In late February of this year, Lamar Outdoor Advertising unveiled a billboard on Sixth Ave and Watts in SoHo, not coincidentally right around the corner from a Planned Parenthood, featuring the picture of a young black girl and the words, “The most dangerous place for African Americans is in the Womb.” The ad was sponsored by the Texas anti-choice group Life Always. An editor at Feministing posted about the billboard on February 24, featuring an excerpt from an inspired statement by SisterSong and the Trust Black Women Partnership, along with the contact information for Lamar. Readers expressed their outrage, and the billboard was taken down the very same day.
Despite countless examples like these, among a number of feminists, a false perception lingers that online feminist work is, at worst, navel-gazing and, at best, “slactivism.” In fact, feminist organizations that primarily take action online—ranging from blogs like Feministing, Racialicious, and the very young F-Bomb, to advocacy organizations like MomsRising and Hollaback—are thriving hubs of contemporary feminist action. The belief that online activism isn’t “real” or deserving of financial support isn’t just an insult to entrepreneurial bloggers and organizers; it’s creating a crisis in the feminist movement. “Online innovation begs us to push the envelope for how to even think about what feminist work is,” explains Deborah Tolman, author and professor at Hunter College, “and the criteria by which we might demonstrate the kinds of impact that online feminism is having.”
While many online-native businesses, particularly sites providing media content, struggle to monetize, the models that do work are difficult to replicate on sites devoted to online feminist organizing. To the extent that advertising is a viable source of revenue for feminist sites, we’re not focused on amassing page views the way most news sites are; we’re focused on changing the world. Bloggers and online organizers cover and use the news, sure, but we do it with an eye always on social impact and a desire to inspire real action. Think of online feminism as the love child of MoveOn.org and Jezebel; though we do news analysis, we collectively hope to send people away from our sites rather than trapping them there. Other content providers have recently made strides in charging for content; the public service mission of feminist blogging and organizing sites would be undermined if we created barriers to access. Not-for-profit content providers solicit foundation support; this often requires the services and skills of a grant-writer, the kind of institutional staffing a scrappy start-up site doesn’t have. And if a grant-writer were to seek out foundation funding, “Foundations and donors that historically and primarily give to media tend to be stuck in the old paradigm of ‘objective media’ and shy away from advocacy journalism,” says Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director of the Media Consortium.
Blogs like Feministing, of which I am an editor emeritus, have operated without any formal structure for years. Third-party advertising networks, like Google Adwords, provide the majority of our revenue, but most often there is no money left over—after tech and hosting fees—to pay any of our eleven bloggers. We’ve been caught in a seven-year chicken-or-egg-cycle; at annual retreats, we discuss next steps for formalizing our structure and focusing on becoming financially sustainable, and then our full-time jobs (largely as communications consultants at feminist nonprofits and freelance journalists) crowd out any time to follow up. We’re too busy trying to make ends meet to figure out how to make ends meet.