The online magazine that helped carve a space for adolescence and girlhood on the internet will be folding in the next year.
I was a freshman in college when I first heard of Rookie. The year was 2014. I was at a new school where I knew no one, far away from friends, family and relationships and, like many others during their first year, not handling the transition all that well. I was shy, reclusive, sad and confused, but I think mostly I just felt damn lonely.
Rookie Mag entered my life right when I needed it. Founded by Oak Park-native Tavi Gevinson in 2011, Rookie was an online magazine that captured the growing pains of adolescence in the 2010s. What started as Gevinson’s fashion blog, Style Rookie, at age 15 grew over seven years to become the collective diary of girlhood worldwide, sharing advice columns, visual art, personal essays, poetry and more. Where else on the internet could you could read an intimate Q+A with Lorde then move to an online comic about menstruation?
I would search all those awkward, teenager-esque keywords, from unrequited love to depression to college how-to’s. I read through the personal diary entries like they were letters from my best friends. I had my first encounter with zines through Rookie, when a contributor personally mailed me theirs from Switzerland (I still have the detachable collage hanging on my bedroom wall). I patiently waited for their weekly Friday playlists and combed through articles hoping to find some sense of myself, some larger understanding that made me feel less alone.
It was kitschy, inviting and unafraid to be imperfect. It was a place to feel safe.
On November 30, Rookie posted its final piece, an editor’s letter from Gevinson with the caption “Thank you for growing with us.” Like its initial readership, Rookie was growing up and moving on. The website will officially shut down in the next few months.
For its readers, Rookie turned from text on a computer screen to a community. Writers and readers met through the site, started conversations online or formed their own meetups. It produced four print yearbooks, a podcast, a “Rookie on Love” collection and hosted readings and events across the country. In her final editor’s letter, Gevinson keeps the same level of intimacy between reader and creators characteristic to Rookie.
“In one way, this is not my decision, because digital media has become an increasingly difficult business, and Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable,” Gevinson said in the letter. “And in another way, it is my decision—to not do the things that might make it financially sustainable, like selling it to new owners, taking money from investors, or asking readers for donations or subscriptions. And in yet another way, it doesn’t feel like I’m deciding not to do all that, because I have explored all of these options, and am unable to proceed with any of them.”
Gevinson continues for six more pages, openly outlining her meetings with who she refers to as “Bryce”-esque businesspeople down to her stress-induced temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). She praises and thanks contributors, editors, publishers, readers and her parents. She is also startlingly open about the catch-22 nature of trying to balance “Rookie-the-business” and “Rookie-the-art-project.”
What Gevinson hints at is the larger issue many media outlets also face in the digital age. Social media algorithms make it harder to see content, advertising revenue is down and subscriptions can hinder accessibility. It is hitting the magazine industry especially hard, as retail sales and print subscriptions continue to drop. According to Statista, retail sales have dropped by 27 percent since 2010, with Americans spending an average of 15 minutes reading a magazine.
Many are trying to embrace the digital shift. Both Glamour and Seventeen just announced they will be discontinuing print editions starting in the new year. Teen Vogue has been digital-only for a while. Others are trying to stay afloat.
But Rookie was the rookie — it straddled the line between being a digital zine and an online magazine. It was as mainstream as an alternative publication could get without becoming mainstream. It never sold out, but it was big enough that you could bet another something-teen with a New Yorker bag had heard of it.
Rookie was one of the publications that inspired me to start my own online magazine, Shredded, with the help of 14 East associate editor Megan Stringer and others. We were inexperienced, impassioned, ambitious rookies. If other young women were doing it, why couldn’t we? Even if it only lasted a little over a year, Shredded remains my greatest, fondest and most personal achievement.
I understand the nature of DIY (do-it-yourself, independent arts separate from corporate production) isn’t meant to last. Sometimes, that’s what makes it so great. DIY projects, whether they be publications, music or art movements, predicate themselves on a here-today, gone-tomorrow concept. Rookie was no different. Just like adolescence, it wasn’t meant to last forever.
It is the same decision Shredded had to grapple with as a small online magazine — we wanted it to grow with its community, to become larger than ourselves, but as you evolve so do your interests. In the editor’s letter, Gevinson, now 22, said she wanted “time and space to go deeper into an idea,” such as writing or acting. Megan and I chose journalism (so, writing, in a sense). Even if a publication feels ethereal, everlasting, there are tangible people responsible for turning the finite infinite.
As disheartened as I am about the magazine’s folding, I can’t help but agree with Gevinson’s decision to keep Rookie true to its DIY ethos. What was great about it was that it wasn’t corporate, it wasn’t clean; it was real-life teens sharing their real-life experience, pain and understanding, in an effort to connect with their peers also trying to navigate coming of age. Life is like an ongoing documentary, and sometimes the most you can do is hope to take a screenshot of your favorite scenes.
It’s now 2018, four years after my first visit to the site. I’ve graduated college and am now working on my master’s degree. I am an official adult which means being responsible for myself and moving on to big-girl dreams and realities (even though I still can’t rent a car, really?). I might still align with Rookie, its ethos and its audience, but I’ve grown up. So has Gevinson. So has the magazine, whether its readers want it to or not.
In her first editor’s letter, posted on September 1, 2011, Gevinson said that Rookie was never meant to be a quintessential how-to guide, but rather a space for teens to grow in their own way. She kicks off the magazine’s first issue, Beginnings, by ending, “From here, write your own handbook.” I guess that is what we are to do now.
Rookie was a warm hug, a braces-filled smile, advice from an older sister, a middle school sleepover. Rookie was the underdog, and you always root for the underdog.
Header illustration by Jenni Holtz