Is Bustle Really "Successful"?

Do you read Bustle, the website best known in "the culture" as the place whose founder, Bryan Goldberg, uses his female employees' legs as typing desks? No, me neither. Nonetheless, according to recent reporting by Amanda Hess at Slate, the thing is going gangbusters. It has 15 million unique visitors! It has over $11 million in venture capital!

This, in our debased world, is known as "success" in media.

Yet the undercurrent of Hess's piece, though she's very nice about it, is that said success is paying dubious dividends to the writers of the site themselves. Not only are many of them still apparently underpaid (day rates of $50 to $100 are quoted), but conditions for standing out from the crowd of writers-on-the-internet are rather grim:

"Our mission is about voices," Goldberg wrote on PandoDaily shortly after the site's launch. Bustle's aim is to "find great voices who have yet to achieve mainstream recognition. After we find these talented writers, we will work closely with them, pay them, and encourage them to write what they want to write." It doesn't always play out that way. When one intern's summer stint at Bustle ended, "I might have considered staying out of desperation," she told me. "But by the end of my time there, I was extremely frustrated." Her posts were "frequently edited to be less critical," she says. Sometimes, posts were edited "so much that the opinion [they] originally expressed was totally changed." One piece criticizing a pop star was molded to express support; a negative review of a new television show was rejected so the site could stay "positive on fall TV." One former contributor said that a common critique of her work was: "Can we be objective?" and "Can you balance it?" Meanwhile, "Thanks, this was very balanced!" constituted high praise.

A lot of editors, it should be said, even at some very august and respected publications, will ask writers to stay positive or provide balance. These are standard editorial suggestions. But they can also be absolute murder on the individual flavor of a byline, it's true. If you want to stand out as a writing "voice," it's best to write somewhere that doesn't edit you into a Borg person.

A place like Bustle, then, may be worth a lot of money. Venture capitalists are suddenly interested in new "content" now that it seems profitable. That does not, necessarily, translate into a good career move for the writer in question.

If you are a nerd about magazines—which I am—you know that few memorable writers have ever made names for themselves in a day job where they are edited into a "house style." There is the Joan Didion example, of course, who just started writing essays for Vogue and climbed steadily upwards. And Nora Ephron went right from reporting stories for the New York Post to her Esquire columns.

But by and large many of the women writers, critics, journalists etc that we still read made names for themselves at magazines not aimed at mass audiences, usually middlebrow places like the early Vanity Fair under Frank Crowninshield, The New Yorker under Harold Ross and William Shawn, or The New York Review of Books. A "little magazine" known as Partisan Review also played a significant role.

(More contemporary examples of "small magazines" are places like The Awl or n+1. At this point VF, the New Yorker, and the NYRB are more likely to be finishing schools.)

Why were such odd magazines much better at producing the likes of Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, and Susan Sontag? The key factor, with regrets to Hamilton, was editors.

Editors at these places were often willing to really let their writers' "voices" play around and be themselves. The friendlier old-school economics had something to do with it; most of the old magazines were supported as vanity projects by rich people, or else by the CIA (a whole other kettle of fish I'll write up sometime). But editors just also seemed, for brief periods at these various places, to be more interested in helping writers say what they wanted to say, and to produce a magazine which on top of being profitable, or even just in the black, would have a lasting effect on the culture.

That last bit is what Bustle isn't doing, i.e. trying to be influential. It may be producing the odd competent piece about grapefruit blowjobs, but it's not exactly leading any conversations. Its strong traffic makes it profitable, but not memorable. And that's doing no favors to the young women trying to make a name for themselves there.