Sydney Morning Herald
by Jennifer Duke
1 May 2019
Claire Lehmann, the Australian woman once described as "the voice of the intellectual darkweb", has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from global investors to support the website she founded from her home in northern Sydney.
Ms Lehmann launched her site Quillette in October 2015 from her home in the northern Sydney suburb of Lindfield after becoming frustrated with what she claims is left-wing groupthink among some journalists and academics in debates about gender, race and other aspects of identity politics.
The 33-year-old psychology graduate has argued mainstream media, particularly in the US where the Trump presidency has sparked a fierce debate about the role of the press, is dominated by journalists in a social and professional "bubble" and is not open to publishing or reading alternative views. She regularly says the purpose of Quillette is to encourage free thinking.
This approach has attracted 1 million online views a month, including some high-profile readers such as Tesla founder Elon Musk, who follows Quillette on Twitter. Roughly half of Quillette's audience lives in the US. Australian investment banker and venture capitalist Mark Carnegie is also a supporter and has poured money into a funding round scheduled to end this week.
"[The backers] see that my long-term project has some merit and value and they want to support it," Ms Lehmann said. "It’s not exactly philanthropy, but no one who is investing is expecting to make a huge sum of money in the next 12 or 24 months."
Mr Carnegie, a proponent of independent publishing, was a donor before becoming an investor this year and organised to meet Ms Lehmann after reading a series of Quillette articles and discovering the founder was Australian.
"My interest has always been, primarily, because I thought what she was doing was very important," he said, likening Quillette to his investment in Lonely Planet. "Not many people know about her in Australia, but she has become very high profile overseas."
A defining moment for Ms Lehmann occurred in 2017. Google employee James Damore attended a diversity program at the tech company and then wrote a memo to his managers complaining of an "ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be discussed honestly".
While he opposed discrimination, he said the lack of equal representation between men and women in tech and leadership could be partly explained by differences in traits. He was sacked after the note attracted outrage, with social and mainstream media criticising him being sexist and "cherry-picking" the science.
Quillette responded by running an article from four academics supporting the scientific rationale behind the memo, arguing there was, in fact, some biological evidence for his claims. The site was hit by a denial-of-service attack after publishing that piece, which stopped readers from being able to access it.
The website and Ms Lehmann's combative social media presence have attracted controversy over the years.
Quillette has run articles on how "trans radicalism hurts women, children – and trans people themselves", arguing against early medical intervention for children who identify as trans-gender. The site published a thought-piece in April headlined, "Teenage climate-change protestors have no idea what they're protesting."
Quillette's operations have so far largely been financed from reader donations and some online advertising, but Ms Lehmann recently sought more substantial funding as the site looks to grow. She says she has raised a "few-hundred-thousand" dollars and won't name other investors.
"I haven’t seen as strong a brand since I invested in Lonely Planet," Mr Carnegie. "I don’t know if it will be as big as [American commentary magazine] The Atlantic or TED, but it’ll be a social project success."
Smaller publications have struggled to gain a foothold in the Australian market, where there is significant competition for advertising dollars and a relatively small population of paying readers. US website Buzzfeed recently cut most of its local journalists.
"The problem is the business model ... certainly people want to read a really diverse range of opinions and there’s a huge gap in the market for that diversity, but the difficulty is working out how to make money, because unless you get to a certain scale you can’t make money out of advertising and subscriptions," Ms Lehmann said.
"The key is going international straight away."
Half of Quillette's readers are from the United States, 10 per cent in the UK, 10 per cent from Canada and 5 per cent in Australia. The site’s highest per capita readership is from Sweden, where one of the editors is based.
"We consider ourself to be a niche publishing site. It’s hard to find a large enough audience in a small country to sustain that," Ms Lehmann said.