The Jezebel staffers’ complaint raises a broader issue. As publications have struggled to figure out what will reliably draw in both readers and advertisers on the Internet, feminist posts have emerged as a clear success story, one that provokes a unique response, both positive and negative. Feminist political commentary, feminist cultural criticism and women’s first-person narratives and personal essays have all done well in this challenging new ecosystem, even as they have inspired a particularly ferocious backlash.
Many online publications have been willing to profit from these positive responses, but they have been slow to protect the writers and editors who must deal with ugly responses.
Gawker Media, the Jezebel staff allege, has been slow to develop tools that would stop the flood of harassment or to take the burden off editors to remove harassing content. This may be particularly frustrating at a company where editors engage regularly in comments and are supposed to cultivate their communities. But it is hardly a unique business decision.
One of the attractions of feminist writing is that it can be inexpensive to produce. XOJane, a women’s site that specializes in personal essays and first-person narratives pays $50 for such pieces. Bustle, a women’s site from Bleacher Report founder Bryan Goldberg, garnered derision last year when, on its launch, it advertised a part-time job that would pay the person who landed it $100 a day, at least three days a week, to produce between four and six posts each day. Gawker Media has its recruits program, which brings in writers on a variety of subjects and pays them $5 for every 1,000 unique visitor they bring in each month, with bonuses once they have brought in 300,000 readers.
Even if they are not handsomely compensated, stories about women’s lives and from women’s perspectives get read. Here at The Post, a new project called PostEverything broke out in part on the strength of personal essays by women, one about why her family kept their Mercedes even when they had to go on welfare, another about a woman’s struggle with her son’s frequent suspensions from school. The Toast, a lean, funny site from co-founders Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe pulled in more than 700,000 unique viewers in the last month, a considerable accomplishment given its highly particular worldview and brand of humor. Even the Jezebel post will probably make Gawker Media money even as it brings the company unwanted attention. At my last reading, the piece had garnered more than 180,000 pageviews, and was racking up several thousand more every time I hit refresh.
Apparently this success is not enough to merit the sorts of particular investments that are necessary to mange the unique response that feminist journalism provokes. Just as women’s writing draws in readers who are moved by it, these pieces and these sites draw in opponents who are offended by the idea that this sort of journalism exists at all (the same is true for writing and reporting about race, among other topics).
As Amanda Hess wrote in Pacific Standard earlier this year: “According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet — of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.”
The kinds of changes that would blunt the harassment aimed at journalists would not come for free. Making alterations to the very expensive technology that is the centerpiece of your business strategy costs money. Devoting management time and energy to the mental health of your staff costs money. Dedicated community managers who moderate comments and enforce clearly articulated rules cost money, especially if they are hired in sufficient numbers to handle the volume of comments at a major site in a timely fashion. Editors who have the time and the hours on the job to help inexperienced writers shape personal narratives and prepare for the reaction to their stories can be expensive.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like burnout is part of the business model. If one staffer is exhausted by a tidal wave of sexist e-mail and comments, another one will be eager to take her place, confident in her own imperviousness. If a writer becomes uncomfortable with using her own life for material — or, like Hannah Horvath on “Girls,” runs out of life experiences to turn into stories — there will be someone else out there who is invigorated by the possibilities of the personal essay.
The price for women’s stories has already been set, and set at a fairly low price. The staff of Jezebel is trying to determine how much their employer values them and what they perceive to be a reasonable working environment. “Re: Jezebel. 1. They rule. 2. I’ve dropped the ball and they’re right to call me out. 3. I don’t have a solution yet but that’s my problem,” Tweeted Joel Johnson, Gawker Media’ editorial director, shortly after the Jezebel post was published. It will be illuminating to see what he comes up with.