December 6, 2017 


This week, we interviewed the founders of The Riveter Magazine, which produces mostly longform print journalism by and about women. Founders Kaylen Ralph, a stylist and writer in Chicago, and Joanna (Yanna) Demkiewicz, a book publicist and writer in Minneapolis, started the magazine as students after being outraged by VIDA statistics that showed a lack of female representation in the magazine and publishing industry.

After voicing their beef at a student journalism panel, Ralph and Demkiewicz were told by author, journalist and future collaborator Mike Sager to “do something about it.” In 2013, The Riveter’s founding did just that.

Over the last four years, Ralph and Demkiewicz have run a successful crowdfunding campaign, hired staff and published international contributors, organized book clubs and hosted author events, and been profiled in The New York Times. They have contributed to the 2015 book “Newswomen: Twenty-Five Years of Front-Page Journalism” and are currently editing the third volume of the series. The Riveter's cover stars have included Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the first Somali-American woman legislator, the rapper Lizzo and the comedian and Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it without a lot of other women who either been working with us on and off or consistently with The Riveter,” Demkiewicz told us.

Enjoy the interview. We’ll be over here battling Aunt Flo and the flu in separate corners of our apartment.


Danielle & Natalie

FYI: Natalie profiled The Riveter in 2015 for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and has since published an interview with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on their site.

Q&A with The Riveter's Yanna & Kaylen

Natalie: You launched a magazine with crowdfunding. Do you think of yourselves more as businesswomen or as journalists?

Yanna: I consider us both. We are journalists first and foremost, but in order to make The Riveter work, we have to be inspired by other businesswoman and entrepreneurs, while always being intrigued and stimulated by journalism.

Kaylen: For me, not really coming from a business background, I had to approach the business aspect of The Riveter almost like a journalism project, as far as the research and knowhow.

N: I was always curious about how neither of you pursued traditional media paths. You didn't choose to get a job at a newspaper or magazine or other outlet. Was that part of your plan? Or why did you choose that direction?

Y: We purposefully did not pursue outside creative professional spaces. We felt that if we did work a 9-5 at a magazine, for example, we might come home and work on The Riveter and feel completely burnt out like we exhausted our ideas for the day. We wanted to be as fresh as possible when working on developing this product and magazine. A lot of our friends went the traditional media route, which is awesome, but that was not something, with The Riveter at our helm, that we wanted to pursue.

K: In lieu of media jobs, we both worked in the service industry, which I think we both learned was probably not the right move. We were both truly exhausted and angry at the end of the day for other reasons.

Y: We hated our lives.

K: Though the cash money was nice, when we both started transitioning into other industries that are complementary to our magazine, it opened our eyes to other aspects of what makes a magazine great. Literature and aesthetics in particular. So I’m glad we didn't go the traditional route, though I’m glad we’re not still working in restaurants either.

Y: We’re now working in jobs that are tangential and applicable to the work that we do at The Riveter. I’ve been wholly supported from my bosses and my coworkers. They understand that this is a professional position for me, but they are constantly encouraging me to use the professional skills and connections I make at The Riveter, which I feel really grateful for. 

D: You've both been involved in some high-level conversations about women’s media, talking about The Riveter. Throughout all of these conversations, do you think there's anything that still hasn't been spotlighted enough or that's just frustrated you over the years?

K: In light of high-level shakes-up at the glossies, there is still a lot of work to be done in making sure that the publications that have the resources to produce original longform journalism are using them in that way. When we started The Riveter, we did not feel that was the case, and we  did not feel those resources were being given to women on par with how they were given to men. Whenever there is a large scale shake-up in the industry that we’re all operating under the umbrella of, you kind of need to pay attention to — and I'm not trying to be a doomsdayer — the people who are in charge or who are even in charge in the interim because there really is a trickle-down effect, and it does affect independent publishing projects such as ours.

Y: I would love the conversation to gravitate to the economics of women’s media. Another reason we launched The Riveter was we were highly influenced by Vida. Publications saw those pie charts and were embarrassed by them and did something about it. The conversation isn't so much, ‘Oh, the byline breakdown is so dismal.’ I'm not saying it’s perfect. But we're talking more about the equity that comes with those bylines, and I would like that conversation to grow in terms of different intersectional fault lines and who is writing [stories] and where they come from.

