A picture of a crumbling industry and the people left doing their best to navigate an unworkable landscape
On November 7th, Spectrum News Hudson Valley posted a human interest interview about one of Sports Illustrated’s newer freelance correspondents. I am not typing out their name here for two reasons: in the bigger picture, none of this is their fault and also they are still currently attending high school. Based on the glowing comments from their video production teacher, the fact that they are an ambitious student who does good work probably helped them get the assignment. It also didn’t hurt that the industry is broken.
This was presented as a feel-good story about a hometown kid who hopes to someday have their own sports-talk show hustling for a job with a prestigious outlet. One way to describe the situation, the way that it was worded without further elaboration in this article, is that the opportunity came “amid a recent ownership change for Sports Illustrated and a shift in their business strategy to more freelance content.” In fairness to the journalist and editors that published it, people who are also trying to eat in a field that has made that a struggle, this is technically accurate.
Dennis Young of the New York Daily News dug further and discovered that the seventeen-year-old published their first piece with Sports Illustrated in late September. [Young has edited some of my work.] This was a few days before half the SI staff was callously laid off and entities that refer to themselves, straight-faced, as Authentic Brands Group and TheMaven [sic] officially took control of operation. Their business plan looks suspiciously like a pyramid scheme and involves trading on that magazine’s history while hollowing it out into exploitative content farms. (They’ve also floated the idea of slapping SI’s logo on everything from a gambling operation to medical clinics.) In the spirit of that plan, and of SI’s earlier content mill partner FanSided, the student had been submitting 1–3 pieces per week for the rate of zero dollars.
On November 8th, sports journalist Leander Schaerlaeckens tweeted an update that the new correspondent had “been let go by Maven/SI because of the backlash against the hiring of a high-schooler.”
If you were already familiar with the situation at Sports Illustrated, that might be due to the work of Deadspin. [I wrote for Deadspin regularly.] Like Splinter and Gawker before it, one of Deadspin’s best qualities was its willingness to call out this sort of thing. Also like them, it is now dead. The brand is technically still operating in some zombified form, but whatever essence meaningfully constituted Deadspin left the building along with the entire editorial staff.
There is a much longer story of how this happened, which includes a series of SLAPP lawsuits covertly funded by a reactionary billionaire, and a shorter one, which focuses Deadspin’s sale to the private equity firm Great Hill Partners and the dubious leadership of G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller. EIC Megan Greenwell was pushed out the door while fighting for editorial autonomy. There were incessant autoplay ads that turned David Roth from a linguistic treasure into some kind of amiable, plaid Max Headroom. [Roth has edited my work at several sites and I once ate noodles with him.] A “stick to sports” mandate was handed down — to a site that still sells merchandise ironically bearing that phrase — longest-tenured editor Barry Petchesky was fired for defying it, and the staff quit en masse in protest.
There has been no shortage of insight into what occured or heartfelt appreciation of what the place meant. Lionizing a single sports website would go against everything Deadspin stood for, but this isn’t just about one rude website. What Deadspin’s demise reflects about the state of the media is a grim picture of ever-consolidating power, vultures looting anything of value, and structural rot from top to bottom. The very wealthy people responsible are too venal to accept a modest profit from a successfully operating business as anywhere near enough, and so they will leave nothing but wreckage in their wakes. If they can help it, no one who might give an honest accounting of the carnage will be left to tell the story.
Beyond the eulogies and the wider surveying, it’s worth focusing for a moment on what happened after that exodus. Paul Maidment, G/O Media Editorial Director and handpicked Spanfeller adherent, was left to keep the gears churning. A series of posts made under the generic byline “Deadspin” (it is not impossible that these were written by Maidment himself) appeared on the front page. They drew relatively little traffic but considerable social media mockery. His work or not, Maidment persevered for the equivalent of a single weekend blogging shift in the content mines before tendering his resignation from G/O. “It is the right moment for me to leave to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity,” he wrote.
