Verticals like The Lily aim to bolster women’s voices in media. But are they going about it the wrong way?
When The Washington Post launched The Lily last week, journalists at several media organizations applauded the move.
"I think it’s really exciting to see a surge of these outlets catered toward women," said Sarah Menkedick, founding editor of Vela magazine. "There is still such a significant gender gap in publishing."
The news product is catered to millennial women and is named after the first women's newspaper, which started publishing in 1849. It's got a heavy emphasis on social media, using distributed channels to reach readers where they are.
"We aim to give readers a dedicated source for news and perspectives about women and the issues that impact them," said Amy King, editor in chief and creative director of The Lily, in an email to Poynter. "The Post newsroom has long produced stories like this, and The Lily is a way for us to surface them for a new audience, giving the journalism even more visibility."
The Lily’s launch comes amid a recent uptick in platforms catered to female audiences, particularly those created by mainstream news organizations such as The Post. Mic launched The Slay Instagram account and "feminist of the day" newsletter last year and, in late March, built out the vertical on the main site after the presidential election gave rise to heightened political activism. Two years ago, Vice Media launched Broadly, a female-focused content vertical and the first of its kind for the news company.
These products’ explicit goals are simple: amplify the voices of women, and give them a place to read about important issues that affect them. In a time when so-called "women's issues" are at the forefront, especially leading up to and after the Women's March in January, it's easy to see why there's a demand for platforms that serve a predominantly female audience. But is their very creation problematic?
Kelley Calkins thinks so.
"I think it's always good when underrepresented voices in the media get coverage," said Calkins, the cofounder of The Establishment multimedia site run and funded by women. "But I wouldn't say it's a wholly super positive development because both Slay and The Lily are part of a broader umbrella."
So what exactly is that umbrella? To Calkins, it's the corporatization of content that feminist blogs have been working on for decades.
Long before The Post and Mic decided to create their own content verticals focused on issues affecting women, sites such as Feministing, Jezebel and The Hairpin were publishing articles about issues affecting women that were largely absent from the mainstream, predominantly male media, while also galvanizing a loyal female audience. Now that bigger media companies are launching their own platforms focused on women, Calkins sees it as an appropriation of earlier work.
"(The reason) corporate places have been convinced that there's a market for this content is because of the work that activists and independent media sites and people that put it all on the line have been doggedly doing for decades," she said. "If that hadn’t all been done, I don’t think we’d be in the position that The Lily or Mic would be here."
That isn't to say that The Lily, Slay and Broadly aren't doing valuable work, Calkins said. The huge platforms that Mic and The Post have can help content that's important to women find a bigger audience. But she takes issue with the way that these news products seem to co-opt the work that other blogs have been doing, as well as capitalizing on communities of diversity.
"You get, sometimes I think, either a super distilled version of what other people have been saying for a long time, or something that's just super problematic and erases a lot of the population," Calkins said. "For there to be so much erasure, and then for a site like Mic to come out (with The Slay) … I mean it’s a term that’s totally appropriated from African-American vernacular. It's a lot to take."
If anyone would know about that alleged erasure, it would be Samhita Mukhopadhyay, former executive editor of Feministing and current editorial director of culture and identities at Mic. She said that when she worked at Feministing in the early 2000s, her work helped build the feminist internet and create a framework for blogs and media outlets to follow.
"Papers were forced to change. Before that, women's verticals were not overly political," Mukhopadhyay said. "That stuff was so interventionist and groundbreaking. It really opened up how the media understood women’s media."
Now she works on The Slay and said that a news product catered to women was a natural progression for Mic. She said the organization has always been focused on how their coverage is related to marginalized or diverse communities, including women. The Slay now has more than 360,000 likes on Facebook and oversees Mic's second-highest newsletter in terms of engagement — something she considers a good thing.
"I don’t think it's about not giving credit — I think we do all owe our respective credit. It’s really about explaining the issues that are impacting women's lives in a way that's accessible without being dumbed down," Mukhopadhyay said. "(Gender) has always been baked into what we do. If anything, it’s kind of how we inform our other work."
But Calkins isn't alone in her criticism. Carolyn Kitch, chair of the Department of Journalism Media and Communication at Temple University, has mixed feelings about the recent uptick in women-focused news platforms — but for reasons different than Calkins'.
"While they are covering important topics, these new sites from bigger corporations also are marketing strategies to attract an economically attractive demographic — young women who are well-educated and upwardly mobile," she said in an email to Poynter.
These differing opinions expose a divide in how female content creators and journalism scholars think about news products catered specifically to women. While Calkins and Kitch take issue with the implications they have for different communities of diversity, Menkedick and Kimberly Voss wholeheartedly support the platforms' goal to cover and serve female audiences.
"Media products aimed at women are needed," said Voss, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida. "Certain topics don’t make mainstream news that are important for women-focused products."
Among the topics Voss said are important to women but underreported in the media are domestic violence, childcare, birth control and reproductive rights, not to mention the prevalence of "mansplaining" — especially in politics.
"All these things disproportionately affect women," said Voss, a historian who studies the women's pages in newspapers of the 19th and 20th centuries. "We have a history of women-focused content aimed at women."
While she echoes Kitch's concerns about the ageism of products like The Lily, Voss said there's still clearly value in catering news products to women. And having worked for various women's magazines for 11 years, Kitch largely agrees.
"Women's magazines have been covering serious topics, such as domestic abuse and pay discrimination, for more than a century," she said in an email to Poynter. "And so it is a good thing that legacy newspapers are acknowledging the importance of hiring smart young women to cover women's issues."
And that's one area of concern for critics of female-focused platforms — are they being run by women? Calkins doesn't think so.
"Fundamentally, it's not women who are owning the sites. They’re not the ones who are calling the shots," she said. "It's complicated."
But both King and Mukhopadhyay said their teams are made up entirely of women who ultimately make the final decision about what content to promote on their platforms. While The Lily is made up of a mix of curated Post content and original stories, The Slay is almost entirely original work.
"I can say that our all-female editorial staff works in partnership with Post editors to curate stories we feel would be of interest to our audience," King said in an email to Poynter. "In addition, we are working with a growing network of contributors to produce original content."
Menkedick also pushed back against Calkins' criticism of mainstream news products catered to women, saying the broad scope of both The Post and Mic's audience allows women's issues to be more freely discussed by populations that may feel left out of the conversation by independent blogs.
"That's great if you’re a 20-something Brooklynite. (But) for all these people I know living in the Midwest, that's totally alienating," she said. "I think that something that is more news oriented and rigorous would be good for galvanizing women."
Despite concerns over the way in which mainstream news organizations have created content verticals catered to women, Voss said the rise in such products are beneficial simply because of their existence.
"Women are fighting among themselves about content. I think sometimes that divide prevents the discussion," she said. "Often, women’s voices don’t necessarily get heard. To a degree, I’m just happy anyone is doing it."