The Bro Whisperer of Bustle Was Doomed to Fail. He Didn’t. What’s His Secret?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 21 2014 5:40 PM

The Bro Whisperer of Bustle

Bryan Goldberg’s site for women was doomed from the start. One year later, it’s hugely successful. What’s his secret?

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Screengrab courtesy of Bustle.

In a moment of desperation one night this June, I opened my laptop, typed “Bachelorette rumors” into Google, clicked on the most tantalizing hit, and got my fix: an article, composed partly in English and partly in GIF, analyzing whether a gossip blogger had correctly predicted the man who would win Andi Dorfman’s heart, or whether he had been deliberately duped by dastardly marketing forces at ABC. When I reached the end of the piece, dozens of thumbnails materialized, teasing more digressions into Bachelorette territory. I clicked and inhaled them all: the post questioning why Andi is always making this face she always makes; a photo listicle of the pants designed by contestant J.J., the show’s resident “pantsapreneur”; and a piece promising to reveal how many of the show’s contestants Andi believes are secretly gay. When I found the answer in the story’s last line—“Oh, and Andi asserts that none of her suitors are gay”—the spell was broken. I closed the tab.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just been reeled into Bustle, a new website for women that founder Bryan Goldberg predicts will be the “biggest and the most powerful women’s publication in the world” within six years. Bustle hadn’t crossed my mind, or my Facebook feed, since I relentlessly mocked the site’s launch last summer. Back then, Goldberg—who previously co-founded the sports site Bleacher Report, flooded it with content produced by unpaid community bloggers, then sold it for $200 million before his 30th birthdayhad coyly teased the media venture in a series of articles on PandoDaily, writing that it was “going to make me rich(er)” and that “in two years, every young editor in New York will want to work for my company.” He launched Bustle in August 2013, bragging about the $6.5 million in funding he’d secured from investors and informing the women of the world what they’d been missing. “Isn’t it time for a women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips?” Goldberg wrote. “What about a site that takes an introspective look at the celebrity world, while also having a lot of fun covering it? How about a site that offers career advice and book reviews, while also reporting on fashion trends and popular memes?”

The resounding response was “no.” “Congratulations for being the first person to realize that women are interested in foreign news AND makeup tips!” Rachel Sklar, the co-founder of Change the Ratio, which advocates for women in media and tech, snarked in the comments section of the post. “We've been waiting for you.” Goldberg “completely glosses over—even erases—the hard work and vision of dozens of (female) editors and writers who have been doing this exact thing for years, myself included,” Jezebel founding editor Anna Holmes wrote. Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers rejected Goldberg’s suggestion that existing women’s publications were doomed to toil in relative obscurity while Bustle alone had the strength to rise above. Spiers predicted that several women’s sites dismissed by Goldberg as niche concerns would reach 10 million monthly readers “sooner rather than later.”

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But they won’t do it as quickly as Bustle did. One year out, Bustle is climbing the Quantcast ranks at an astonishing pace. In the past month, the site has attracted more than 15 million unique visitors, which puts its audience on par with Jezebel’s and lifts it above those of Hello Giggles, Oprah.com, and Refinery29, not to mention several general-interest legacy websites. Since his initial round of funding, Goldberg has raised $5 million more in capital and commands a staff of 30. Rachel Sklar is now an adviser to the site. She regularly Instagrams shots of herself and Goldberg out on the town, tagged #bluesteel. How did he do it?

* * *

Bryan Goldberg’s ill-fated Bustle announcement was the product of a classic “audience problem,” he told The New Yorker when reporter Lizzie Widdicombe checked in on the site in September. Goldberg had targeted his pitch at “venture investors and advertising executives,” but had instead “reached an audience of writers” in “the feminist community”—people who operate on a different level of discourse. “Honestly,” Goldberg said, “nothing would have been more helpful here than for some highly regarded feminist writers to say, ‘Bryan’s a good person.’ ”

So Goldberg set out courting his skeptics. He published a sheepish mea culpa that absorbed the arguments of his critics, told reporters that the site’s female editors—led by Entertainment Weekly vet Kate Ward and former HuffPost Women editor Margaret Wheeler Johnson—are really responsible for the site’s success, and began reaching out to female influencers for off-the-record coffees and drinks. “Bryan was not the first person on my list of people to talk to” when he reached out last year, Sklar told me. So he bought her audience: He pledged $200 to a Feministing fundraiser in exchange for a consulting session with Sklar. “I laughed,” Sklar admits. “I was like, ‘Well done.’ ”

Sklar used the session to run a litmus test on Goldberg. She brought him along to an open mic night where audience members perform monologues from the Internet and told him to read a feminist TED speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that Beyoncé had recently sampled on “Flawless.” (“Feminist!” Goldberg announces into the mic in an Instagram video captured by Sklar. “The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes!”) Then, Sklar headed to the Bustle offices and found a group of young female editors brimming with respect for their boss. After a few more meetings, she agreed to come on as an official adviser to the site. “I don’t know what to tell you: He impressed me,” Sklar says. “He seemed like a good guy. He kept on ringing all of my mensch bells. I was like, ‘OK. I guess Bryan Goldberg is my friend now.’ ”

Goldberg had less luck wooing Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the punishingly hilarious woman-owned website The Toast, which has elevated mockery of Goldberg to a kind of performance art. “Bryan Goldberg emailed me during his Lady Blog Forgiveness World Tour to ask me to get coffee with him,” Ortberg tweeted earlier this month, “and I was so grateful that it was so tone-deaf and entitled that I didn't have to be polite when I said no.” But even Ortberg can find a silver lining in Goldberg’s success. “On the other hand,” Ortberg tweeted, “women write and work for Bustle, and they get paid, and I'm always in support of that.”

* * *

“Young women don’t have many opportunities to get their foot in the door,” Wheeler Johnson told me of why she’s excited to work for Bustle. Now, Goldberg has opened the floodgates. The site employs about 15 female editors, all of whom have equity in the company. When Goldberg recruited them to Bustle, he told them about the day he sold Bleacher Report for $200 million and described how the payout translated into down payments for his employees’ houses and college tuition for their kids. After working for years in online media, Ward and Wheeler Johnson told me they rushed to snag the rare opportunity to build a women’s publication from the ground up. Sklar described the site as a “rocket ship” she wanted to be on. And some Bustle staffers have already ascended higher than they thought possible: Jennifer Hollander rose from dejected j-school graduate to Bustle intern to the site’s news editor in the space of a year. She credits the site with saving her from the indignity of applying to work at “a website that published breaking news about drugstores,” and also from deportation; the job helped the British Hollander secure a visa.

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