The founders of 5 independent publications join Document to discuss the past, present, and future of the little magazine

“It’s not exactly a fun time to start a magazine, nor is it a convenient one,” wrote Rebecca Panovka and Kiara Barrow in the inaugural issue of The Drift, a leftist literary magazine founded in 2020. “A magazine is by definition an optimistic, social project. The list of reasons for despair is long. The list of arguments against starting a magazine isn’t terribly short.”

Three years later, the statement still rings true—but it hasn’t stopped a new generation of founders from doing just that. From worker-run journalism outlets like Hell Gate and 404 Media to online publications like Byline, Dirt, and Cashmere to print-only projects like The Whitney Review of New Writing and Forever Mag, a wave of grassroots publishing projects are springing up to fill the gaps in today’s media ecosystem—not in spite of the existential crisis facing modern media, but because of it.

“Working in media, you get this suffocating feeling that you’re expendable—that at any point, your Slack emoji could disappear, and you have to return your laptop at 5 p.m.,” says journalist Max Rivlin-Nadler. It’s why he co-founded Hell Gate, a scrappy, subscriber-funded news outlet that is run by its worker-owners, all of whom earn the same salary and contribute equally to the company’s editorial direction. “We were witnessing a real disconnect in the industry: The people doing the work were being treated as disposable, at the same time that everyone was like, We need journalism more than ever,” says Nadler. “We thought, What if a company’s resources just went toward journalism, and it wasn’t beholden to private equity firms or tantrum-prone billionaires? What if we did it ourselves?

Rivlin-Nadler banded together with three other reporters: Christopher Robbins, Nick Pinto, and Esther Wang, who signed on to the project shortly after witnessing the impact of managerial changes at Jezebel. “You’re working at a media company, and then it’s bought out by a private equity firm, and immediately, the writing is on the wall,” she recalls. “They appointed a new CEO, and it was pretty clear that their main priority was extracting as much value as possible—basically turning the sites into shitty content machines, even though they knew it would be worse for readers and journalists.”

“We thought, What if a company’s resources just went toward journalism, and it wasn’t beholden to private equity firms or tantrum-prone billionaires? What if we did it ourselves?

Since its soft launch in May of 2022, Hell Gate has published over 800 stories about the goings-on in New York City—from profiles of notorious street performers to investigations into political corruption to deep dives into the gag-inducing clickbait cuisine featured on subway ads. “Hell Gate began as an experiment to test a thesis—that New Yorkers were hungry for trenchant, playful, outraged, and irreverent reporting and writing on our city; that people would be willing to pay to read it; and that a worker-owned, subscriber-funded outlet could not only survive, but be a sustainable model for our industry,” wrote the team in a 2023 report.

Just over one year in, Hell Gate has added two new worker-owners to its team; the group is transparent about how its resources are allocated, even publishing the details of its operating costs and funding needs. The success of their business model, and that of other worker-run journalism outfits like Defector, served as a source of inspiration for a new group of media dissidents: The former editors and writers of Vice.

“For a long time, Vice was the new kid on the block—they were going to be the ones who disrupted journalism, all those decades ago,” says Samantha Cole, a journalist who worked at the company’s tech vertical, Motherboard, for six years. “But they made the mistake that you see at a lot of big companies: You take on a bunch of venture capital, and then you end up with this beast of debt weighing you down, and you have to pay it back somehow.”

After witnessing years of this unsustainable growth—followed by the company’s slow descent into bankruptcy this spring—Cole and three other staffers started burning the midnight oil, working at Motherboard by day while learning to run their own business on nights and weekends. “For a long time, the bankruptcy was just a rumor in the wind—but when some of the documents came out about how they were spending money at the company, that clarified things for us,” says Cole. “That was the moment the four of us started imagining what it would look like to do something on our own, and grow it in a sustainable way.”

A few months later, they founded 404 Media: a media company dedicated to society-shifting technology journalism—and to creating a sustainable, responsible, reader-supported business model around it. Since the publication’s launch in August, they’ve published long-form features and reporting on hacking, cybercrime, sex work, artificial intelligence, consumer rights, surveillance, and internet culture—including investigations exposing flaws in Meta’s content moderation policies, and how new MTA features jeopardize the privacy of subway riders.

Like Hell Gate, the publication is run by its owner-founders—Cole, along with fellow journalists Jason Koebler, Emanuel Maiberg, and Joseph Cox—each of whom invested $1,000 toward getting the project off the ground. “I think what’s broken in media is what’s broken in a lot of industries: It’s this disconnect from the people doing the work that makes the company valuable, and the people reaping the benefits,” Cole reflects. “We were all fed up with working in media, but we decided to give it one more shot. This time, we wanted it to be something that we own, something we have control over—a worker-run business where we know how every dime is spent.”