N: I'm glad we touched on the founding story because I think a lot has changed culturally, especially around gender, since 2013 when you founded The Riveter. The story that we read again and again in every publication that writes about you is that you recognized the lack of representation for women in publishing and magazines, and so you made one yourself. That was of course celebrated as bold, as it was, and entrepreneurial. I feel like the pressure that was on you at the time, supposedly, as women to change the tide, is starting to expire. There seems to be a little bit more pressure on the other half of the population who is in power — whether it be the Mike Sager at Esquire or the people running these magazines — to make changes to their staff. We were wondering if the panel that spurred the founding of The Riveter took place today, if it would be the same.

D: With that panel, do you think Mike would have been able to say, “well, you do something about it?”

K: Mike definitely put his money where his mouth was. He said, “If you have an idea of how to do something about it or make it better, I will help you.” And he has. We are working on our second book project with him right now. We started as research assistants for the Newswomen book and now we’re coediting the 3rd volume of the series on contemporary longform by women.

I think now the impetus is on everyone, but I, for one, would like to see the women's magazine industry — when we think of that rack at Barnes and Noble labeled “women's interest” — to rely more on the quality of the longform they are putting forth, because I do believe there is more in the pages of those magazines that there was in 2013, but it's still being marketed under the guise of commodified feminism. I don't want to die on that mountain, but I will if I have to. They got hip to the fact that feminism was trending, and now that’s what they are using to sell their magazines. So it's great that it's resulting in more feature and longform reporting by women, but I would love for the watershed moment for [commodified feminism] to not be a necessary tactic to getting people to read more serious writing by women.

Y: If the panel happened just as it did in 2013 today in 2017 — almost 2018, thank god, because 2017 has been a real fuck show — I think more people would do something about it. I think often, when it comes to talking about the many intersections of gender and equality and equity and who has access to what and why, we get caught up in the conversation and are just talking and talking about it. That can be productive because it could seethe in people's brains, and then they get ideas and take actions. Often, we get stuck in our conversations, and what frustrated Kaylen and I at that time was the conversation. We were frustrated about talking about it, and we wanted to do something about it. I think if that happened today, I think we would still start a magazine, and maybe someone else would start a magazine too, that was focused on different aspects of gender. Now we just have more access points to talking about the complexities of inequity across gender, and so a lot has changed.

D: Going back to the bookshelf in Barnes and Noble, what do you consider women's interest or women's media and what do you think of those terms?

K: I don't particularly have as much ill will toward the term as maybe we did when we were starting out. If anything has happened in the last four years, we as a culture are celebrating women's interest [more] because I think everyone is waking up to the fact that women are pretty fucking smart and have really good taste.

Y: If we look at women's interest and women's media as receiving awesome head, war tactics, technology, fashion, everything that any type of humans would be interested in and then converse intelligently about it, which to me is what any women's magazine does. It's just great conversation about a myriad of awesome topics represented by awesome women. That, to me, is not problematic. It's the way we look at it and talk about it.

K: You can't eradicate the genre because there's still too much for people to learn about women's interest. There needs to still be a push for everyone to understand just how faceted women's interest is.

D: I was interested in how you modeled yourself after Esquire where women already account for ⅓ of their readership. Why do you think men might be leery of women’s magazines and what’s that like, working against that bias every day?

K: It's even reflected in fashion trends. Women at least once a quarter re-embrace their love of menswear. That's what's so great about women collectively. We’re not afraid to play with gender and embrace every single aspect of ourselves. It speaks to a larger issue that men in our culture are afraid to at times — not all men — but perhaps the men we think of as an Esquire reader is leery of embracing women's interest because he thinks that emasculated himself.

Y: I think it's as simple as, we live in a hypermasculine patriarchal society. Men are still afraid to appear feminine, and reading a women's magazine or something that is unapologetically for a women's audience is considered feminine, and therefore they don't think they can access it. For lack of — I don't really give a fuck — if a man is too afraid to read our magazine, I don't have to prove our content or our purpose to him. I'm not here to preach to him about what hyper-masculinity or patriarchy is. I think it's his role to listen and feel curious. If he's not our audience member then that's fine with me. I don't think it's our job to try to work for that hyper typical male reader.

