Such talk of business—from him or any adult in the media industry who was interested in working with Rookie—would make me feel immediately protective, not just of Rookie and its community, but myself. I didn’t want Rookie to become a source of stress, or to feel like I was doing it more for a money-minded partner or owner than I was for myself and its readers. I needed time and space to grow up. I feared waking up in my 20s and finding that I’d produced 1,000 corny videos for a website that was once my baby and was now under the control of a guy named, I don’t know, Bryce.
Let’s say now that Bryce is the term for a businessman. He is someone who could either invest in Rookie, buy it, or work for a company that bought it and employs Bryce to worry about the company making money. He is male because, during Rookie’s first few years, most people I encountered in those positions were male, and I was sure that a middle-aged man could never “get” Rookie or me. From ages 15-20, I was Anti-Bryce. I didn’t know that many, but one depressing meeting with a Bryce is enough to send you fleeing into the warm bosom of independent publishing forever. There were and are Bryces who are not evil, but actually really great: who start and invest in meaningful, important companies; who want to use media and technology to help people in uncynical ways; without whom, power and money would belong only to the Bryces who think there should be social networks for Nazis. Back then, I was not interested in finding out about Good Bryces, the hard or easy way. My brain was still too mushy to see people as not simply Good or Evil. Or maybe I knew that there were Good Bryces—and Hayleys, and Spikes (that’s the office dog)—but it still seemed unwise to take anyone’s money.
This organicness of Rookie was in part a testament to the way people rallied around it: the contributors and readers who were willing to share pieces of themselves and support each other. This is still happening, thanks to you, reading this, but organicness on the internet is not as easy now as it was back then. Rookie started in 2011, and to remind you where technology was then, I had a slide phone and no Instagram account. When I got home from school every day, I looked at websites on a desktop computer. To get to school in the mornings, I had to walk ten miles in the snow, and actually never even made it because I would trip and fall on my back and have to wait for hours for someone to stand me up because my coat was so puffy that I could not move. Nowadays, social media gets more of people’s eyeballs than publications do. Publications can use social media to promote their content but it is rare to get people to actually click out of an app and look at it. Also, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc., now exert more control over what you see, based on which accounts are best at posting according to those platforms’ ever-changing algorithms. Maybe you are like 2011-me and nothing I’m saying describes your internet habits. But it describes those of enough people that most, if not all, digital media companies have suffered in the last few years trying to keep up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half the jobs in the information industry ceased to exist from January 2001 to September 2016. Some companies have rearranged themselves around social media algorithms, even when they were based on very flimsy understandings of the kinds of content people want to see. And, in the midst of all this, digital ad sales—Rookie’s main source of income—became less valuable. It was now harder for digital media companies to subsist on advertising revenue alone, and a few companies we worked with and were in talks with pursued acquisitions of their own. The industry was changing quickly and everyone was playing catch-up. So if you didn’t already know, that is at least part of why other websites you like may have ceased to exist, started publishing stories that seemed out of character, or asked readers for money.
Another thing I should say about Rookie’s first few years was that it took up a manageable amount of my time. I was still going to high school for its first three years. Once I graduated and moved to New York, I started pursuing some of my other interests, like acting, but by then, we had a bigger team of editors. I could oversee the creative side from a distance and ignore the business side from an even greater distance. I envisioned a future in which I would pass the torch to a new editor, hire other people to grow and unite the creative and business sides, not try to fight the losing battle of speaking to or for teens as I grew older, and become more of a facilitator of, rather than voice for, younger people’s creative expressions.
But around two years ago, the business side had gotten too bleak for me to figure everything out on my own terms, at my own pace. It was no longer enough to publish good content and know your existing readers would come to you. This is still true, now: A lot of the editors I know must overachieve for their publication just to survive. Perhaps this is less of a problem if it’s your one full-time job.
Along with a role like mine starting to require more and more time, I was finding that it’s hard to do multiple projects well. I started to crave the time and space to go deeper into an idea—be it through writing or acting—that is very hard to find if you are responsible for something that generates daily content on the internet. But I still badly believed that Rookie—this thing that was so much bigger than me—should exist and evolve. So Rookie’s publisher Lauren and I started exploring solutions that would make the business more sustainable and take some responsibility off my shoulders.