Babe.net could have been a good website, and for a time, before it shut down in February, it really was. Its lack of self-consciousness and weird tendency for obsessive DM reporting represented the best of the lawless world of blogging, making it one of my favorite stops in my morning news trawls.
Then came the Aziz Ansari report in January 2018, which I wrote about, and the optimistic notion of the internet as a Wild West zone collided with the reality of reporting sensitive topics like sexual assault. The piece, by a young and promising reporter named Katie Way, generated a large amount of negative attention (myself included), and Babe seemed to shift its identity in the direction of the fallout—taking bigger swings (often written by then-News Editor Harry Shukman, who led their investigations) and framed, usually, with a mild sense of defiance for the journalistic gatekeeping that criticized it.
It was distressing and it was admirable—journalism is often inaccessible to young people and those lacking privilege; I loved its irreverence, a punch up at the institutions that often guard said privilege—and at times misguided, as though the lesson to be learned from the Aziz story was the conservative cudgel of old people, rather than a practical moment for self-reflection. (We all have them.)
Allison P. Davis, writing at The Cut, outlines what happened after Way’s Aziz story blew up, with a large amount of narrative that feels both depressingly familiar and seemingly eternal. Young women journalists, working at a site run by men, work for meager rates and are encouraged to exploit their personal lives while lacking guidance or mentorship; young women journalists, interested in writing about their experiences and speaking to others like them, become cogs for the larger concern of pageviews; young women journalists, in a drinking-culture environment and with no Human Resources department to register their complaints, are seen as not just employees but as sexual conquests by their male superiors.
It’s funny that, even while woman-centered media broadens its focus and overall aims to inclusion, there are as many “new” ways to exploit women as there are “new” ways to write about the same old stories—none of which are limited to Babe or what’s reported about them in The Cut piece.
Davis describes one of several incidents this way:
A few days after I hung out at babe.net’s offices, the staff went out to drink together to toast departing team members; Rivlin, the CEO, had decided to shutter the U.S version of The Tab, in order to reallocate the money to the cresting babe.net. He was in town to say good-bye to his staffers. The night was an aggressive one. “I didn’t pay for my own drinks the whole night,” a staffer named Chloe recalled. “I was drinking a lot,” she said, “and browning out.” At some point, she and everyone else ended up back at the company apartment in Williamsburg Herrmann and Rivlin shared. Chloe found herself dancing with Rivlin and eventually making out with him until another co-worker intervened. One staffer told me that the encounter made her, and the other staffers, deeply uncomfortable. Mitzali, Chloe’s manager, told everyone they had to leave the party. Chloe says that she takes responsibility for her part in the make-out but still felt weird about the whole thing. She burst into tears in the bathroom immediately afterward, and woke up the next morning and texted her boss, Amanda Ross, “I fucked up.”
“I felt like they looked at me differently after this happened,” Chloe said recently.
These blurred lines often accompany a lack of processes around ordinary business practices, like HR. Davis also reports that five employees attempted to address their inequitable workplace culture in a letter, and that editor Joshi Hermann’s response was to organize meetings. These meetings—which took the form of 90-minute incident reports—were “witnessed” in tandem with Shukman, another male manager. After a week of investigation it is perhaps unsurprising that, according to Davis, Hermann ultimately found these complaints “baseless.”
Babe.net isn’t the first modern publication to be run like a start-up in the interest of thin margins, venture dollars, and something like “synergy.” But in Davis’s telling, Babe.net is an almost cliché cautionary tale for the exploitation that can arise from this kind of approach. Institutional support can at times feel like a barrier (multiple rounds of editing, sometimes excruciatingly long legal review, etc.) but ultimately works to protect writers and editors, including from superiors behaving unprofessionally or, at worst, in a predatory fashion. Apart from the reported workplace infractions, it highlights the way irreverence without a unified mission and philosophy underpinning it can quickly fall apart—shitposting for the exercise of it, rather than truth-telling with voice—and can, in the worst cases, be self-immolating, even when there is a clear journalistic purpose.
It’s no surprise that Gawker, Jezebel’s former sister site, was an inspiration for an early iteration of Babe. (It’s also not surprising when Davis writes that its “new writers, with an average age of approximately 23" had barely “heard of Gawker—much less did they know about its fall.”) Gawker, for all the ways it pioneered a certain style of blogging, had its own legacy of inequitable treatment of women; Jezebel, as the “women’s site,” was often ignored or left to proliferate on its own.
But it’s also a myth that Gawker Media’s lack of boundaries were what allowed it to become influential; at its best, its tone was (and is, in its various iterations) a function of the reporting and deep interrogation that fueled it, its irreverence aimed more broadly at systems and privilege rather than the perceived notion of hearing oneself talk or simply being an asshole. The objective of punching up and even calling out well-networked bullshit, is imperative, and one that the best journalists, as they stake out their careers, maintain. Such voices will always require the infrastructure to nurture them—to allow them to take bold, defiant stances—and unfortunately infrastructure is often the first thing to go, especially when women’s work is at stake.