Jezebel, the Oral History: ‘There Was This Riotous Sense of Fun’

The name “Jezebel” was chosen in 2007 by Gawker Media’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Gaby Darbyshire. Over several months, she and the site’s founder, Anna Holmes, had brainstormed names everywhere from the Gawker office on Crosby Street to Balthazar, where they jotted down notes on a paper tablecloth.

“‘Jezebel’ came into my head as being strong and provocative enough to raise and open questions about what it is to be a woman with opinions and a strong character,” Ms. Darbyshire said.

“I hated it,” Ms. Holmes recalled. She didn’t get the final say, but, she added: “I got a say in what the site was.”

Ms. Holmes, then 33, was working as an editor at InStyle magazine when she was approached in 2006 with the idea of starting a version of Gawker — Nick Denton’s media gossip blog — for women. Her first response: “Absolutely not.” She had heard that Gawker was a content farm of young, underpaid writers churning out blog posts.

Jezebel celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017. A decade earlier, both the media landscape and feminist discourse had been starkly different.Credit…Rebecca Bennett

But her mother was a reader of Ms. magazine in the 1970s, and Ms. Holmes had grown up reading Sassy. She realized “girly Gawker” was an opportunity to bring the spirit of those pioneering magazines to the internet.“We’re going to have things on the site that are fun and breezy, and they’re not going to be sexist or misogynist,” Ms. Holmes remembered thinking. “But I didn’t announce that to Nick Denton.”

“The feminist stance wasn’t explicit at the start,” Mr. Denton said when reached for comment, “but it followed from the editors we hired and the generation of women they attracted.”

Over the next 16 years, Jezebel introduced millions of readers to contemporary feminism, and — by functioning as a training ground for some of today’s most prominent writers — helped define the voice of the internet. The site predated a wave of feminist publications such as Broadly, Lenny Letter, and Double X, all of which Jezebel outlasted.

But after surviving new owners, a changing media landscape and seismic shifts in politics and culture, Jezebel shut down last week. “With the economic challenges over the past several months impacting the entire media industry, it became clear that despite Jezebel’s strong editorial the site just did not generate enough advertising to support the cost of running its operations,” said Jim Spanfeller, the chief executive of G/O Media, Jezebel’s parent company.

Jezebel “has had many different lives,” said Irin Carmon, an early hire who is now a senior correspondent at New York magazine — from the cavernous SoHo loft of Gawker Media’s start-up era to unionization to its parent company’s bankruptcy and acquisition. “It was so defined by its writers, that every time they turned over, the site substantially changed.”

In this oral history, some of the main players remember the site’s various reinventions.

Anna Holmes, founding editor, 2007-2010: The day we launched the site, there was a very famous post that went up. We were offering $10,000 for an unretouched photo of an actress or model on a women’s magazine.

Jennifer Gerson, writer, 2007-2008: The world was a different place. So how we talked about things was different. That’s what the mission of Jezebel was, to say the quiet things out loud.

Dodai Stewart, deputy editor, 2007-2014: Now, people are used to Instagram filters and all kinds of ways that images are altered, but we were living in a world where people did not realize and women did not realize how much images were being altered for them. (Ms. Stewart is currently an employee at The New York Times.)

Robbie Myers, former Elle magazine editor in chief: You couldn’t not read it if you were a person who ran a women’s media publication.

Jezebel’s founder, Anna Holmes, wanted the site to be sharp and undeniably feminist. She said she thought its writers should “use the actual word ‘feminist’ or ’feminism’ over and over again.”Credit…Rebecca Bennett

Irin Carmon, writer, 2009-2011: There had been nonprofit feminist blogs, and there had been very commercial women’s magazines, which were always constrained by the economics of the business, where you were constantly needing to stay within the bounds of what advertisers found acceptable. But the thing is, unlike Ms. magazine, where I had interned in my teens, there was this riotous sense of fun.

Anna Holmes: You did not see women of color in women’s magazines. You just didn’t. One thing that Dodai Stewart did was count models of color in the women’s magazines, on any given month.

