NEW YORK, United States — Bustle Digital Group (BDG), the digital media machine founded by Bryan Goldberg in 2013, is perhaps best known for two attributes: big ambitions and a penchant for controversy.
This year, most of the drama came around the aborted relaunch of Gawker, which Goldberg acquired out of bankruptcy in July 2018. In July, the site’s staff were laid off and the reboot was postponed indefinitely. The New York Post reported in January that Gawker had trouble hiring writers after two quit in protest over alleged inappropriate behaviour from the editorial director.
Now, BDG is focusing on its other recent acquisitions — including fashion and celebrity title Nylon and cultural site The Outline — and is set to implement a new approach at Bustle.
The company’s namesake women’s site and its largest business (representing 61 percent of total traffic) was built into a site with an audience of 50 million per month in less than a decade by publishing large volumes of articles designed to attract readers searching for terms on Google.
But as the digital advertising market contracts, with more ad dollars going to Facebook and Google where brands can target specific demographics of consumers more effectively, such an editorial approach is less effective.
Google also recently announced it has changed its algorithm to prioritise breaking news publishers in its search engine results over those who republish the news (like Bustle).
So while BDG has grown to more than $100 million in annual revenue as a profitable business largely on the promise of scale, it needs to get readers in the habit of heading to its websites directly, in order to sell itself to advertisers as a brand with reader loyalty and values.
To make this transition, BDG is raiding some of the same media companies it’s already disrupted for new talent.
Emma Rosenblum, the new editor-in-chief of BDG’s lifestyle titles (including Bustle, Elite Daily, Romper, Nylon and the Zoe Report), joined in September from American Elle, where she was the executive editor. Before that, she was the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Pursuits.
Other recent additions to BDG's senior leadership include Executive Vice President of Revenue, Elizabeth Webbe Lunny, who was previously the publisher of The New York Times’ lucrative luxury title, T magazine, and Kimberly Bernhardt, who joins BDG as senior vice president, head of communications and previously led communications at Condé Nast’s Glamour.
Goldberg hired Rosenblum to bring some of her legacy media experience to BDG’s “lifestyle” sites, particularly Bustle, which is better known for search engine-friendly content like “All Of The Bachelor Nation Stars' Best Halloween Costumes Of 2019,” and its hordes of low-paid contributing writers.
Rosenblum has hired or promoted 12 people since joining, including Tiffany Reid — formerly Hearst’s style director overseeing Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper's Bazaar and other titles — who is coming on as the fashion director of BDG’s lifestyle group.
Rosenblum told BoF that her mandate in her new role was to “elevat[e] the content and [up] the quality of the writing and the editing.”
Her arrival has caused some tension with writers and editors at the main site, where morale has been low amid uncertainty about job security and new expectations.
At the beginning of November, at least a dozen editors and writers, including some freelancers, had their employment terminated at BDG. Layoffs affected writers on the news, books and entertainment beats at Bustle, as well as editors at Nylon, which was acquired by BDG in June.
With new leadership generally comes a period of restructuring, always, and that’s what’s been happening for the past few months.
“With new leadership generally comes a period of restructuring, always, and that’s what’s been happening for the past few months,” said Rosenblum.
Some employees were concerned that the layoffs disproportionately impacted diverse editorial leaders, according to reporting by Business Insider. Of the subsequent 12 hires and promotions overseen by Rosenblum, five editors are women of colour. "BDG is committed to setting an industry-wide standard when it comes to hiring a diverse workforce and while we have certainly made progress, we recognize that we still have more to do," said a representative for BDG.
Elsewhere in the media landscape, companies like Vice and Refinery29 and Vox and New York Magazine are consolidating to reach more readers and advertisers, and Goldberg has said he wants to have 12 to 15 brands within BDG.
In the meantime, can Bustle became known for better quality without losing traffic?
“That’s the magic question that I think almost every company is figuring out,” said Rosenblum, adding that while Bustle will still publish articles frequently, she plans to pull back on certain types of content, like aggregated daily news (the kind Google is de-prioritising) and SEO-friendly content that doesn’t resonate with the core reader: millennial women who care about current events, women’s issues and entertainment, and who are looking for guidance on the fashion and beauty trends of the moment.
“Our traffic is so high, we have some wiggle room,” she said. “That’s not the position I’ve experienced at any other company I’ve been at.”
In its place, Rosenblum wants more original reporting and profiles of prominent people and celebrities, as well as writers with well-known bylines or bigger online followings. She cited an August profile of actress and host Busy Philipps as an example.
In two recent memos seen by BoF, Bustle’s editors told writers that under Rosenblum, they were moving toward a “better, stronger Bustle” and “pushing to hone Bustle’s voice and strengthen copy site-wide.”
The memo advised writers to avoid superfluous details, common tropes and using too many quotes, among other tips. “We can sum things up in our own words to really make it feel like we're telling a story vs. ripping off someone else’s,” read the guidelines. “We can lean into that sweet spot of being funny, but not mean or overly sarcastic.”
While Bustle articles were highlighted in the memos as meeting the editors’ new expectations, a blog piece on Gwyneth Paltrow by The Cut was cited as an example of a “lede we really loved,” and a piece by Slate on the new film Gemini Man was described as “an example of a fun, voice-y piece that still sounds authoritative, and not like someone’s college blog.”
Nylon, which Rosenblum described as aiming to become a “cutting-edge, cool publication that focuses on culture and celebrity and fashion and beauty,” will relaunch next year and publish a print issue again in September — a first for BDG.
Read on for the recent hires under Rosenblum at BDG's lifestyle sites, Bustle and Nylon.
Tiffany Reid, formerly at Hearst, is fashion director of BDG’s lifestyle group; Kat Stoeffel, previously at Elle, The Cut and Buzzfeed, is BDG’s first features director; Christina Amoroso, previously at Cosmopolitan, is Bustle’s executive editor; and Sam Rogers, formerly of Vogue International, is Bustle UK’s executive editor. Charlotte Owen, who previously oversaw Bustle UK, is Bustle’s editorial director globally, and Amanda Chan, who was managing director of Bustle, is the director of content strategy for BDG’s lifestyle group.
Over at Nylon, under new editor-in-chief Alyssa Vingan Klein (formerly of Fashionista), Lauren McCarthy has joined from W as executive editor; Maria Bobila has joined from Fashionista as fashion editor; Claire Valentine has joined from Paper as entertainment editor; Steffanee Wang has joined from The Fader as associate music editor and Tanisha Pina, formerly of Racked and Teen Vogue, has joined as beauty editor.