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What Bustle's Funding Really Shows Us

What does it look like when you mix up journalism and the tech-world ethos? That's a question that's been asked a lot lately, when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post (and when Chris Hughes bought this magazine). But those purchases were legacy brands, with owners who don't need to immediately make money and who appear to have a great deal of reverance for the best parts of traditional journalism. There are also outfits like Yahoo and AOL and Tumblr, which have lately added (and subtracted) journalistic ventures under their much larger umbrellas. A more instructive case is Bustle, the new venture-capital backed women's online magazine by Bryan Goldberg, the 30-year-old Bleacher Report founder, and Los Altos native, who attracted a great deal of ridicule this summer when he announced that he'd be filling the previously uncatered-to niche audience known as "women." In this week's New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe reports on the formation of the venture, which is run by twentysomething women out of a recently redecorated townhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Goldberg doesn't come across looking especially well if you are judging by sophistication. (Of his website's name, Goldberg said: "A woman who’s successful, busy, living in a city—maybe she’s a bustler! ... It’s also a type of old-fashioned dress accessory. I did not know that. I know now.”) But his business plan, and he does have one, gives some clues as to what at least one type of Silicon Valley-driven writing might look like. 

Bustle (like Buzzfeed, supposedly) gives its editors equity. Goldberg decided not to hire an editor-in-chief, in part because he dislikes the uniform voice-iness that many other women's sites have, and associates (probably correctly) a clear editorial tone and vision with having one person in charge. There is a managing editor, and there are people in charge of verticals, instead. Initially, their editorial direction will be hunch-driven, but in general, Goldberg and company will decide what to cover via a raft of data on what has done best thus far. (“I am a dude,” Goldberg declared to Widdicombe. “I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests with most women my age. I’m really into history. I’m really into markets and finance.") Posts are mostly referred to not as "writing" but as "content." They are largely aggregated. The goal is to have a thousand articles a day on the site. Right now, the small staff is producing 60. Widdicombe likens the editorial strategy to the monkey-writing-Shakespeare idea: " If you assemble a sufficiently large and diverse group of young, female writers, they will eventually produce a Web site that is popular with young women." Or, as Goldberg put it elsewhere, "I know women who are really into interior design but don’t care about fashion. And it seems crazy. You say, how can someone love interior design but not care at all about fashion? And that’s what’s awesome about it. If you can make a publication that’s strong in all of these disparate areas and bring together all these interests no one else is doing, I think you have a winning idea there." 

The idea for the site came not out of some lofty goal for creating something thoughtful for women, but because Goldberg found that he was passing up advertising dollars from companies like Unilever. It does not pay well, and its young employees do not appear to have any kind of mentorship. These are all things designed to make a journalist's skin crawl. His meeting with a potential investor, which Widdicombe reports on, makes at least this woman's skin crawl. "It’s for modern women with busy life styles," Goldberg said. “So you’re writing it for the Sheryl Sandbergs out there?” the man replies. He doesn't end up investing, because he's unsure that Goldberg's content can be broadly appealing. Goldberg has enough other people convinced, though. He is also looking to convince more. “Honestly, nothing would have been more helpful here than for some highly regarded feminist writers to say, ‘Bryan’s a good person,’ ” he tells Widdicombe.

I have never found myself rooting against a journalistic enterprise succeeding before, nor have I ever disliked the idea of finding ways to make journalism profitable, nor am I at all reflexively anti-tech. But that's how I felt by the end of the article, until I realized that I was the one using the j-word. Widdicombe doesn't drop it once to describe the site's writing, and Goldberg clearly thinks of Bustle as a product. There are tech people investing in journalism, but many of them are doing so alongside "content," as in the case of Medium, backed by a Twitter founder. And so that, maybe, is the key thing to be learned about Silicon Valley's approach to this kind of thing: it is resolutely un-precious. In that spirit, I've decided to be dispassionately interested in watching how Bustle does, and what makes it succeed or not. Website metrics, along with interior design, are just another thing women can be into. 

Noreen Malone is a staff writer for The New Republic.  

Image via Shutterstock.