The Other Britain

The Rise and Fall of gal-dem

The first British magazine for women and non-binary people of colour is gone. After eight years of publishing, gal-dem shut down due to intractable financial difficulties.

It’s a tragedy not just for its readers and contributors but for UK media as a whole.

Gal-dem spent the last few months trying to boost its membership-based funding model, offering perks to paid-up members in exchange for subscriptions. But this was difficult without a paywall and other sources of revenue.

Persuading readers to shell out for something they can access for free is difficult, even for big papers, already reeling from the effects of ad blockers.

Worse still, gal-dem was bleeding money and readers at a time when it desperately needed to expand its reach. Subscription growth had stalled, and its readership was in decline.

Around 215,000 people read gal-dem in February, according to Similarweb. This was down from almost 250,000 readers in December 2022 and more than 600,000 in July 2021.

Very few magazines can claim to be written by and for women and non-binary people of colour. The UK media is still dominated by posh white boys, while most industries are opening up and becoming more diverse.

Not that I can say I represent much diversity in British journalism. I’m a working-class cis het white guy who passes for middle class with my education. Just enough to get an editor’s gig at a financial media.

National newspapers locked out many working-class BAME women, inadvertently creating a need and a space for new media platforms. Gal-dem pitched itself as the alternative for black and brown writers and helped fill this gap.

Black Media Matters

Gal-dem was founded by Liv Little in 2015 in her bedroom at Bristol University. She was studying politics and sociology when she came up with the idea for the magazine.

If you’re not up on your London patois, ‘gal-dem’ is the female equivalent of ‘man-dem’ meaning a group of boys or men. The name itself gave it an edge over other alternative publications trying to hold the same ground.

Born in 1994, Little grew up in South-East London in an Afro-Caribbean family – part Jamaican, part Guyanese. London is a multicultural hub, but British university life is still very white.

Little was partly driven to launch gal-dem by her frustration with the whiteness of Bristol University. It began as a volunteer organisation, but it rapidly evolved into an editorial collective with paid staff writers.

Gal-dem quickly developed a network of writers reaching across the UK and abroad.

A vibrant combination of politics and culture meant gal-dem was able to become an influential publication despite it being run with little to no cash at the beginning. Nevertheless, it made waves.

Its first print edition – the gal-hood issue – sold out its print run of just 1,000 copies. The second edition sold out at 3,000 copies. Meanwhile, gal-dem’s online reach grew to tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands.

It was soon punching well above its weight with just one print edition a year, running interviews with the likes of high-profile figures like Michaela Coel and Oprah Winfrey.

By August 2018, The Guardian had asked the gal-dem team to guest edit its Weekend magazine. The following year the BBC announced that it would open up its local democracy reporting service to the publication.

Gal-dem’s membership model was initially a great success. The magazine saw its commissioning budget grow by 65% in two years, allowing it to finance a documentary series and pay out more than £720,000 to writers of colour.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 helped boost the membership scheme, which exceeded its target of 2,000 members and reached 3,000 by the end of the year.

Little stepped down as CEO of gal-dem in September 2020 but stayed as president of the board. Her five-year tenure had established the magazine as the best BAME feminist start-up publication in Britain.

Two years later, gal-dem was working with VICE on a series covering abuse in the music industry. It looked like the magazine was going from strength to strength, but its financial model was unsustainable without continued subscription growth.

Around 3,000 readers paying £5 to £15 a month was not going to be sufficient since other revenue streams had apparently run dry. The magazine used to have some financial support from black-led venture capital firm Blackstone Capital.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit gal-dem hard and killed its plan for a US expansion. Three years on, the magazine has not managed to survive the aftermath.

By 2023, the editorial team were looking to double its membership to cover the magazine’s losses and keep the project going strong. In the end, sheer voluntarism was not enough.

Staying Power

What we might call BAME media in the UK is beleaguered on multiple fronts.

It’s not just an issue of funding. It’s about the intersection of race and class, as well as gender and sexuality in the case of gal-dem.

It’s no coincidence that the British industry is so white and so hostile to foreigners, migrants and multiculturalism. Never mind the trans panic that the UK media is whipping up. Queerphobia is back in the press while gal-dem folds.

Fortunately, the magazine is putting together a directory of writers hoping that this will allow other organisations to pick up some of their talent.

Gal-dem has done enough just by giving many young writers bylines who would otherwise have been ignored by Britain’s national newspapers.

Liberal media like The Guardian will inevitably pick up some of gal-dem’s contributors to stay relevant and in tune with the zeitgeist. Still, it’s The Guardian, after all. Its readers expect concessions to diversity like this, both ethnic and sexual.

The real test will be how like-minded independent media such as Black Ballad learn from gal-dem’s closure.

Nobody knows how to push left publishing forward better than do-it-yourself journalists. Especially at times like these, when we need longevity more than ever.

It’s not enough to influence the rest of the media. What matters most is setting examples that endure, above and beyond being a stereotypically short-lived breakthrough.

That gal-dem did this at one of the worst times in British history speaks for itself. It was our window onto a country without Brexit and nationalism.

Screenshot courtesy of gal-dem. All rights reserved.