Before that though, a lone blog was posted under the byline of a freelancer named Alan Goldsher. It was met with derision and a flood of responses calling him a scab. Goldsher quickly apologized and told Robert Silverman at The Daily Beast that in retrospect the decision to pitch Deadspin after hearing about the staff’s exit “makes me sound like kind of a dick.” In a series of seemingly earnest tweets he said, “I’ve listened to the room, and I’m out of Deadspin,” and that in twenty-plus years of freelancing he never realized there was a community like this. Claire Fallon interviewed Goldsher for a HuffPost piece at about the usage of the word “scab.” There was no picket line to be crossed in this case, and the unionized G/O staffers’ bargaining agreement has a no strike clause. GMG Union members and freelancers continue to publish at other G/O Media sites. Fallon’s article was headlined “We’re All Scabs Now.”
In this climate, the morbidly relevant news never stops. Another outlet is shuttered or gobbled up by venture locusts; shops pivot to the next fool’s gold based on nonexistent trends or fraudulent metrics; talented people are let go and then forced to joust with other talented people who have also been let go for positions that are nearly extinct; everyone is ground gradually into dust. One recent development is that Bustle Digital Group has laid off fourteen more writers and editors, bringing the number who lost jobs there this year to over thirty. In a statement provided to Business Insider, Bustle claims they are preparing for a “major site relaunch in early 2020.” Last year, much of the editorial staff of Mic was laid off ahead of its sale to BDG, also amidst plans for a “relaunch.”
Bryan Goldberg, the CEO of Bustle Digital Group, got very rich co-creating and later selling-off the sports site Bleacher Report. Whatever Bleacher Report is now, it began as one of the most cynical examples of the shameless, click-thirsty, crowdsourced assembly line that Sports Illustrated hopes to implement. This is to say that Bryan Goldberg, like a lot of people who get very rich, did so by gaming the system on the back of unpaid and then grossly underpaid labor. That capital then went into starting Bustle and collecting the other brands — including Mic, Nylon, and Inverse — now under the BDG umbrella.
The defiled remains of Gawker, a site that had been brutally critical of Goldberg, are also part of that portfolio. Two years after its death at the hands of Peter Thiel via pro-wrestler proxy (amid other suspects), Goldberg purchased the site’s remnants in a bankruptcy court auction for $1.35 million. The irony that he might be the one to reboot Gawker was not universally well-received, especially by some of those close to the site who view the whole endeavor as blasphemy.
When (New) Gawker’s initial hires were announced, Laura Wagner’s coverage for Splinter ran under the header “Here Are the Media Chuds Joining Fake Gawker.” In addition to giving cutting bios for the people on the new masthead, it unearthed some of editorial director Caron Griffith’s more offensive tweets. The following week, staff writers Maya Kosoff and Anna Breslaw resigned. According to what Kosoff and Breslaw told the Daily Beast, the tweets were just the tip of the iceberg. They claimed that even in their short time there Griffith’s behavior and Goldberg’s lack of action on it had become an untenable HR nightmare. Goldberg later told the New York Times that Griffin had been “cleared” by a third-party investigation. There were several more months of personnel moves and foundering — the New York Post reported that, “According to insiders, attracting talent had been difficult.” — and finally in July it was announced that the relaunch was indefinitely on hold. The remaining staffers were laid off.
Last year, members of the media collective Study Hall staged a boycott of The Outline. [I have also written for The Outline.] Joshua Topolsky’s platform had recently secured over five million dollars of additional funding, and yet still implemented multiple rounds of layoffs, shedding their full-time writers and other staff. Study Hall’s statement posited that the problem was not a lack of funds but (especially venture) capitalists prioritizing profits over workers. It also read, “To be clear, this is not an issue we have with The Outline alone,” and that “layoffs are a fact of life,” but that the more than one hundred co-signers would not write for the site again “until there are significant changes at the company.” Topolsky responded: “We are not a monolithic corporation. We are not executives in corner offices hoarding money. We’re journalists trying to make something good, and making hard choices to keep a business alive so we can fight another day.”