N: To LISTEN. So in the NYT article, you were compared to other mags such as The Mary Review and The Gentlewoman. We were wondering which mags you're often compared to, and if you think those comparisons are fair? … Everyone wants to kind of put all women’s publications on the same plane. I was wondering if there are magazines now that you feel you’re getting lumped in with and what you think about that.

K: I was thrilled that we were in the same article as Gentlewoman. It put me over the moon. Yanna and I, even when we lived together more than four years ago, have always had stacks of that magazine in our apartment. We think it’s gorgeous and we really emulate their profile style and their ability to only publish twice a year but still somehow be very ahead of the zeitgeist.

Y: As K said, magazines like that helped us form the physical appearance, our editorial zeitgeist and things like that. We didn’t create the Riveter out of thin air. We had a lot of material and a lot of hard cider dates where we traded magazines, talked about what worked and talked about what we liked. And that’s a simple way of saying how The Riveter came to be.

N: We’re also hoping to talk about the progress over the last four years because we’ve been following. You’ve had some great coverage, hosted events, expanded your staff. We just saw you hired a new digital editor. How have you measured benchmarks for a self-started project like this?

Y: When you launch something at 22 with someone you really respect as a writer and intellectual, but also neither of you has really done what you're doing before, benchmarks come as they come. I give us all the credit in the world because we have a business plan — it's not freewheeling by any means — but we’ve had to learn as we were doing. Now that we both work in professional settings, we do have more access to ideas and networks that we didn't have at 22 as college students, and so hypothetically, it could be: what if we had started with all these resources at the outset?

Our tenacity and energy has been a consistent benchmark. You cannot lose any muscle work doing what we do. In the past, I personally have been hella modest about what we do, but I just what we do is really really hard and we work really really hard — like really hard — on what we are doing. That being said, I’m really happy you saw the digital editor announcement. That’s actually someone who's been working for us for like two years. We wouldn’t be able to do it without her. In terms of metrics, there have been campaigns — the subscriber campaign. Our book club was huge and a great benchmark.

K: We were graduating as the industry was starting to become a little more malleable. We’ve grown with the industry that we are attempting to change, and we have grown with our readers as well. The fact that we are still here is a benchmark.

D: We actually were going to ask you to brag for a bit. Any unexpected impacts or accomplishments?

Y: We should brag more about the book project that we already completed, and there is one in progress. Now that I do work in publishing — it’s not easy to publish a book. It’s not a given by any means and I’m not saying that’s anything wrong with that. The fact that Kaylen and I are going to have our names on the front cover of a book — I’m just gonna take a minute to be my family member or friend and say, “Woah, that’s fucking cool.”

K: We love to talk about ourselves. That’s not an issue. But we are also so future-minded — like we always have an eye on what’s next — that it feels really good when anyone asks a question like this because we are usually always like, “OK, that was awesome, high five, what’s next?” It moves really quick. I feel like we wouldn’t get so burned out sometimes if we were just like, “omg, that was fricken awesome what we just did.”

D: Kaylen, you’ve said that you are “rarely told no.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about why you think you don’t confront “no” a lot.

K: I think we really embraced the opportunity to make the Midwest, initially Minneapolis and Chicago, our locus of media creativity. So I think when approaching opportunities, challenges or issues, we carry ourselves and more importantly carry our brand with a certain confidence that requires people to take us seriously.

We are 27 now, but we’ve been doing that since 22. We are just getting better and more formidable in our approach, and then we are constantly seeking the opportunity to grow and adapt our business. We have never wavered in our original mission, which I think has made our location in the Midwest truly a non-issue.

Y: Besides the fact that we haven’t asked anyone for like a million dollars, which like, get ready, let’s do it. We aren’t asking for anything that anyone wouldn’t be willing to give. Whether we are trying to partner for an event with an organization, approaching a writer, approaching stockists, what we are doing is just reaffirming our missions reaffirming out story. It’s inclusive. It’s asking other people to be a part of it.

K: We ask people to reasonably consider our mission, and there’s no reason not to embrace and celebrate that and collaborate with us when opportunity arises.

Our next big adventure will be truly expanding not only our mission, which has stayed the same, but our business, so I’m sure we will be met with some “nos” in the futures, and the “yeses” we do get will set us up for bigger and better expansion.

N: How have you been sourcing writings and approaching projects?

