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Rookie and the Business of Independent Publishing

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2018

Tavi Gevinson started Rookie in 2011 when she was 15 years old and late last week announced that the online magazine was ceasing publication. The stories about the struggle of independent online media in the age of Google & Facebook are well-worn by now, but the first couple of pages of Gevinson’s letter really resonated with me and with what I’m doing (and not doing) here at kottke.org. This paragraph specifically:

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, but when I started Rookie at age 15, I saw the two as mutually exclusive. 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. In my black-and-white view of the world, the idea of capitalizing on an audience seemed cynical, selfish, and something only evil adults do. It would be misleading to say I was a total purist, though, because I also thought Rookie was really good, and that it should reach people rather than be small and struggling. I wanted it to be able to hire more editors, pay contributors more, and grow so that not everything would need my oversight and other voices could be more prominent. I also wanted Rookie to eventually be a source of income for me, which I didn’t need it to be when I was a teenager and living at home. In those first few years, however, just the day-to-day running of the site was brain-consuming enough without also actively trying to make it as profitable as possible. And, that was the part I was most passionate about, and adept at: collaborating with writers and artists, curating and editing their work, and watching the conversations that would unfold around it.

Over the years, kottke.org could have gone in many different directions — possible acquisitions by Conde Nast publications, funding, partnerships — but I could never convince myself that any of those options would actually make the site any better or make me any happier. I thought then, and I still think now (more than ever actually), that growing the reach and operations of the site would be a terrific idea, but the business challenge is tougher than ever. Thanks to the support of my readers through the membership program (more on that in a second), the business side is stable-ish and I’ve been able to grow modestly here and there (e.g. the weekly Noticing newsletter written by Tim Carmody), but the scope of this enterprise from a financial standpoint is still just one person. Adding another full-time person to the mix sounds easy, but doubling the size of your business is rocket-ship growth, even when you’re tiny. So I continue to put almost 100% of my efforts into writing the site and almost 0% into things like audience growth, business development, promotion, or marketing…and hoping that the product will continue to speak for itself. This feels both like the right way forward for me and also idiotic, like the foundation of this house I’ve spent 20 years building is slowly rotting away out from under us. It’s a real catch-22 that keeps me up some nights.

But back to Rookie. I’m a little surprised that Gevinson didn’t pursue subscriptions or a membership program, but I can relate to what she writes here:

I also know that the idea of taking money from readers made me feel an immediate and intimidating sense of responsibility. (In retrospect, that may have been a more manageable kind of responsibility than money from investors, and could have been a hint to how I’d feel about investors, but you can’t know what you don’t know.)

The first time I tried funding kottke.org with reader support back in 2005, I ended up scrapping the scheme after a year because of that same “intimidating sense of responsibility”. Now with the membership program, it feels more like the site and the business part are in greater alignment…that this is something we’re all doing together for similar reasons. There should have been a way for a site with a strong sense of community like Rookie to come up with a membership plan that seemed collaborative and not extractive, that felt good for everyone. But maybe Gevinson was just ready to move onto other challenges in other arenas. God knows I can empathize with that myself.