The website AfterEllen went live in 2002, producing content for and written by lesbian and bisexual women. Since then, other sites like Autostraddle launched aimed at a similar audience and mainstream sites like The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and NBC have all launched LGBT verticals. But earlier this week, AfterEllen editor-in-chief Trish Bendix posted that she was getting laid off and the site would be effectively shut down today after 14 years of publishing because it wasn't profitable. So goes another independent voice in a media landscape desperate for the digital advertising dollars Google and Facebook are scooping up in massive portions.
Evolve Media, the company that bought AfterEllen from Viacom in 2014, deemed that it wasn't profitable and gutted the site's staff, with future content produced by a skeleton crew of freelancers. After public backlash from its community, a statement by general manager Emrah Kovacoglu of TotallyHer Media, a brand under Evolve Media, tried to calm the storm. But the only assurance was that the archives would stay up and that some content would continue to come out at some point.
So sad to hear about AfterEllen. It was my safe space for years when I was too scared to be myself out loud. Thank you for everything.— Kaitlyn Alexander (@realisticsay) September 20, 2016
The closure came as a shock to many. Twitter testimonials credit the site for being a crucial to self-exploration and finding community, especially in the early days of the Internet. But just as surprised was Autostraddle's editor-in-chief Marie Lyn Bernard, known as Riese, who never thought they would outlive AfterEllen — especially after it got bought by a big conglomerate: "Plus, they had Viacom! They got bought by Totally Her! They had that corporate money! But corporate money isn't the answer, is it? Even with that money, they couldn't turn a profit."
AfterEllen editor-in-chief Bendix lays the blame at the feet of Evolve Media: Two years after purchasing the site, she said, they pulled the plug after finding it was "not as profitable as moms and fashion." That they could not secure the marketing funding to make the site financially feasible. Which is also an indictment of the advertising industry's failure to appeal to the queer female audience. The website's founder, Sarah Warn, echoed that critique on Twitter, noting that they're ignoring a demographic with money: Lesbians tend to earn more money than heterosexual women, who could be the moms into fashion Bendix was talking about.
Regardless, money was central to Evolve Media's decision to gut AfterEllen. As TotallyHer general manager Kovacoglu told Mashable in an email, "The site was not profitable and Evolve is very committed to running profitable enthusiast sites. Profitability is not something that has been easy to achieve in our industry recently."
She's right: Most online ad money isn't going to media outlets or even their parent corporations. An astonishing 65 percent of the total digital advertising pie in 2015 — $38.5 billion out of almost $60 billion — goes to five tech companies: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter. Without advertising revenue, sites still serving specific audiences like Autostraddle have turned to fundraising from its community through premium memberships. Even then, its editor-in-chief Riese said in a post mourning AfterEllen, "we're often on the brink of not existing anymore."
If Autostraddle ever goes the way of its predecessor, there will still be Buzzfeed LGBT and HuffPost Queer Voices to cover news. But these newer sub-sites don't fully serve the same audience. As Heather Dockray at Mashable writes, "LGBTQ verticals in mainstream sites exist partially to educate and inform cis and straight communities, queer-focused websites maintain more of an internal dialogue. It's great and profoundly important to watch Buzzfeed debunk LGBTQ myths — but on sites like AfterEllen and Autostraddle, those myths don't need to be enumerated. They're understood to be fiction."
That's assuming the umbrella sites hosting those verticals survive. Even Buzzfeed had to tighten its belt earlier this year as it slashed its expected revenue in 2016 from $500 million to $250 million. As the independent internet loses ground to the tech giants scooping up most of the digital ad dollars, news that wasn't lost on Buzzfeed itself, small sites are becoming increasingly endangered. Nor is the irony of unique voices priced out by universally-appealing megasites lost on writers, comparing it to the gentrification wiping out lesbian bars and other queer spaces in major cities. AfterEllen today, which site tomorrow?