Dodai Stewart: And on prime-time television also — it was a huge deal when “Scandal” came out because there hadn’t been a Black woman starring in a prime-time drama in so long.

The site’s first two years coincided with the 2008 election, and Jezebel’s editors and writers found there was a significant public appetite for its no-nonsense coverage. Day-to-day operations at Jezebel were consuming.

Dodai Stewart: It was a relentless schedule. I had to do eight posts a day for seven years.

Anna Holmes: It was exhausting. I smoked too much. I drank too much. I gained weight. It ruined my marriage. All I did was work.

Dodai Stewart: We had a kinship with Deadspin, the sports blog. Our table was adjacent to the Deadspin table. That was a table full of mostly guys with a couple of women. We were a table full of mostly women with a couple of guys.

Anna Holmes: I thought we should talk about gender, politics and race without apology, but also use the actual word “feminist” or “feminism” over and over again. So a reader would see it enough times that hopefully, we would normalize the idea.

Ms. Holmes left the site in 2010. By that time, Jezebel had for nine months straight surpassed Gawker’s page views. Jessica Coen replaced her. “Anna launched something phenomenal and singular,” said Ms. Coen, who had been the editor of Gawker. “I was under pressure to scale.” Other feminist blogs were growing, too: Feministing (which started in 2004) was on the rise, New York magazine rolled out The Cut in 2008, Slate’s Double X spun off in 2009, and Edith Zimmerman started The Hairpin in 2010 as part of The Awl network.

For a time, Jezebel lapped Gawker’s page views. “Suddenly, it was a great business model to have fun, mouthy women on the internet,” said Jessica Coen, who was the site’s top editor from 2010 to 2014.Credit…Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Dodai Stewart: The Gawker office had a leaderboard that showed the site traffic and what story was at the top. Psychologically, you want to be No. 1 on the leaderboard at least once a week. We were also offered bonuses for page views, and it made a difference in your paycheck.

Jessica Coen, editor in chief, 2010-2014: Suddenly, it was a great business model to have fun, mouthy women on the internet.

Anna Holmes: By 2012, it was clear to me that something was happening in the culture, and that it probably had a lot to do with the feminist blogs and the ways in which they were changing conversations. “30 Rock” did a parody of Jezebel. You started to see things like women’s conferences, a lot of “you go girl!” Beyoncé stood in front of that sign that said “feminist.”

Madeleine Davies, editorial assistant, 2012, to managing editor, 2018: There are a lot of valid criticisms of Jezebel, but one thing you can say for us is that we’ve always been a little bit ahead of the curve. So there was a lot of writing about cultural appropriation and things like gaslighting, which now are common parlance but at the time were not at all.

Kate Dries, editorial assistant, 2013, to deputy editor, 2017: The site was writing about reproductive rights long before that was considered ad-safe for other publications, with a consistency that other publications were not doing. We were writing about sexual assault on college campuses or abortion restrictions.

Jezebel’s comments section was a place for community, dissent and debate. The Jezebel writers became characters to the site’s readers. Some commenters posted regularly enough that they became characters in the Jezebel universe, too. Readers were highly engaged, but some directed vitriol toward the writers.

Dodai Stewart: We had an opportunity to respond to Vogue, respond to “The Daily Show,” respond to Vanity Fair or a movie studio’s casting and have a bunch of people chime in. The idea that there was a blog with a lot of commenters became a way to amplify some voices that previously would not have been heard.

Irin Carmon: Even Twitter in its best days — which are obviously well behind it — didn’t have that level of regular, deep engagement that the Jezebel commenters did.

Madeleine Davies: You would have to read pages and pages of people telling you why you’re a bad writer or spewing hatred, a lot of men’s rights activists and that type of thing.

And in 2014, the comments section became the target of a harassment campaign.

Jessica Coen: We were getting flooded in the comments with violent GIFs, really nasty pornographic stuff. We flagged it to management multiple times, and we were essentially greeted with a collective shrug.

Madeleine Davies: To get the company to respond, we had to write an article about it. It took us having to essentially protest publicly for this primarily male leadership to take it seriously.

