Above: Broadly website screenshot
Last week the ever inventive and Zeitgeist-driven Vice Media took the wraps off its long promised new female focused channel Broadly. As you might expect from Vice, Broadly is highly opinionated, covers a broad range of issues, and is unapologetically, unequivocally feminist.
Yet, surprisingly for a media company that so often makes the running, in this instance Vice might actually be following where other publishers have already lead. Much of the content on the new site could well have been published on sites some of which are owned by large media corporations.
In fact so much seems to point to a new mainstream emerging in young women’s publishing. So how did we get here?
Jezebel and blogs
The evolution of online women’s publishing has been a comparatively slow process. Arguably its watershed moment was the launch of Gawker Media’s Jezebel.com in 2007. Edgy, snarky and feminist with a big F, Jezebel was the first site of its kind to come from a big publisher to derail standard expectations about what a female-focused site should look like and the topics it should cover. What Jezebel did was to create an online space full of strong and varied voices for a specifically female audience, without failing some kind of blogging version of the Bechdel Test – with content not about how to please your man, but how to please yourself.
Jezebel reflected a trend that had been percolating for several years thanks to the emergence of pioneering blogs, such as The F-word (2001) and Feministing (2004). Jezebel’s founding editor Anna Holmes commented at the time of its launch that she wanted to better serve Gawker.com’s female audience, which made up 70% of the site’s readership at the time.
The success of Jezebel – 10 million monthly views seven months after launch – proved that there was an appetite for women-specific platforms with a much broader palette than the old norms of articles about relationships, cooking diets and fashion. A 2008 article in the Ottawa Citizen, entitled “The Online Estrogen Revolution”, wrote that: “Community-based women’s websites are now tied with political sites as the fastest growing category online” and that “women are now outpacing men in their Internet use and it’s clear why major media companies, venture capitalists and advertisers are scrambling to answer that age-old question of what women want.” Crucially, the author adds: “Hint: it’s a lot more complex than recipes and romance.”
Why these sites work
Since Jezebel’s founding there’s been an explosion of sites for young women, and their readerships are hungry for intelligent content much of which they then share on social media. Gender issues such as abortion and contraception remain of perennial interest but are approached from new angles, and a wide range of topics around social justice and entertainment, from racial politics to the representation of disability in the media, are also covered. The sites aim to be empowering, calling out sexism, challenging outdated beauty standards and championing key figures like Lena Dunham.
In my opinion these websites have attracted readers because they’re founded on the premise that everyone is entitled to use their voice bringing to light the nuanced and numerous problems faced by historically marginalised groups. Articles about the experiences of LGBT+ people, for instance, are embraced in a way which is inclusive and pertinent, therefore allowing the sites to maintain a high percentage of heterosexual readers.
New kid on the block
Which brings me back to Broadly from Vice Media. Launched on 3rd August 2015, it’s the latest in a string of new-ish Vice channels which include Munchies, Fightland and Vice Sports. Editor-in-Chief of Broadly, Tracie Egan Morrissey, is a Jezebel veteran, and apparently approached Vice with the idea for Broadly a year or so ago.
In a statement on the new site, Broadly’s agenda is outlined:
“Broadly is a website and digital video channel devoted to representing the multiplicity of women’s experiences. Through original reporting and documentary film, we provide a sustained focus on the issues that matter most to women.”
So I imagine it’s going to be very much like Vice.com, but with a female focus – honing in on issues of interest for women while keeping the trademark Vice irreverence.
Vice Media’s huge empire has always striven for an edgy tone, but ironically it could be argued that their agenda has become more mainstream of late; this is reflected on Broadly, which within the first few days has published, among other things, an interview with Caitlin Moran, a feature about “The Sex We’re Having vs the Sex We Think We Should Have”, and a video with Rose McGowan talking about Hollywood sexism.
That’s not to say that it’ll be any less interesting, or original – but it echoes a general trend in sites for young women that has seen the boundaries move significantly. Including writing from those historically on the peripheries is largely standard practice now.
So what’s next for women’s publishing?
With the continued success of young women’s sites, we’ve seen publishers create more and more of them, many with an even more targeted audience within the “femisphere”. Inheriting from Jezebel, there’s been UK launches The Debrief (Bauer Media) and The Pool (independently owned) in recent years. Coming soon is The Front, which aims to showcase women in arts, documentary and news media.
There are also lots of smaller sites which have emerged to cater for niche audiences such as Femsplain, a platform for “anyone female-identifying” (which can be interpreted as a subtle call for submissions from trans women, too), Autostraddle, the world’s most popular independently-owned lesbian website, and For Harriet, dedicated to celebrating “the beauty and complexity of Black womanhood”.
The interesting question is how this will impact on print magazines? In some ways it already has many titles embracing different body types, shapes and colours in ways that they didn’t a decade ago.
The new sites reflects an audience more comfortable in their own identity, hungry to make their mark on society, but on their own terms and also never afraid to call out attitudes that they perceive to be outdated and sexist.
Ultimately what we have now is an incredible range of diversity in women’s online media. It will be fascinating to see how the big publishing companies, which boast massive female-focused magazine and online territories – respond. Coming up with innovative ways to respond to female audiences’ interests will undoubtedly take online publishing in an interesting direction.
So is there a new mainstream in online women’s publishing? Only time will tell. It does however seem that any publisher that seeks to appeal to the crucial 18-30 female audience needs to focus on issues that might have seemed more marginal a decade ago.
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