“I think what’s broken in media is what’s broken in a lot of industries: It’s this disconnect from the people doing the work that makes the company valuable, and the people reaping the benefits.”

Two subjects reoccur in conversations with different founders: Growth and tradeoffs. Instead of aiming for growth—the capitalist imperative that folded many of media’s mainstays—this new generation of magazine founders is aiming for something different: sustainability. Forever Magazine’s founders, Madeline Cash and Anika Levy, describe the project as “too small to fail,” an approach that exemplifies their DIY editorial ethos. Whitney Mallett, who recently launched The Whitney Review of Books, just wants to make enough to cover operating costs—because “at this point, no one’s in the business of making magazines to make money.” Hell Gate and 404 Media, with their communitarian business models, aim to accrue just enough revenue to allow them to keep doing the journalism they love. Byline, a new digital magazine launched by Gutes Guterman and Megan O’Sullivan, aims not to replicate the structures of legacy media—instead, they want to channel the spirit of the internet bloggers that eroded it, building audiences by connecting personally with their readers.

Like Guterman’s last media venture The Drunken Canal, Byline’s editorial centers the personality and the individual—providing an online destination for those looking to discover new unique voices across different creative fields. “In media, everything is a game of luck—and with Byline, we wanted to make a website that champions the work of people who either hadn’t written before, or weren’t getting the opportunities to write the things they wanted to,” says O’Sullivan. Guterman agrees: “We wanted to create a home online—somewhere you could read pieces that feel like they’re written by a friend. Somewhere that would feel like a destination, where you could be yourself on the internet.”

Guterman has always favored a non-traditional approach to media—one that is exemplified by The Drunken Canal, which she founded during the pandemic with her friend Claire Banse. At the time, digital spaces were becoming increasingly politicized, and mainstream media was grappling for footing—but where others saw chaos and risk, Guterman and Banse saw an opportunity. The Drunken Canal was born: a publication with the messy, personable feel of Instagram’s Close Friends feature, targeted to a particular New York crowd. The target of both ire and admiration from mainstream media, The Drunken Canal—which counted Dean Kissick, Caroline Calloway, Cat Marnell, and Rachel Tashjian among its contributors—published its final issue in 2022, shortly before Guterman pivoted to digital.

Byline launched in June, spurring excitement from friends and advisors, which include former Vice executive Ben Dietz, tech journalist Taylor Lorenz, and Taj Alavi, the head of marketing at Spotify. But it also drew controversy when a New York Times profile revealed that they were not paying their writers—a problem they’ve since solved, having recently closed a brand deal with Urban Outfitters and Dickies that will allow them an editorial budget.

Unlike worker-run outfits 404 Media and Hell Gate, Byline doesn’t operate on a subscription model—meaning it did not start generating revenue until advertisers signed on. “We did not fundraise, we did not have anyone put money into this,” Guterman emphasizes. “We built this with full-time jobs on nights and weekends so that we could get to a place where we’re paying people. Our plan always has been, and still is, to pay our writers before we pay ourselves.”

“Instead of a corporation or something that would exhaust you, we wanted to create a home online: Somewhere that would feel like a destination, where you could be yourself on the internet.”

None of the above projects would have been possible without a fair amount of free labor—not just from their founders, but also from writers, advisors, and volunteers. When it comes to starting a business, that’s not an anomaly—and in the business of media, even less so. But it does present a problem for those seeking to make their magazine sustainable. Some publications, like The Drift, have found nontraditional funding solutions, partnering with mega-gallery David Zwirner—a decision that allowed the magazine to raise contributor rates. “[The Drift] is a nonprofit, and they are unbelievably worthy of support and in need of support,” Lucas Zwirner, the gallery’s head of content, told ARTnews last year, noting that, while the gallery will host The Drift’s annual gala, the magazine remains editorially independent. His monetary contribution was, instead, a way to support and benefit from the reputation of a little magazine that has swiftly garnered a big reputation: “It felt like a way to be involved with a culture-shaping publication like the New York Review of Books.”

When launching The Drift, Panovka and Barrow didn’t anticipate that—three years later—they would be hosting parties with an art world powerhouses. “We had seen the challenges other magazines face and we didn’t feel confident we were starting something that would last,” Barrow recalls. Like other literary magazines in a similar genus to The Drift, they decided to incorporate as a nonprofit—but found that, because it takes years to qualify for additional funding sources like public and organizational grants, money was tight. “In the beginning, we were asking for a lot of goodwill from our contributors. We felt it was urgent to raise the rates for our writers—and when Zwirner became our lead donor last year, they pledged money specifically toward that.”

