I was 17 when I emailed Tavi Gevinson to ask if I could be a part of whatever her new magazine was going to be. At the time I was a high schooler living in the suburbs with a now-deleted blog I updated almost obsessively (all laughably after school, since I did not own a smartphone), all for a readership of probably 10 people who for some reason cared what I had to say about music and how I was decorating my bedroom. I didn’t know any writers to look up to, and young women who called themselves capital F feminists were basically nonexistent in my school. But I knew Tavi, and hundreds of teenage girls across the world who felt predictably frustrated with mainstream media created for us—or at least I felt like I knew them through the Internet.
On Friday Gevinson announced that after seven years Rookie would be shutting down. Running Rookie the way it should be run in a media landscape like this is just too difficult. “In one way, this is not my decision, because digital media has become an increasingly difficult business, and Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable,” she wrote. “And in another way, it is my decision—to not do the things that might make it financially sustainable, like selling it to new owners, taking money from investors, or asking readers for donations or subscriptions.”
I wrote regularly for the website from the day it started until a few years ago, when I knew I was too old to keep writing for a place that should have always privileged the voices of actual teenagers. That was the novel concept of Rookie, that unlike Teen Vogue or Seventeen, we were overwhelmingly staffed with actual teenagers, and were free to write about our realities as if they were the stuff of serious journalism. Reading Gevinson’s announcement, I felt relieved that she was shooting down something that meant so much to me instead of handing it over to media idiots who’d turn it into a content farm. But I also felt devastated that the experience of writing for Rookie—the irreverent fun and intense care paid to your writing—wouldn’t be available for other young writers.
Rookie published its first post in 2011, which was basically yesterday. But if you really think about culture made for teenage girls seven years ago, it seems like a much more distant, archaic time. Taylor Swift was on the radio singing about how important it was to save your virginity because boys only want one thing. Teen Vogue was dedicating its pages to socialites and children of famouses who nabbed coveted internships doing... something. Everyone on television was too hot, too white, too thin, and it didn’t seem like young people were having critical conversations about diversity and politics the way we are now. It would be three more years until Beyoncé took the stage at the VMAs with the word “FEMINIST” behind her in lights, helping to teach a generation that it wasn’t a dirty word.
The blogs teen girls were writing on the internet were a refuge from a media industry that assumed we were all universally interested in dressing for our body types, what Zac Efron looks for in a girlfriend, or sharing horror stories about our supposedly disgusting periods. To older audiences that hadn’t been paying attention, Rookie must have seemed like it came out of nowhere, but I knew the website was a culmination of years of young women blogging outside the lines in weirder corners of the internet. Like the brazen, wasteful white men in media who get billions of dollars thrown at them far more frequently than women do, Gevinson was tapping into a built-in audience hungry for a site like this, but with far less funding.
Since many of us grew up with internet access, we weren’t necessarily as reliant as prior generations on advertiser-controlled magazines and airbrushed celebrities to tell us what was cool. On Rookie you could read, in the voice of a cool older friend or someone your age as freaked out as you were, about the politics of dating older dudes, or how to give yourself a breast exam, how to deal with depression, how to leave abusive relationships, to name just a few. This is why so many readers I meet now talk about Rookie as a lifeline. Other generations before mine had gURL.com or Sassy, and non-teenagers had places like The Hairpin, Bitch, Bust, or this very site. But my generation, for a brief moment in time, had Rookie.
And yes, Rookie was admittedly flawed. While we were self-proclaimed feminists building our own website, the pressure on Gevinson and the site to be emblems of a young feminist movement, even as we were all still figuring that out, was unbelievably intense. Some people didn’t like the twee aesthetic and I remember that, frequently, older writers didn’t like the site even though it wasn’t made for them. It certainly prepared me for future jobs like this one, when readers angrily asked me why I wasn’t furiously writing about every single rape in the country, or every single offensive or women-starring piece of pop culture—as if my brain is not meant to be a brain but a never-ending Women’s Studies 101 syllabus, all because I work in “women’s media.”
But whether or not you found Rookie cloying or immature, too white or not feminist enough, I look back on my time writing there in shock at how carefully my writing was treated by editors as someone who had never written anywhere other than my blog. Now that I work in media full time, I often hear writers talk about how thankful they are that their old writing is lost to time, or that they didn’t immediately start writing so publicly online when they were teenagers or in their twenties. And the more places I work for in this industry, the more I see why.
It’s easy for a young woman to get a job in media, assuming she is okay with working for a gazillion-dollar corporation and being paid pennies; fine with working on contract with zero benefits; and alright with building a writing portfolio consisting primarily of humiliating confessionals about her personal life or clickbait posts about how hot she thinks Michael B. Jordan is. The internet at its worst can sound like the most awful stereotype of a squealing teenage fan, all OMGs and LOLs and dead-eyed drooling where there should be critical integrity, and I’ve found that editors at many publications want to push young woman writers into this tone. When they don’t want you to be apolitical and stupid, they want you to overperform your rage for clicks so you can be the next Lauren Duca and garner acclaim as the apparent voice of teenagers everywhere even though you are, I will politely remind everyone, a grown woman.
In 2018, I might cringe when I read anything I wrote for Rookie for the obvious reason that it was me at my most amateur and definitely most vulnerable—but I’ve never felt like I was exploited. That’s because I had editors who actually edited me; I had editors who pushed me, who told me when my ideas were stupid without the risk of offending my frail teenage brain, and put my pieces through multiple edits to make them good. I remember writing about my elementary crossing school guard and editor Amy Rose Spiegel calling my family to fact check my claims and their existence. I remember having a support group when my work garnered negative attention from powerful people I wouldn’t expect to read it. I remember not being beholden to a news cycle and being forced to respond immediately to every news story with a zippy take. I remember having the faith of my editors to write about topics that had nothing to do with my gender or my age because they saw me as a person and not a Young Woman. That’s a concept that’s harder to teach editors who are always looking for diverse bylines but then only let those people write about diversity.
Did this make me a better writer? I don’t know, but it perhaps made me more aware, earlier, of how fucked up this industry is. I was reminded of Rookie especially when I read the terribly written investigation into Aziz Ansari published on Babe.net, written by the young writer named Katie Way. Way seemed supremely confident in her abilities as a reporter, but as someone not much older than she was, all I could see were the ways in which her editors had failed her. As I grew up with Rookie and looked at the ways in which other outlets for (kill me) millennials, like Thought Catalog, XOJane, Mic, or Bustle, treated their female writers and their intelligence—not bothering to regard their writing as anything other than polarizing SEO mush—I realized that Rookie really wasn’t just abnormally good for a teen publication, it was an abnormally good publication period.
It wasn’t a perfect publication, if any such thing can exist. And it was Rookie’s constant push for higher standards in teen media—and an unwillingness to submit to an increasingly standard, watered down style—that led to its demise. As Gevinson pointed out in her final editor’s letter, it wasn’t a rich site, nor was it one that could keep up with where teen readers were going (Snapchat? Instagram?). But like so many women who signed on after school to read it and turn to its writers for advice, as I’ve done even as an adult, I will mourn Rookie. But I’ll also mourn the time when such a publication could even exist.