Ms. Coen stepped down as editor that year, but stayed on to oversee Jezebel’s new travel and weddings verticals. Emma Carmichael took over the top role, championing a mix of absurdist blogs, cultural criticism and Jezebel investigations into misconduct, abuse and justice. By 2015, the year Hillary Clinton became the likely Democratic nominee for president, well-funded competitors had popped up — including Bustle, Lenny Letter and Broadly — and so-called women’s empowerment seemed to become more marketable.

Emma Carmichael, editor in chief, 2014-2017: When I took over Jezebel, I remember feeling like all the other women’s sites had started to mimic and replicate the tone of the site. It felt like a relief, because the site could lean into the strength of the writers that we had on staff, and it didn’t have to keep doing just genre-defining work every day, because the genre had been defined.

Joanna Rothkopf, staff writer, 2015, to senior editor, 2018: There was this piece from Refinery29 called “Allison Williams Is the Feminist We Need.” It was this blog that was about how Allison Williams is a feminist, but was paid for by Keds, the shoe. I thought that was the pinnacle of feminism being co-opted by brands. So for Jezebel, I wrote “Joanna Rothkopf Is the Feminist We Need,” and I had mine sponsored by this kind of inscrutable cable clip organizer product.

Jia Tolentino, deputy editor, 2014-2016: We all were skeptical — if not actively negative — toward the mugs that said “male tears,” and the little Instagram banners that said “staunch feminist” or whatever. Jezebel ushered in and was tied to that commercialization and the celebrity focus of a feminist ideology, but it also fought with it constantly.

In 2015, Gawker Media Group unionized, which “made people feel more invested in the company, and it gave us the financial stability to stay there for longer,” said Anna Merlan, who was a senior writer for Jezebel. Staff experimented with different forms of writing across Jezebel’s new verticals, which included culture, politics and travel, and they developed their own literary voices in tandem with the voice of the website.

Ashley Reese and Clover Hope were both writers at Jezebel. Ms. Reese said it “felt like a natural progression of things” when Julianne Escobedo Shepherd took over as editor in chief.Credit…Victor Jeffreys II

Joanna Rothkopf: The first couple of years I was there felt exactly like a writers’ room. We were in Slack all day. Everybody was having a freaking blast. And then our articles and blogs would come out of that. It was the dream creative environment.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, culture editor, 2014, to editor in chief, 2021: We laughed every single day from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Madeleine Davies: We did a week of content about the movie “Titanic,” because we had been talking about and joking about “Titanic.” Jia Tolentino wrote this amazing thing after “The Hunger Games” came out that was about how we all would fare in The Hunger Games.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: Clover Hope wrote a write-around about Iggy Azalea and the making of her. That was a really shining example of what we wanted to do, which was examine the machinations behind an entity or a cultural force.

Joanna Rothkopf: When I went to go make the transition into late-night television, I felt like I had already honed my voice and I knew what my identity as a writer was.

Jia Tolentino: The organization of all the Gawker sites was nearly completely horizontal. You could write something, give it to one other person to read, they’d put it up. That led to our best work and our worst work. There was very little barrier to publication — if you wanted to write something, you could write it immediately and then a huge amount of people would be reading it.

In August 2016, after Gawker Media’s bankruptcy, Univision acquired Jezebel’s parent company for $135 million. Then, on a night when Jezebel staffers were stress-smoking cigarettes in the office, Donald J. Trump was elected president. There was a new focus in the cultural discourse about women’s rage, and Jezebel staffers realized they had become reluctant figureheads for the moment.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: It was a very different site in the pre-Trump years to the Trump and beyond years. Leading up to the 2016 election, like many people, we were gearing up for the idea that we would have the first woman president, so we expanded our politics coverage. When that didn’t happen, it felt important to keep the coverage going, because everything was coming at us fast.

Joanna Rothkopf: People would think we were the outrage machine condemning culture, not having any fun.

Anna Merlan, senior staff writer, 2014-2017: “Feminism” was always and continues to be a polarizing term. And every era of Jezebel was subjected to a lot of reductive sentiments about what feminism is and what the website was. We were always reduced to a mass of angry women who were constantly outraged about things that didn’t matter.