Barrow notes that a majority of The Drift’s budget still comes from subscriptions: “It’s important to us that no individual holds more sway over The Drift’s future identity than our readers,” she says. “I just think it’s a question that no media organization has solved: how to be financially viable in the Internet era.”

Known for its rigorously argued essays, inventive fiction, and mission to publish essays by writers outside the media hivemind, The Drift has swiftly developed a substantial following; in 2022, the New York Times called it “the lit magazine of the moment,” and at its triannual issue launch parties, lines regularly snake around the block. The idea for the magazine, which Barrow and Panovka had been tossing around for years before its founding, arose from their discontent with the political discourse of the time. “It was in the early years of Trump and Me Too, and we found ourselves thinking about who was responding in interesting ways to the cultural moment, and who wasn’t,” says Barrow. “We felt that the conversations that were happening in magazines were not as interesting as the political discourse spurred by podcasts. But with podcasts, everything is freeform; it’s not an argument that can unfold across a deeply researched and tightly fact-checked piece. That landscape has since evolved, but at the time, there was this open, exploratory approach that was leading to more fertile ground, and that wasn’t translating to the publications, which were all kind of saying the same thing—reflecting specific generational perspectives. Every micro-generation has its own slightly different response to the political moment, and ours wasn’t being represented.”

Watching the existing magazines fumble for relevance amidst the pandemic—publishing myopic quarantine diaries and lifestyle content, as they chaotically reordered their mastheads—confirmed what Barrow and Panovka were already thinking: “It’s time for something new,” as they wrote in their first editor’s letter. “During the pandemic, the navel-gazing self-importance of the New York literary publication, the insular nature of media, was dialed up to the extreme. And in those moments, someone needs to burst the bubble,” Barrow says, noting that, while they launched by calling out the failures of their forerunners, they did so with affection: “Taking aim at your elders is part of an age-old tradition in little magazines. It’s a way to justify your own existence—because we love the magazines that already exist, but if they were all perfect, there would be no need for a new one.”

“I feel like if you just make something that you would want to see and read, there will be other people like you—and then you’ll find those people.”

The need for publications operating outside the insular network of New York media also serves as an inspiration for Whitney Mallett, who founded The Whitney Review after spotting a gap in the media ecosystem: a destination to read short reviews of new writing, instead of the sprawling profiles and essays proffered by established writers on the work of other, equally established writers. “The people working in media often determine which books get reviews, so if something resonates with that community, its reach is amplified, and it becomes like an ouroboros of press coverage,” says Mallett. “But everyone reads: artists read, weirdos read, nightlife people read, sluts read. I wanted to create something not just for writers, but creatives in other fields, too. We need this kind of infrastructure to support discourse—because when you come out with a book, you don’t want it to sink without a trace.”

The first issue of The Whitney Review print newspaper includes over 40 mini-reviews in ‘mini-broadsheet’ format, along with feature interviews with writers like Brontez Purnell, Tamara Faith Berger, and Ishmael Reed; its contributors range from the anonymous philosopher FuckTheory to the art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. “This is how I want to read right now. A lot of digital pieces are too long, don’t get to the point, or just aren’t edited. Short attention spans may be a symptom of the digital era, but they’re also a response to the dying art of print, where you have to actually work to fit things on a page,” Mallett says. “I want the experience of getting away from my phone, I want something portable that you can throw in your purse and take to the park. I was craving a way to really absorb the material and have that feeling of communion with a printed object, without notifications and alerts coming in.”

Mallett has been working at indie publishing since her high school days, and sees it not as a money-making enterprise, but as an act of service: “When you make a new magazine, what you’re doing is creating a space in culture. I feel like if you just make something that you would want to see and read, there will be other people like you—and then you’ll find those people.”

“We’re in the early days, and we don’t know what’s going to come our way—so right now, we’re just focused on one thing: What kind of writing do people want to see in the world?”

For this next generation of independent magazines, the future is uncertain; many before them have succeeded, and many more have failed. What these new publications need is the support of readers: “All along, our experiment was based on the idea that if we do good work and write things that people want to read, the audience will follow,” says Wang of Hell Gate. “A year in, we are finding that’s true. Our subscriber numbers are growing, and that is always the most validating thing. More and more people every day are saying, Hey, what you’re doing is worth $7 a month, and I’m willing to pay this money because I love what I’m reading.

The workers of 404 Media second this statement: “More than anything, we need people to subscribe to make this work, because we don’t want to be beholden to anyone but the readers, our audience, and each other. We’re in the early days, and we don’t know what’s going to come our way—so right now, we’re just focused on one thing: What kind of writing do people want to see in the world?”

You can support 404 Media, Hell Gate, and The Drift by subscribing or donating. The Whitney Review is available for purchase, and you can learn more about how to support Byline at its FAQ page.