Last September, we witnessed a rare indie press miracle: The much-loved but long-struggling Bitch, a small feminist quarterly based in Portland, Oregon, issued an urgent appeal for funds. We need $40,000 in one month, they declared, or we can’t print our next issue.
I began to steel myself for an Utne library without Bitch, a spirited favorite of staffers since it first started showing up 13 years ago. A consistent nominee for our annual independent press awards, it’s one of the only women-oriented magazines I can think of that has unswervingly retained a fearless, rough-around-the-edges, fundamentally indie appeal. Bitch is also, surprisingly, the only magazine out there that’s dedicated to feminist critiques of popular culture. It is irreplaceable.
In other words, I shouldn’t have assumed the worst.
The “Save Bitch” video, in which both the magazine’s editorial director and its publisher straightforwardly announced the shortfall and explained the magazine’s plight, went viral. Within just a few days, feminist pop culture enthusiasts coughed up thousands of dollars more than the $40,000 Bitch needed; in the subsequent weeks and months, they kept on contributing to the tune of nearly $75,000.
This fundraising success is due, in large part, to the fact that even though Bitch is relatively small, with a circulation of 50,000, it has built a strong community around its work, says Jen Angel, cofounder of the now-defunct social justice magazine Clamor. “In the retail world, this is called ‘branding’–individuals having an emotional attachment to a product, company, or organization,” she says. “Bitch, as an organization, has consistently been putting out reliable content for 13 years.”
The magazine’s editors were also “transparent about what they needed, what they were going to do with the money, and why they were in the situation,” Angel says. “Readers appreciate honesty, and the biggest lesson for any fundraiser is that no one is going to give you money if you don’t ask for it.”
Bitch has been a nonprofit since 2001, but it hasn’t necessarily looked like a nonprofit organization (for example, it never had an executive director until this year). In the wake of its fundraising campaign, and in an effort to avoid the potential for a financial meltdown every three months, the board of directors opted to move toward a more traditional structure. When they did, the magazine’s publisher, Debbie Rasmussen, jumped ship.
The defection was big news among indie press watchers (read: curious media dorks), in large part because it seemed to take place in the middle of the night. Rasmussen’s name disappeared from the online masthead, her blogs stopped showing up on the site, yet no announcements were made, no press releases written.
A few months later, Rasmussen wrote a carefully worded blog post explaining her departure, which by all accounts seems to have been mostly tied up in divergent views of the organization’s direction and purpose. She had “been pushing for more workplace democracy in the form of evolving to a worker cooperative or collective,” while the board and others at Bitch were in favor of beefing up their nonprofit infrastructure. The board brought in outside consultants, installed a pricey interim director, and started making some decisions.
I was worried about this turn: Would Bitch, whose fierce independence and community of readers have been so vital to its success, become more accountable to its board than to its readers? And just months after its readers had shown up in droves to say “We love what you’re doing! Keep doing it!”
Maybe it’s the soothing words of new executive director Julie Falk or the optimistic attitude of Bitch’s cofounder and editorial/creative director Andi Zeisler, but I’m beginning to think Bitch‘s organizational emphasis is a good idea. “We’re taking a real look at the mission of the organization in terms of how are we giving back to the community,” says Falk, who has no editorial role in the magazine. “We obviously offer this great magazine, but how do we engage beyond our readership, and how do we activate our readers?”
Several exciting projects–including a possible Bitch book imprint and some kind of media literacy training program–are in exploratory stages. Bitch also recently opened its professionally catalogued library of 800 feminist books to the public. And by public, I mean anyone with an ID, subscribers and nonsubscribers alike.
The magazine will continue to pursue the sorts of nontraditional fundraisers that have built its community: Bitch house parties, which subscribers can host in any part of the country; clothing swaps, which debuted in Portland earlier this year and which Zeisler is hoping to spread more widely; concerts and other events.
This focus on community is a key area in which Bitch and other independent magazines are well ahead of mainstream publications. Many formerly flush magazines are now gasping for air because they staked their success on their advertisers rather than their readers, and in a recession those advertisers are cutting way back.
Perhaps most importantly, Bitch has carved out a distinct niche for itself, uniquely combining pop culture criticism and feminism on the printed page. This is especially important given what’s available (or not available) on the web, where attempts at this sort of analysis are often shallow, snarky, and disposable.
Bitch isn’t out of the woods yet. It’s embarking on some serious strategic planning, mission reorienting, and a complete magazine redesign that will debut in the fall issue. But the support readers showed last autumn should give everyone in the publishing industry pause. If your magazine isn’t doing something different, relevant, and necessary, maybe it’s time to close down. If it is, then take a cue from Bitch and put your fate in your readers’ hands.