Emma Carmichael: Jia Tolentino’s essay “No Offense” is a great foray into this topic.

Jia Tolentino: Somewhere toward the end of my time there, the readership data showed that it was essentially half men and women reading the site. That was one of the things that shaped my writing in a lot of ways — that you could write about women’s lives in a way that would be of broad general interest, and would be about the condition of being human.

In 2017, the former editor Koa Beck became editor in chief of Jezebel. “She approached the job more like a Condé Nast, Vogue, more traditional media property, rather than as this nasty, upstart-y blog where people were being idiots the whole time,” Ms. Rothkopf said. (Ms. Beck declined to comment through a publicist.) When Ms. Beck left in 2018, Ms. Escobedo Shepherd became editor in chief, and remained for the second half of the Trump administration.

Ashley Reese, writer, 2018-2022: Jezebel was first put on my radar when I was in college, so we’re talking early 2010s. I think a lot of its reputation — which was often scrutinized — was “this is white feminism,” despite the fact that a Black woman started it. By the time I was there, there was this really conscious effort for it to not be that. There was the Univision stuff, there was a buyout, but when Julianne took over, it felt like a natural progression of things for the direction Jezebel was going in.

More changes roiled Jezebel when, in 2019, Great Hill Partners purchased the former Gawker sites from Univision and formed G/O Media, led by Mr. Spanfeller. Meanwhile, the feminist media bubble had burst: The Hairpin and Lenny Letter closed in 2018; Broadly and Feministing folded in 2019. In 2021, mid-pandemic, Laura Bassett became Jezebel’s last editor. Jezebel saw a bump in readers when the Supreme Court’s abortion rights decision came down, but Ms. Bassett said she faced overwhelming challenges.

Laura Bassett was Jezebel’s last editor in chief. She resigned this year in solidarity with her writers, protesting the mandates of the G/O Media leadership.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

Laura Bassett, editor in chief, 2021-2023: In the four or five months after I took over, the staff slowly resigned except for one. They were frustrated by management and management’s treatment of the union. I did not expect that I was going to have to basically restart a staff from scratch. After we went on strike, management and Jim Spanfeller decided that they were putting us on a hiring freeze, which also meant no backfill. The company’s and Jim’s expectations of us were only rising as my numbers were shrinking. I ended up resigning in protest on behalf of my writers.

Lauren Tousignant, senior editor, 2021, to interim editor in chief, 2023: Jezebel got a little neutered under G/O Media. The past couple months, we could not put swears in the headlines unless it was a direct quote from a politician. The last few weeks were the most fun in a way, because they had stopped paying attention to us. My only direction was “keep the site going.”

Mr. Spanfeller announced on Nov. 9 that the site would shut down and lay off its staff. In a statement to The Times, he said: “I have not given up on the site, and am still cautiously hopeful that a buyer will emerge. I personally believe and support the site’s important mission, but I also have a fiduciary responsibility to the company.” Reflecting on the site’s closure led former Jezebel staff to larger questions about the future of digital media, and the young writers they feared could be left behind.

Madeleine Davies: You have these venture capital people who can only see things in terms of fast growth and dollars and cents.

Kylie Cheung, staff writer, 2021-2023: It’s worker-owned media like Defector and 404 — or nonprofit newsrooms like The 19th News — that gives me hope. It would be very cool to see something like that for what we’d call “women’s media.”

Irin Carmon: I think mainstream media has metabolized what Jezebel recognized, which is that you could have five reporters who were only covering issues that used to be called “women’s issues.”

Jia Tolentino: It feels to me like all of these training grounds, these farm teams where a lot of writers cut their teeth and learned their style and made their mistakes and learned what they could and couldn’t do — it feels like that’s disappearing. Jezebel was proof that if you just develop relatively new writers for two or three years and let them cook, you will find that they’re able to do pretty extraordinary things.

Ashley Reese: I became a better writer because of Jezebel, especially when working with my editors, Katie McDonough and Stassa Edwards. They made me a better thinker. They made me a more thoughtful person. And if we were given the resources that we needed, maybe we wouldn’t be talking about Jezebel in the past tense.

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