April 26, 2022

My feminist awakening took place against the backdrop of indie blogs like Feministing, Jezebel, Rookie, The Hairpin and Bitch Media. They taught me to apply the things I was learning in my women’s studies classes to pop culture and political events. They pushed mainstream organizations forward in their coverage by creating a demand for feminist content.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time when they were so radical. But they were. Their varied perspectives showed me there was more than one way to be a feminist, and that living my values didn’t mean I had to forego the journalism career I’d always dreamed of having.

As of 2022, all of these publications have either ceased to exist or are diminished after decades of instability. Last week, Bitch Media joined them by announcing it was ceasing publication after 25 years. In its closing letter to readers, it said, “we have concluded that we are unable to sustainably continue creating quality content that our readers and supporters expect.”

The word “sustainable” reminded me of Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson’s closing letter to readers in 2018, when she wrote, “Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable.” Gevinson outlined the myriad ways Rookie could have continued to remain in operation: selling to a parent company, pivoting editorial identity, incorporating branded content, soliciting readers for financial contributions — but she decided it would be more painful to see the site she’d created as a teenager in her bedroom morph into something she didn’t recognize than it would be to shut it down altogether.

This decision illustrates what I think about as a money/mission paradox: While organizations may pursue both money and mission, one is always more significant to an organization’s identity, and when faced with pressure or scarcity of resources, the more significant value will win (or, unable to overcome the obstacle, the organization will close).

Most journalism — and most business ventures in general — start out seeking to pursue those two goals: money and mission. For some organizations, money is primarily a means to the end of serving their mission. Many struggle to make money in a way that is in line with their values and that creates enough runway for them to be sustainable. On the other hand, if an organization’s primary goal is to make money and the mission is ancillary, it’s more likely that mission-based compromises will be made in the name of making money (for example, using a nonunionized labor to manufacture merchandise).

These are the two extremes, and most news organizations seem to exist somewhere in the middle of the poles. They aim to both serve the mission of reporting the news to the public but they also hope to turn a profit.

Even within that middle ground, journalistic organizations exist on a spectrum. If you work somewhere that’s closer to the money side of the spectrum, you might see your workplace grow and change a lot. There might be a greater emphasis on pageviews and metrics, you might see a lot of content partnerships with tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, and there might be greater comfort with aggregation, provocative headlines and branded content.

If you find yourself on the other end of the spectrum, you may have a mandate to create work in alignment with your organization’s purported values — but be asked to do it with less budget. This also means there’s a ceiling to what the organization will be willing to do to keep money coming in the door, which creates a squeeze that can result in overwork, high turnover, and justification for poor working conditions.

Neither is ideal, but they are realities for many media workers who don’t work at wildly profitable news organizations, and this simplified spectrum illustrates the necessary tradeoffs when one end of the spectrum is valued over the other.

Ideally, an organization will figure out how to exist somewhere in the middle. But when pushed to its limit because of plummeting digital ad revenue and the continued economic fallout of a global pandemic — among other financial challenges that news organizations face — one will win and beat out the other. What we’ve seen with Bitch Media and other mission-based news organizations folding is that reality.

Amid the obituaries and tribute tweets to Bitch’s legacy, I thought about the question Bitch’s former social media editor Marina Watanabe posed at the end of a thread outlining the overwork and underresourced years she spent at the publication: “Is it possible to be an independent feminist org that exists under capitalism and not have these issues? I’m not sure.” I’m not sure either. But I do wonder if the Money/Mission Paradox might be a useful framework for contextualizing why these mission-based organizations tend to struggle so we can imagine more sustainable futures for them.

I wonder if, instead of emulating the business models of organizations closer to the “money” end of the spectrum (more capitalist, metrics-based, quantity-based models of success), mission-oriented organizations might imagine new models that are a better fit. Some are already trying some on for size.

My other job is as a podcast producer for Defector Media, a worker-owned media cooperative, where, in alignment with their mission, they pay freelancers fair rates, have their merchandise made by unionized workers, and share financial details with their subscribers, whose annual and monthly fees make up the majority of the business’s revenue. As far as I can tell, no one at Defector is becoming a media mogul millionaire, but that’s also not the goal. The goal is for people to feel valued and appropriately compensated for their work and to not have the rug pulled out from under them when their employer unexpectedly folds or pivots its strategy to chase profit.

I’m also inspired by the mutual aid work Tuck Woodstock does with his podcast “Gender Reveal,” which reimagines the podcast audience as a truly collaborative community. Tuck is able to make money from the podcast because of listeners, and in return, he raises money to give back to them.

These are only two of the potential models that mission-oriented organizations might consider in their pursuit of sustainability. They require imagining a different relationship with audiences than many news organizations have had in the past, which can seem quixotic to some. But at a time when holding tight to past models is clearly unsustainable, I have to believe that there’s still a future for mission-forward news organizations.

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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