Profit Vs Principle: The Ethical Struggle Behind Helping Feminist Publications To Survive

It’s more than a little disheartening that a publication’s ethical principles and surviving capitalism’s demands seem to be mutually exclusive.
Publish date:
July 29, 2014
feminism, writing, publishing, zines

The recent closure of Feminist Times raises a difficult question: Why are feminist publications forced to choose between profit and ethics?

Many publications, including Feminist Times, find themselves torn between staying true to the values of the publication and staying afloat in a capitalist culture which provides no funding for women’s projects. Deputy Editor Sarah Graham explained, "Two of our founding ethical principles were not exploiting writers (by paying everyone) and not taking advertising -- two things that many others in the media do." In a world of women’s magazines plagued by advertisements of products we don’t need, full of photoshopped models and luxury brands we can’t afford, Feminist Times was a sacred ad-free heaven. And in competitive creative industries where unpaid internships and unpaid work is the norm, the site’s payment of their contributors was especially important.

So is the payment of contributors and the refusal to accept irrelevant ads a recipe for feminist publication disaster? Apparently so. As Editor Deborah Coughlin noted, the only factor missing from Feminist Times was financial support: "It wasn't missing energy, it wasn't missing vision, it wasn't missing a gaping hole - it was very much filling a gap. But money." It’s more than a little disheartening that a publication’s ethical principles and surviving capitalism’s demands seem to be mutually exclusive.

Why make a fuss about one publication closing? There are plenty of publications to showcase women’s writing, right? Nope. One recent study revealed that only 33% of opinion pieces online are written by women, and feminist publications are more crucial than ever in providing a platform for marginalised voices, allowing women to develop their viewpoints in spaces free from judgement and criticism. Maintaining these spaces –- whether in print or online -– is so important: for many, they are small but crucial pieces of sanity in a culture which profits from the glorification of sexism, homophobia and misogyny.

When there are no flickers of feminist thought in your small pocket of the world, online spaces are important, reassuring and invaluable sources of comfort. Growing up, I found an independent feminist zine, Girls Get Busy, by chance through Tumblr. It provided me with my first dose of feminism -– and soon my desk was cluttered with the printed pink zines, full of the feminist ideologies that were painfully absent from my everyday life. The zine, sadly, is no longer in print and now continues in digital issues online, but what if it was forced to shut down altogether?

Girls Get Busy is not the exception: more and more mainstream magazines are going out of print (the most recent publication to cease in print was teenage magazine Bliss) – and for independent feminist publications, the struggle is even harder. Tatyahna Cameron, the founder of Sad Girls Guide, told me in an interview that her site relies on voluntary writers and brand sponsorships, and notes that, "The big sites like Rookie or Jezebel -- they all had investors and funding. When you're pushing content instead of products, it's just harder to make money."

It seems that all feminist publications are forced to choose between profit or principle: "Being a feminist publication lands you in a lot of meetings with venture capitalists that don't have any clue what you're talking about or what you're doing with your site. When you get into finances, and I hate to stereotype, but from my personal experience, most of the time you're dealing with old guys who don't get it, which can be stifling," says Cameron. Her struggle highlights an important issue: perhaps financial support is available, but if the funding organisations intervene in the content or overall mission of the publication, perhaps it is better to have no funding at all.

Often, taking money from investors can result in the dreaded outcome of "feminism as a selling point," the opposite of what the publication sets out to achieve -- that is, feminism with a real intention to improve women’s rights worldwide, not selling "empowering" makeup. In her piece for i-D, Sarah Graham comments that feminism has become one of the biggest buzz-words in advertising and that everyone "from Katy Perry to David Cameron [are] being asked whether they identify with the label, but what does it all really mean? While I’ve no objection to detoxifying the term by bringing it into regular usage, it’s only any use if it does more than just sell shampoo."

When feminism is used simply as a marketing tool, selling women beauty products they don’t need in the name of female empowerment, we’re losing feminism’s actual meaning in the process -- and anti-capitalist publications are suffering as a result of its commodification.

It seems that any publications who reject this marketed, glamorous feminism are suffering hugely: Graham wrote on her blog that just as Feminist Times was closing, another volunteer-led feminist campaign, Everyday Victim Blaming, announced that they needed funding to continue running. An editor of feminist zine OOMK (One Of My Kind), Sofia Niazi, told me that the zine applied for Arts Council funding, but the application was rejected as the publication is "quite niche."

GEEKED’s editor, Samantha Langsdale, told me the same and that her rejection letter stated that the "project did not have enough relevance in the 'art' community," despite the fact that the magazine is illustration-led. Indeed, as Graham writes, "The fact is, beyond one-off donations, funding is so hard to come by for women’s projects." However, a lack of funding is not wholly negative: "We appreciate the autonomy we have from not having to adhere to the terms and conditions of any funders," Niazi says. And perhaps lack of financial support is a small price to pay in the name of securing total publication freedom and control.

Funding rejections come in a variety of shapes and sizes: unlike OOMK being too niche and GEEKED not playing an important role in the art community, Shameless didn’t meet the requirements to apply. Its editor, Sheila Sampath, told me that the magazine needed a certain circulation and an agreement to pay contributors –- and, ironically, small magazines, who need the funding the most, cannot meet the requirements. Sampath explains the catch-22 cycle of running a feminist magazine: "Unfortunately, without resources, it’s impossible for a magazine of our size to meet those requirements: We don’t have the volunteer power to do a circulation drive on top of the work that it takes to put together the magazine and maintain our online presence. We don’t have the capital to pay contributors without the grant money, so we’re caught in a bit of a cycle."

How can we get out of this endless cycle? To no one’s surprise, the answer isn’t easy –- and solutions will be different for every publication, depending on their size and goals. We’ve established that non-profit zines want to pay contributors, but cannot do so without funding, and it appears no funding is available. These publications rely solely on dedication and passion -– two traits the women running them definitely possess. Yet for feminist publications committed to paying contributors and refusing advertising, profit is crucial, and often, sadly, impossible to obtain.

It seems that compromise is the only way forward if ethical values are to be at least a fraction maintained. Total dedication to principle leaves no room for negotiation with finance -– yet as profit is the goal (or, at least, the ability to pay contributors is) then perhaps some procedures must be altered. Maintaining a standard of ethical employment, contributors could be paid a smaller yet sustainable amount -– or advertising could be accepted, provided it was in line with the publication’s values.

When the culture we live in makes it so difficult to survive as a feminist space, perhaps it is better to exist, at first, within the framework of the society we’re trying to change than not to exist at all. When mainstream publications refuse to cover topics like rape culture or male entitlement, feminist platforms for these discussions become even more crucial.

Above all, the important thing is the sheer existence of these feminist spaces, in whichever form today’s culture allows.