rookie app is also in the works. There’s no timeline yet, but I hope it comes out while our readers are still in school,” Gevinson says, with a note of irony in her voice. It sounds a lot like Rookie spirit.

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Damaris Colhoun is CJR’s digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.