Independent voices have always been needed to challenge the status quo, particularly for minority groups and viewpoints. In fact, some of today’s most mainstream publications—think Cosmopolitan—started off as defiant upstarts before society caught up with them. So what happens when a beloved indie publication closes its proverbial doors?
“We Are Closing The Toast July 1st,” read the headline that crossed my Facebook newsfeed one morning last May. The story that followed was a conversational back-and-forth between the site’s co-founders, Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg, in which the pair discussed their decision to close down the site they had founded in 2013.
As is often the case with independent media properties, the decision was due to a decline in revenue. When considering other options, including changing the site’s content and business model, Cliffe and Ortberg realized that although keeping the site afloat may have been possible, the result would have been a completely different publication from The Toast they had originally envisioned: quirky, feminist, and unlike everything else on the internet. “Most of [the solutions] would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever,” they explained, emphasizing that this was not a worthwhile resolution for a site whose bread and butter consisted of stories such as “Grumpy Hermits I Would Like To Cuddle In Art History.”
Instead, they chose to shutter the site as promised on July 1, 2016, complete with a heartfelt sendoff from Hillary Clinton. “In nearly every industry, from publishing to scientific research, women have had to forge their own paths against overwhelming odds and less-than-friendly welcomes,” Clinton wrote, highlighting The Toast’s impact in providing opportunities for women who were previously underrepresented in the media. In the process, Cliffe and Ortberg created a space for women to share their stories and to be inspired by the stories of others.
Discussing The Toast’s closing with other writers and editors working in women’s media, I realized that the impact was both bigger and more personal than I had anticipated. Since so many of us look to sites like The Toast as indicators of success, it meant that the long-term viability of our own work was called into question. “As an editor, I keep hoping to find some sort of sustainable model for publishing,” says Lisa Marie Basile, founding editor of Luna Luna Magazine. “I keep saying, ‘one day.’ But if they can’t do it, can I? It definitely highlights the reality of the struggle.”
So why do it at all? For many of us, it goes beyond a sustainable business model and right to the heart of why we love independent media: the opportunity to tell unique stories and to connect with others. The reason sites like The Toast gain a loyal readership is because they provide diverse perspectives not found in traditional publications. “We publish what we think really matters as opposed to what will get clicks,” explains Gretchen Gales, managing editor of Quail Bell Magazine, a women-run magazine focused on arts and culture. “Lots of women are only really exposed to one kind of voice in school and in public life, which is unfortunate.”
The flipside of that independence is the challenge it brings: to gain visibility in an already saturated media landscape. “Getting recognition and increasing your audience can be a struggle,” says Gales. The fact that many independent media editors have separate full-time jobs and are perpetually low on funding and time for their passion projects doesn’t make the struggle any easier.
The stickiest point, however, is the problem of paying writers. “Not being able to pay contributors presents an ethical dilemma,” Basile says. It’s one that editors in indie media have been grappling with for years: to tempt writers with a published byline in a respected outlet in lieu of payment. While many writers are eager to accept exposure when establishing themselves in the industry or exploring new projects, ultimately most publications aim to grow to the point where they are not only in the black, but also able to pay their writers. Which is why when a site like The Toast closes its doors, a sort of existential crisis reverberates throughout the indie women’s media landscape. The question, implied or otherwise, is: Where do we go from here?
According to Clinton, the answer is to keep moving forward. “As we look back at what this site has meant to so many of you, I hope you’ll also look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you,” Clinton wrote in her tribute to The Toast. It was an inducement to be bold and unapologetic in the face of difficult professional and personal moments, and also a reminder that sites like The Toast have done the difficult work of starting a tradition that can now grow and develop. This is a tradition that we at A Women’s Thing, and the editors I interviewed, are proud to carry on.“In the end, I want to keep going—keep pushing,” says Basile. “I’m not sure what the future holds, but I think maintaining our digital presence while also building outward, into the world, is critical for brand growth and personal fulfillment. Because after all, it’s about the people.”