Y: It’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes we get a cold submission that is fantastic and fabulous. Some of our writers have been with us from the very beginning. We went to a journalism school where we were surrounded by talented, inspiring writers.

A lot of time we use social media to sort of pitch-stalk writers, and if a writer has been super passionately posting about something or talking about how they “wish they saw more of X out there,” sometimes we will reach out to them and be like, “Do you want to write about it then?”

D: Can you talk about how your team has grown over the years?

Y: In the beginning again, we started at journalism school. We had women from the outset who had either graduated right before us or were still in school, saying “I want to help, I love what you are doing, how can I help?” As far as other folks along the way, we work with a lot of young women, which we do purposefully, because a lot of times an internship doesn’t give actual experience that you can take out into the professional world or the real world. But, at The Riveter, we pay our contributors, but we don’t pay ourselves. We are all wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot of work. So the young women that work with us get a lot experience doing what they are inevitably interested in carrying into their professional lives. It’s exciting for us because we need help, let’s be honest. But it’s exciting for them too because it gets them actual clips or experience with our digital editor, who has all this experience with newsletters and blogs, etc etc.

It ebbs and flows. One of our editors, Grace, she started on three years ago and then moved to Brooklyn and then had to take a hiatus, but now she’s back.

K: I think 90 percent of my energy comes from or is fed off of the energy of women a few years younger than us who work for us and are smarter than us is so many ways. It's very exciting to see them leveraging their opportunities with the riveter to other opportunities in the industry. Anna, our digital editor, she had an ASME internship and was working at Inc magazine. One of our former interns is up for a national Hearst journalism award for a story she wrote for us even after her internship. She continued to freelance.

We started The Riveter because we truly did not feel like there was an opportunity for us in the industry at large, so to have built this company and publication that has afforded women, if not full-time jobs because they are still in school, has at least given them accolades that they’ve been able to leverage into really high-level opportunities.

N: You’ve always written about provocative international topics, internet culture — the Alana Levinson piece was cited a lot — and now we have pieces how resistance movements use newsletters to further their ideas. So now that you are working under President Trump’s administration, how did it impact or change The Riveter's coverage?

Y: By nature, we cannot be a reactionary media publication. And I think that actually works to our benefit. I definitely see some media publications being caught in a tangled web of reactionary material. Sometimes that material is like really thoughtful and super dynamic, but often it’s just not. Our mission was to produce long-form journalism, which takes time. It takes a lot of reporting. In essence, you could probably argue that most of our articles are “evergreens.”

Because our president is a sexual predator dimwit — I’m not the first to say this — like now is the time for us to be better, louder and more frequent and careful in our reporting and storytelling. I don't mean to say any media publication should be producing material that takes people away from the urgency of what’s happening in Congress or every day in politics, but there is a lot of room for storytelling to be healing and inclusive in ways that our current administration is not.

K: We had Ilhan Omar on the cover of our most recent issue we had that planned for months before the 2016 election. Although when Trump was elected — one of the worst and darkest day in our recent history as a country — it reaffirms the importance of the work that we’ve been doing since day one. So has the wider audience who are tuning into the reality of the administration we are under. The work that we’ve been publishing has always at its core contributed to a larger conversation, but with more nuisance and context than stories that you read on a daily blog. I’m happy that that type of work is being recognized as more influential and necessary in light of the current situation we are in.

in other (magazine) news
  • To wrap a banner year, Teen Vogue hosted its first-ever summit in Los Angeles, with former Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as keynote speaker. Other big-ticket names included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), English advertising consultant Cindy Gallop, and artists Chloe x Halle.

  • "@rachsyme: reading the memoirs of a woman who worked for vogue in the 90s and there are so many anecdotes where she is like 'i wanted to go to paris so i pitched a story vaguely about paris and then went for a month'" IMAGINE those budgets.

related reads
  • These Women’s Magazines Aren’t Just for Women (NYT, 2017)

  • The Riveter: Longform Journalism by Women, for Women (Nieman Lab, 2015)

  • A Conversation With 'The Riveter' Magazine Founders: On Women's Magazines, Editing, and Bustle, Too (Bustle, 2013)

Thanks for reading, and hit us up! We want to know your memories with women's magazines, including what you loved and hated. And if you’ve never read a women’s mag, welcome. Send notes and scans:

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