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Nov. 10, 2015, 10:05 a.m.
Business Models

Refinery29 doesn’t want to be “CNN for women,” but it’s finding new paths into hard news

“Our audience gets really engaged when they can attach to a real person.”

Refinery29 is 10 years old. And as the site expands, one of the things it’s keeping in mind is that age is only a number.

The site is generally perceived as being aimed at millennial women — and it is, kind of. But a better way to think of Refinery29’s 25 million monthly unique visitors is that they are “millennial-minded,” Neha Gandhi, vice president of editorial strategy, told me. “It’s a lot of women who don’t fall strictly in that age group, but have a shared idea and way of thinking.” The median age of a Refinery29 reader is actually 33.5, according to the company’s advertising kit, putting them at the very top of the millennial range, and a third of readers have one child or more.

As the site’s cofounder and co-CEO Philippe Von Borries wrote in July: “It’s about a broad, progressive, new global mindset…not an age group that spans 20 widely disparate years.”

Sure, even “global” has become a bit of a tired descriptor for millennial-focused sites by now. (A recent BuzzFeed memo uses the word 15 times.) But it’s a big part of Refinery29’s mission, and a reminder that the company is not a niche lifestyle site just because it’s aimed at women. Refinery29 raised $50 million from WPP and Scripps earlier this year, bringing total funding to $80 million, a few months after Vox and BuzzFeed raised similarly massive rounds. A U.K. edition of the site will launch this month, with German and French editions coming in 2016.

To go with all that funding, Refinery29 is expanding the topics it covers. When it launched in 2005, it covered fashion, and over time expanded to beauty, home, wellness, and entertainment. (E-commerce was a focus for a brief time, but didn’t pan out.) This year, it’s begun a concerted effort to add news, politics, and tech coverage, hiring Kaelyn Forde, a former producer and reporter at Al Jazeera America, as executive editor of news and Christina Bonnington, a former staff writer at Wired, as technology editor.

In September, Refinery29 ran a series on child marriage around the world. And on Tuesday, it is launching a multimedia project, “Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise,” about three Syrian female refugees. Refinery29 sent a filmmaker, Tarek Turkey, to Turkey to speak to the women, and the project includes text, interviews, music, images, and video. “Behind the Headlines” will launch in New York City with a panel discussion including the filmmaker, representatives from the U.N. Refugee Agency and U.S. Committee for Refugees, and Lara Setrakian, the founder of News Deeply.

“We know our audience gets really engaged when they can attach to a real person and understand: Oh, this is someone who I may have something in common with,” Gandhi said.

“These women may seem, outwardly, very different from someone who’s reading this in the U.S. or Europe,” Forde said. “But their stories resonate with what it’s like to be a young woman: What it’s like to balance and, perhaps, challenge the expectations your family has for you, versus the expectations and dreams you have for yourself, whether that’s in career, who you’re going to marry, how you’re going to dress, and how you’re going to spend your time.”

The videos are largely unnarrated, letting the women tell their stories themselves. “I think it’s a powerful way to take back a narrative that, for a lot of refugees, and particularly women refugees, has really been about them, but less by them,” Forde said.

When I glanced through Refinery29’s news vertical, it felt a little scattered: Headlines like “Giant Pumpkin Breaks Loose, Goes on Spree Through Traffic” are mixed in with “Paul Ryan Takes a Stand Against These Women’s Issues” and Law & Order Actor & Former Senator Fred Thompson Dies at 73.”” Some of the coverage had a clear link to the mission to “empower and inspire women around the world,” but some just seemed random.

“We’re not here to be CNN for women,” Gandhi said. “We’re never going to be a site that covers all of the news. But we know that our audience is looking feel informed. So, Fred Thompson passed away — we know that our audience is full of Law & Order fans, and whether or not they agree with his politics, they are interested in that. So that was one of those things where we made the decision to straight-up report the information.”

Overall, Gandhi said, Refinery29’s approach is for a reader to “walk away from our content feeling a little bit smarter, a little bit more informed, and feeling you have an understanding of why you need to care about these people and what’s happening in the world.”

That goal reminds me somewhat of The Skimm, a daily email newsletter aimed at women (in fact, Refinery29 has its own Skimm-like feature, “8 Things You Need to Know This AM”). It also reminded me a bit of Vox’s mission to help readers understand the news.

Gandhi acknowledged that “most people are using Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and a lot of other platforms as their entry point into news.” (Refinery29 is a Facebook Instant Articles partner and is the newest publisher on Snapchat Discover.) Right next to a Refinery29 story, Gandhi said, “they might be discovering a story from Vox, and a story from any number of other sites that do a lot of things that are similar to what we do.”

But, she said, “we’re providing a female lens. We are acutely aware of who our audience is, how this woman is thinking about content, and it’s a big driving factor in how we tell certain stories to her.” And here’s some evidence that Refinery29 knows who its audience is: 38 percent of its traffic comes from people who visit the site nine times or more a month. That loyalty metric hasn’t dipped in 10 years — it’s actually risen slightly, even as site traffic has grown.

This female lens is reflected throughout the company. While two of Refinery29’s cofounders are male (which has led to some debate over whether that made it easier for the company to get funding) the site’s editorial masthead is almost entirely female, and 40 percent of the people on its product and engineering team are women. “There’s something really powerful about having a C-suite with a wide array of powerful women in it,” Gandhi said. (“I’ve never been in an office with this many women,” editor-in-chief Christene Barberich told Politico earlier this year.)

Before coming to Refinery29, Forde worked in TV news. The difference in the workplaces, she said — “the collaborative process, the encouragement and mentorship” — is staggering.

“One of the big reasons that I was drawn to Refinery29 is that I wanted to produce content for people who look like me,” she said. “I’m creating content that’s meaningful, important, inspirational, and empowering for an audience of people who are essentially my peers. That’s a really exciting thing.”

Photo by Tarek Turkey for Refinery29.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Nov. 10, 2015, 10:05 a.m.
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