Work

Tavi Gevinson on Why Rookie Had to End

The writer and actress, now 22, on aging out of her iconic teen magazine—and retreating from the Instagram life.

Tavi Gevinson
Tavi Gevinson
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

When Tavi Gevinson announced, in late November, that her beloved online teen magazine Rookie would end, she did it in an unusual editor’s note: more than 5,000 words detailing her efforts to keep the ship afloat, and the inner conflict the decision had sparked in her. It’s a remarkable document that should be assigned in courses about digital media, but the note— smart, funny, and painstakingly transparent—was also quintessentially and fittingly Rookie.

Online, people who’d loved Rookie mourned the death of something unique. I wondered what Gevinson thought about the reaction and how she’d weathered her first post-Rookie weeks, and she agreed to speak on the phone recently. We talked about attending your own funeral, growing up and retreating from the internet, and the universality of teenage experience. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: How are you feeling a couple weeks into the post-Rookie landscape?

Tavi Gevinson: It feels good to be able to be transparent. It’s a lot harder to do press or give a talk or whatever where you’re promoting something, but kind of struggling behind the scenes.

One thing I feel is definitely relief. It goes in waves. I keep having feelings that are a mix of nostalgia and fear and excitement, and it feels exactly like when I first moved to New York. It’s a weird visceral feeling that I guess is transformation? If we’re being hippie-dippie.

And then sometimes I get really sad and I think, “Was this the right thing?” There’s definitely grieving a future for Rookie that I wanted.

So it’s a mix of things, but the loveliest part of it has been seeing people’s reactions and the way that’s kind of reconnected me to the Rookie that I started. Because for so long, I was presenting a kind of different version of it to investors or buyers. You’re engaging with different qualities of a publication when you’re trying to get money for it, and explain how it could grow.

It’s been great to see people talk about what was so special and irreverent about it, and to see people just celebrating each other’s work, and that’s all of the stuff that you can’t really quantify in the numbers you’re supposed to show people. That means a lot to me.

You’re at your own funeral, in the Mark Twain sense.

It is like that! It’s so weird to suddenly hear from so many people you haven’t been in close contact with for years. It’s like, is this what it’s like to be dead, but still alive?

I feel like your announcement really catalyzed something in a lot of people, maybe especially young women writers. I’m thinking in particular of Josephine Livingstone’s piece about authenticity and voice in the New Republic, or Soraya Roberts’ argument that “the publishing industry sells out young women,” in Longreads.

I read [the Roberts piece], and I was like: There’s no one reason for Rookie folding. If I were in a different time in my life, it maybe could have followed the model of, like, a CherryBombe or a Design*Sponge, though as I understand it that business model is also very hard and there’s no reason to do it if it’s not the No. 1 thing you love creatively and your No. 1 priority. Because it’s just too hard.

I think maybe it could have survived, or it could have taken angel [investors’] money or reader donations, but then I would have felt like I’m not—I can’t go do a play or write a book if people are paying for Rookie.

But when I read what Soraya wrote, I was like “Oh right! Also, none of this was designed for Rookie to succeed.” I mean, succeed financially. It succeeded in so many other ways; I’ve obviously profited off of it in so many other ways, though not financially. I’m pleased at what this has sparked conversation-wise, because I do think something has to change structurally. It shouldn’t be this hard to keep a small independent online magazine afloat.

Here’s the quote from Soraya’s piece that struck me: “These sites died because their inherent value did not translate into monetary value in a capitalist system run by men who only know how to monetize women by selling them out. As bright and as hungry as young women are today, they are entering a world designed to shut them down.

True.

Do you think this is a problem with women’s media, or with media in general?

I think it’s both. I mean, I think the fact is, we met with a lot of people who would probably rather pick my brain than actually support Rookie. I think it’s a combination of factors. I think teenagers are a hard demographic, speaking strictly in terms of numbers, because the turnover is quite rapid, and especially with social media and new technology one thing we have to think a lot about is “What is an online magazine to a teenager now?” I think that you do have young people who want to read and write longform writing, and also even though Instagram can give teenagers platforms in ways that it didn’t when Rookie started—I didn’t even have an Instagram when Rookie started!—that doesn’t necessarily act as a launching pad for a career in journalism. People need bylines.

I think if I’d found someone who totally got the vision and also was savvy, I could see ways that they probably could have scaled it through ways that felt authentic to Rookie. Like camps, writing workshops, guided journals—these are all things we talked about that did not feel, like, Goop-y. But also, it was never going to be like Goop because we would never be selling anything that expensive.

That’s a fundamental problem.

That’s the other thing. I was just like I don’t want to be in a position of selling people things they don’t need. There is so much of that in the world, and it’s so wasteful.

I always wanted [the site] to feel like, writing is just like talking, and really good writing feels as honest and real and in-the-moment as talking. I wanted people to know that they could get in touch with their inner voice that way. It wasn’t this elusive thing, and they didn’t have to be a poet to do it.

But I do think that the more kind of chatty, informal voice that made Rookie more unique earlier on, that has also become more common. And you see it more in advertising, and in other publications, and you see it when you get a notification from Seamless. And so now I think it’s hard to scale something like that without it reading sometimes as false intimacy.

When you were trying to sell, talking to different investors, I’m curious how you were describing the kinds of teenagers Rookie connected with. When I worked at YM, the teen magazine that folded in 2004, one of the biggest bones I had to pick with the job was the idea that there was a universal teenage girl experience.

In your first editor’s letter, you said that you were unsure of the idea that there was something universal that could be identified in this audience. What do you think about that question, at the end of this experience?

I think that’s still true, but I think there are experiences and feelings people have [as teenage girls] that are not necessarily tied to current events, that are not necessarily tied to one generation of teens over another, and that was one of Rookie’s strengths. I know that the books hopefully will continue to resonate with people because they contain a lot of evergreen writing about personal issues, advice, and questions of identity.

What do you think about growing older, as a writer or editor, and still trying to talk to teenagers? I think it’s a fundamental problem with media for teenagers. I wonder if that’s part of what happened to you—in your final editor’s letter, you referred to “the losing battle of speaking to or for teens as I [grow] older.”

Yeah, people are like “You’re 22!” But I’m like, you don’t understand, time moves so quickly. And I want to support teenagers, but I don’t want to keep up with—I want to understand my life as it is now.

I thought that I could pass the torch and kind of continue to facilitate younger people’s work, but for Rookie to survive it would have had to reach people at a scale where I would have had to basically hustle 24/7. And the fact is that I kind of can’t even stand looking at Instagram. I looked at Instagram for the first time in ages the other day and like blacked out, and 20 minutes later was on Millie Bobby Brown’s first post ever. Why did that happen?

My lifestyle has changed. When I was in high school, the internet was my lifeline. It was very normal for me to use social media to feel more connected to other people, to find like-minded people. What I want to do now creatively requires actually getting voices out of your head.

I don’t think anything I want to do now is somehow inherently anti-Rookie at all. But I think that psychologically, I have found that I’m used to having to take care of that audience a little bit. And I want to be able to transgress, I want to be able to write in a different voice. If there were more hours in a day maybe there’d be time for all of this to coexist, but it just felt like I had to choose.