Let's pretend there's a controversial and provocative hypothetical website for women, Delilah, which has done something you disagree with. You're so angered, in fact, that you decide you're going to start your own site. How hard can it be? Delilah makes it look so easy, surely any smart person with a good head on their shoulders could pull this off. Right?
I've been where you are, hypothetical Delilah reader, and I would be remiss to let you start this journey without all the facts. I in no way want to dissuade you from starting your own site. We need all the smart, funny, creative, interesting, diverse voices we can cram on this series of tubes, yours included. There's room for everyone, and if you decide this path is the one for you, I will throw all of my support and good tidings behind you. Before you snatch up a domain name and start a hosting account with GoDaddy (don't start a hosting account with GoDaddy), however, take a minute and hear me out.
I started Persephone Magazine in October of 2010, for two reasons. One, there was a lot of discontent around
Delilah Jezebel, and two, my mom just died, and I was lost. I'd already lost my job, my uterus, two friends to suicide, four pets, and my willingness to get out of bed in the morning. I don't even remember what the Jez kerfluffle was about, honestly, which tells me that my taking advantage of it to siphon off a little traffic was more opportunity driven than from some moral or ethical compunction. We don't hate Jezebel, we don't think we can topple them from their lofty position as the place where the ladies get their Internet on, and we don't want them to go away. We share the inimitable Slay Belle with the Jez staff, we link to them frequently, we respect the niche they carved out for sites like ours, and they even linked to us. (Three times. S'okay, Jez.)
This list represents the biggest lessons I wish I'd learned before I started.
1. You're not the only one with this idea. Right around the time we were trying to capitalize on unhappy Jez readers, The Hairpin, Hello Giggles, and xoJane started. Someone with more money, connections, and free time than you has the same idea, and they've already hired a team of freelance web programmers to build it. When their sites come out, the entire media world will declare them the answer to all of life's problems. Unless they're Bustle. Obv.
2. You will get ripped off. In our very early days, when our traffic was roughly five of the writers' moms and a handful of our Facebook friends, BuzzFeed snatched our most popular post (at the time) and ran it as their own.
3. You will lose money. Although Persephone is in the peachy position of having our profits solidly in the low two figures this year, it will be the first year we didn't lose money. Our ad money covers our server costs, usually. No one at Pmag gets paid (me included), we all do this outside of our "regular" jobs. Gawker, I'm predicting, sells ad campaigns directly. Most lower-to-mid level sites use a combination of display ads (which pay by number of impressions and/or clicks) and affiliate links (which earn the site a percentage of any sales completed after clicking the ad.) We use affiliate links and direct campaigns (infrequently), as we were kicked out of AdSense for being too saucy, and most other display ad companies pay tiny, tiny CPC/RPM rates for terrible quality ads.
4. You have to think about the money. You may want to do this because of a deep and abiding love for the magic of language to connect and inform, but you still have to pay the server rent. And, if you're worth your salt, you have to be constantly thinking about how you can grow enough, fast enough, to pay your contributors.
5. You might get sued. We did, it cost us $1600. Our annual server bill is $1588, for comparison. Domain privacy will not protect you from a subpoena.
6. You will be surprised at the differences between what people say they want to read and what they actually click on.
7. Websites break. If you don't know how to fix it yourself, you'll have to hire it out, to someone like me, who will charge you a lot of money to fix it. Even if I like you.
8. You are the Watcher on the Wall. If you're writing about women's issues, you will have "pushback" from people who think you shouldn't be writing those things. If you have a team of writers, it's your job to protect them from that "pushback." If you do your job right, your writers won't ever have to know what kind of crusty-ass filth dwells in the cracks and crevices of the web, and that's not easy to do.
9. Fucking spam. In spite of ninety gajillion solutions for spam, spam is an unstoppable force. You will spend so much fucking time deleting spam comments/tweets/emails/pingbacks/etc, that you will personally want to rip the spine out of every single asshole who ever spammed, Mortal Kombat style. I may be projecting. (In the time I spent editing this post, I got five spammy Twitter DMs.)
10. It takes time. During a short week, I spend about 30 hours on Pmag related tasks. My record is 124 hours in one week, but I did a site redesign and we had to migrate servers twice.
11. Search engines are a pain in the ass. We run a sex advice column every week, and it's fantastic. Except ALL our search engine traffic goes to those posts. You really haven't lived until Google declares you an authority on squirting and cock rings.
12. You will get frustrated. A few weeks ago, we ran an exclusive interview with P-mag heroine, Laverne Cox, about the FreeCeCe documentary. It was linked on Jez, Madame Noir, HuffPo, and elsewhere, and those incoming links totaled less than 150 hits.
13. Your writers will flake on you. Even people who are normally reliable, who are interesting individuals with interesting perspectives saying thought provoking things will flake on you. Maybe a crisis in their personal life arises. Or they just plumb forgot their due date and didn't turn a post in. Or they promise you a post and disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again. Who is going to fill in that hole? Is it you? (Spoiler: Frequently, yes.) People don't keep coming back if you don't turn out fresh content on a regular, predictable basis.
14. You will fuck up, perhaps spectacularly, perhaps quietly enough no one else notices. How well you end up doing in this role will depend almost entirely on how you get past the fuck-ups, not on the fact that fuck-ups were made.
This list wasn't made to scare you away from starting your own blog/magazine/social media sensation. But it is meant to be an honest look at what it takes to run one. The better prepared you are, the more of a chance you have to survive. It's a blog eat blog world out there. /terrible pun.