After shutting down its once-popular vertical publication Babe.net, exiting the US market and having both the CEO and a former top editor implicated in inappropriate workplace relationships by US publication The Cut, British student media firm Tab Media is in full damage control mode, can it weather the storm?
Tab Media was founded by George Marangos-Gilks and current CEO Jack Rivlin in 2009 after the Cambridge graduates looked to set up a tabloid site that would rival the University's longstanding student newspaper, Varsity.
The company soon raised some funding and expanded to other campuses and eventually to the US, where Rivlin set up an office near Vice's New York headquarters in Wiliamsburg in 2015, and tapped up fellow Cambridge graduate and up-and-coming staff writer at the London Evening Standard, Joshi Herrmann, to be editor-in-chief.
The two shared an apartment and set about spreading The Tab across prominent US college campuses, as well as spinning out its first standalone vertical, the female-focused publication Babe - or babe dot net as it became stylised - aimed at "girls who don’t give a fuck".
Soon after, in 2017, the company raised a $6 million (£4.6m) funding round led by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in return for a minority stake in the company and positioned Emma Tucker, a deputy editor of The Times, on its board. Venture capital firms Balderton Capital, Downing Ventures, Knight Ventures and angel investors also participated in the round, according to a blog post by Rivlin.
Following the publication of the piece by The Cut, News Corp refused to comment and Balderton Capital have yet to respond to Techworld's request for comment. We will update this piece accordingly if either party does decide to comment.
Like Brian Goldberg's Bleacher Report, and to a lesser extent Huffington Post and Forbes before it, Tab Media relies to a large extent on unpaid writers, who are predominantly students hunting out their first byline. This has led to typically mixed results, with some needle-moving reporting, coverage of the #MeToo movement, alongside campus gossip and an entire sub-section of the site entitled 'trash'.
The company then employed senior editors at its Shoreditch and New York offices, where the culture, particularly as presented by The Cut, is laid back and often revolves around company-purchased bar tabs.
This reflected the values of the sites and their college-age writers, but also created a workplace that lacked boundaries and senior oversight or a human resources department. This mirrors the culture at the original media upstart bad boy - and it was mostly boys - at Vice, which created its own set of workplace problems, as detailed by The New York Times in 2017 and New York magazine this time last year.
The downfall of babe dot net
Yesterday The Cut published an article which implicated Herrmann in a set of inappropriate, consensual sexual encounters with younger staff members, as well as detailing a drunken incident where Rivlin kissed a young female staffer on a company night out.
Herrmann subsequently left the company in December, when Rivlin decided to quietly shut down babe.net. In response to the article, Rivlin referred Techworld to statements made by himself and Herrmann to the outlet Refinery29, in an article which appears to have since been taken down.
“At a work party, a colleague and I kissed in front of several members of the team," Rivlin told Refinery29 in an email. "We were both drunk and it was obviously very embarrassing for both of us. It was a mistake and as the senior member of staff, I should not have let that happen."
Herrmann also made a statement to the outlet, which stated: “There's no doubt I should have thought much more about the problems with having relationships with people I worked with. It was a dumb thing to do and I learned from it."
Babe made national news last year when it published an interview with 'Grace', who spoke about an uncomfortable sexual encounter she had with the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari.
The piece brought the site a huge audience and a mix of good and bad publicity, where it was name-checked on Saturday Night Live but also heavily criticised for the quality of its reporting and level of care considered for the subject of the article.
It tapped into the heightened sensitivity surrounding power imbalances in sexual encounters created by the nascent #MeToo movement, but also brought those same sensitivities into sharp relief at the site itself. Babe continued to thrive in the aftermath of the story, eventually employing around a dozen full-time writers and editors alongside a rotating cast of interns and contributors.
As detailed by The Cut, the workplace at Babe was buzzy and relaxed, more like a student newsroom than a professional one, and with little senior oversight beyond Herrmann, who had four years of experience at the London Evening Standard under his belt.
This culture eventually led to a staff backlash and a letter to management which sought to address a wide range of issues. A set of individual meetings were called to address the grievances but the writing was already on the wall for the site and it was shut down late last year, with Rivlin citing a lack of funding as the reason behind the decision.
Rivlin also sent Techworld a short statement, which read: "Babe has been closed for seven months now. I'm sad that a small group of former employees fell out with their managers and felt compelled to give unfair accounts of their time at the company to the press. Nonetheless, we made mistakes in how we ran the company, and I take full responsibility for that. I was 25 when we launched in the USA, and I have learned a lot of very important lessons the hard way.
"I decided to close Babe because we could not raise investment to continue building it. Most investors also said we were too early: we hadn't built the full Babe community product - it was still a website and Facebook groups."
What's next for The Tab?
Now the embattled Tab Media is refocusing on its UK network of University publications, where it appears to be doubling down on Love Island content.
With some damage done to the Tab Media brand and its workplace culture brought into focus by the recent press attention, raising future investment will almost certainly prove challenging for Rivlin.
Tab Media has been forced to shut down its US editions and has been unable to find a buyer for Babe - which is especially worrying in a climate where Bustle Digital Group's Brian Goldberg seems to be snapping up distressed media assets like Gawker and Mic at a rate of knots - and the company hasn't raised significant funding since 2017.
Despite this, Rivlin told Techworld that The Tab "is thriving" in the aftermath of the babe.net shutdown. "We were profitable last month and are 17 percent ahead of our annual budget after six months. It is a totally separate company from Babe, operating in a different country."
He also confirmed that Tab Media has sent legal letters to The Cut requesting the removal of defamatory sections of the story, but did not detail what these sections were.