The women’s pages

The upsides and downsides of starting your career in gender-specific digital media
August 23, 2013

Last week, when entrepreneur Bryan Goldberg announced he’d scored $6.5 million in capital to “completely transform women’s publishing,” he was eviscerated by women writers and editors, many of whom work for the dozens of existing women-centric sites. And rightfully so–his announcement rendered their work invisible, and to add insult to injury, female media entrepreneurs routinely fail to garner this amount of cash for their own startups. Goldberg apologized, sort of. And the initial industry response to his site, Bustle, has been lukewarm at best. The editorial vision is muddy; the content mostly aggregation.

Much of the outrage boiled down to a simple question: How the hell did Goldberg get so much money to do something that so many publications are already doing? (Short answer: race and gender biases in the venture capital world.) As I watched the conversation unfold about which people are cashing in, I was thinking about the “writers out of top-ranked colleges” whom Goldberg was employing. His announcement described them almost like journalistic charity cases: “Most of them are finding it very difficult to get jobs in editorial, because their parents’ generation completely destroyed the publishing industry.” Goldberg is no savior, though. He is, according to a job listing that has since been pulled down, offering news writers $100 a day in exchange for four to six posts. Ouch.

It’s easy to disdain Bustle from the perch of a far-more-successful women-centric website. It’s hard out there for aspiring journalists–I know because they email me every day, often weighing two unattractive options for their first job. Even given the dismal pay, startups like this are a pretty good opportunity, inasmuch as there are no other entry-level opportunities. Goldberg described Bustle as a launch pad for fresh, new female voices–which seems like a stretch, but is a much more attractive career option than fetching coffee for an editor at an established magazine. And while he’s (again) wrong that Bustle is providing a unique opportunity, it’s true that many women writers get their start at blogs and sites targeted at women. (You can swap the words “black” or “gay” for “women” and the point holds up.)

Especially when it comes to the sort of opinion-infused writing prized in digital media, there’s a noticeable confidence gap between women and men. I know that I found it easier to learn how to write in this style because I was writing in a women-centric space (the almost 10-year-old blog Feministing, one of the many sites Goldberg failed to acknowledge). Many women find it easier to pitch women editors, and easier to declare themselves experts on topics related to gender. Even though I would have never admitted or maybe even recognized it, early in my career I was drawn to report on topics like contraception and women in politics partly because I was emboldened by the knowledge that men wouldn’t be aggressively pursuing the same stories and angles I was.

Now, almost a decade into my career, I still pay most of my rent with checks from women’s media. I write weekly for New York magazine’s The Cut, which began its life as a fashion blog but has, in the past year, expanded its focus to include all things women, sex, and gender. I freelance for magazines like ELLE and Glamour. I love writing about things through the lens of gender, and I owe much of my professional success to the platform provided by “women’s pages.” But I can also see that if my career is going to continue to grow, I’m going to have to reach beyond these audiences, too. To take an example from a different field, this weekend a graphic designer told me that one of her goals was to expand her client base. “Almost everyone who hires me is a woman,” she said. And this is from a freelancer in a field where the pay rates are higher and the business model more secure.

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Solidarity is great, but there are limitations to having a mostly-female professional network and readership. So I try to ask myself: Did most things I wrote this month have a specific gender angle? (If yes, I try to push myself in some new directions.) Was my work cross-promoted on the publication’s “general interest” pages or feeds? (If no, I bring it up with my editors.) And did I pitch editors at sites that aren’t just targeted to women? As one editor at a news site recently wrote me, “it’s WILD to me how many pitches I get from men… But the ladies aren’t pitching me–at least not as frequently.” Alas, they’re probably too busy writing for ladyblogs.

Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles