Come the revolution, Sister – if we can afford it

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

My last blog reported on the curious absence of women among the pioneers of digital journalism – a regressive trend seen by some as symptomatic as an emerging form of e-patriarchy.

But hang on, isn’t the beauty of the digital age the new opportunities it opens up, the way it affords everyone, including those historically with the least access to the means of (print) production, to have a voice? In theory, the digital revolution should bring us a new era of protest and debate, in which old hierarchies can be challenged and more powerful, inclusive forms of campaigning created. At the very least, you get a few good feminist websites.

Let’s head over, virtually speaking, to one such. Run by a team of volunteers, The f-word started as a forum for reviews in 2001, becoming a collective blog several years later. Yet ten years on, the team is only just starting to think about a business model, and are finally putting together a funding committee to look at ways of bringing in revenue.

With the only revenue raised so far having come via an appeal on a blog for donations to cover the costs of a re-design, attempts at income generation have been ‘slow-going’, admits music review editor Holly Combe.

But looking back, she goes on, it would have been almost inimical to the spirit of the project to think in cold commercial terms.

‘A lot of women have come together to do something that’s almost anti-organisation, and anti-business model,’ she says. ‘Gradually they do more and more, and then they start to wonder how they’re going continue to do it, and earn a living.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a stellar example of a website run by and for women. With revenue of £3 million this year, Mumsnet can hardly be accused of not being business-like. And, with 1.7 million unique users a month, it uses its considerable influence to campaign on behalf of women, raising everything from the over-sexualisation of girls to the impact of night car parking charges on women.

Yet the path to success was hardly a clear, or even a thought-out one. For the first few years, according to co-founder Justine Roberts, the aim was simply to provide a forum for parents to exchange ideas and support each other. The site’s campaigning voice first emerged when an advert about Madeleine McCann advert caused an outcry among Mumsnet members. As time went on, politicans started to take notice of this vocal constituency, but it wasn’t until the ‘Mumsnet election’ of 2009 that the company finally decided to invest in some dedicated campaigning staff.

‘We didn’t start off with the intention that we would be a campaigning website,’ says Roberts. ‘We became large enough and attracted the interest of politicians. We thought it would be remiss of us not to use that access.’

Even more compellingly, she admits that the first business model she drew up in 1999, based on e-commerce, ‘wasn’t worth the paper it was written on’. But while its contemporaries over-invested in costly infrastructure, Mumsnet survived, thanks to a low-cost, slow-grow approach which enabled it to gradually build large numbers of engaged visitors. Running the site was effectively a voluntary job for years, with its founders relying on the family income earned by their partners. (Roberts is married to Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.)

Yet – and here comes the paradox at the heart of the Mumsnet model – Roberts acknowledges that the site’s success depends on, well, its success. ‘Having a voice that people will listen to means that you have to have scale,’ she says. ‘The only way your voice will be effective is to have scale. You have to have a business model that works. It’s chicken and egg.’

The Mumsnet secret, it seems, boils down to a blend of hard graft, patience and something that its more idealistic counterparts lack – a canny willingness to identify and act on commercial opportunities. The site is now entirely sustained by advertising, to the point where even media folk wanting to access its membership are sent to a Worldpay page charging £30.

In July this year, the site launched the Bloggers Network, a scheme allowing contributers to take a share of revenue based on the number of page views their work generates. ‘It doesn’t feel right to take people’s work and publish it without sharing the potential revenue,’ says Roberts. ‘The Huffington Post model didn’t feel right for Mumsnet.’

But, the almost serendipitous success of Mumsnet aside, the problem of how to sustain campaigning websites remains. Courtney Martin, editor of
Feministing, a US blog started in 2004 and run entirely by women in other full time jobs, puts it starkly:

‘So I’m sitting here, mindful of my own legacy and very struck that what one might reasonable argue is the most robust, powerful medium for feminism today is being created in a truly unsustainable way,’ she writes in a post earlier this year. ‘I start to daydream about all of the amazing things we might be able to do if we actually had the funding, space, and time to do more than keep our heads above water.

‘I just can’t shake the feeling that one of the biggest mistakes my own generation is making is accepting the status quo of an unsupported blogosphere and losing the opportunity to make an even larger impact,’ she adds.

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