The standoff was never clearly resolved. On Christmas Eve, in a piece about solidarity at The Outline, Wei Tchou wrote of the boycott, “The gesture was sincere and came from a good place, though as a member of Study Hall, I felt conflicted. If freelance writers stopped working for all publications that laid off workers, there would be none left for which to write.”
In March of 2019, Topolsky and Bryan Goldberg made a deal. The Outline became part of Bustle Digital Group.
Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people in human history, on a scale so gaudy that it can’t adequately quantify how he eclipses even someone like Goldberg. His wealth is a result of running one of a small number of gargantuan eldritch horror firms determined to control and monetize every single aspect of life on earth. As a side hustle that contributes to that scheme, he also owns the Washington Post.
Bezos is sometimes painted as a benevolent overlord, maybe because he does not appear as cartoonishly evil as some of his peers and maybe because people enjoy the convenience of having cheap phone chargers promptly delivered to their home. This is not surprising given America’s psychotic relationship with oligarchs, but it doesn’t hold up to a moment of scrutiny. There’s the awful treatment of warehouse workers; the $1.5 million Amazon spent to influence a Seattle city council election, which is more than the zero federal income tax they paid in 2018; Whole Foods cutting medical benefits for part time employees; the partnerships with the military complex and police state; Prime’s massive environmental impact; etcetera, etcetera.
The Washington Post itself does plenty of excellent work, but they also do things like run unchallenged op-eds from the likes of Henry Kissinger, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and as a part of some truly remarkable tripe in defense of Brett Kavanaugh, Kenneth Starr. No critique of Glenn Kessler’s fact-checking column could match the fever dream experience of reading a grown adult using a Disney character rating scale to be pedantic about fascism. Despite the hand-wringing around Bernie Sanders’s accusations of negative coverage due to his antagonistic positions toward Amazon and The Post’s response that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence,” the paper’s treatment of Sanders has been well-documented by FAIR. (Sanders later told CNN that he was not claiming a conspiracy or that Bezos was dictating coverage to the newsroom every day but that “There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss, and that’s a serious problem.”)
In September, The Post announced that it was shutting down its free commuter paper, Express, and laying off twenty journalists. The Washington Post Guild statement condemned the layoffs, claiming that they came with no warning and that the twenty people affected were only excluded from union protections by “legal and bureaucratic fictions.” Writing out Jeff Bezos’s net worth in US dollars continues to require twelve digits.
The landscape now is made up almost entirely of stories like these. (While I was trying to land this somewhere, Maya Kosoff did an excellent piece talking to some of the people impacted for GEN.) The collapse of print has transitioned into Google, Facebook, and to a lesser degree Bezos’s Amazon dominating all ad revenue, which, combined with expensively-dressed private equity wolves gnawing on the bones, has led to devastation. All the operations that have been swallowed by increasingly dystopian ownership, closed their doors, decimated their staff, laid off, rebooted, and laid off again, or made otherwise depressing moves in just the last few years are impossible for even people inside media circles to keep up with. Do the current writers at MTV News know the details of how the previous staff, who were doing ambitious work, were thrown out on their asses in a supposed shift to video, coincidentally after they had unionized? How should that knowledge impact anyone’s decision to take the job? More practically, where does that choice rank ethically among their other options to pay rent?
After leaving Deadspin, David Roth spoke to Luke O’Neil for his Welcome to Hell World newsletter. Roth told him that the staff hadn’t thought of quitting as taking a principled stand, so much as choosing “not to continue to eat shit.” “It was kind of dumb in a lot of ways,” he said, “we’re all really stressed about money and trying to freelance wherever we can do it.” O’Neil responded, “I think in this media landscape perhaps the act of saying I don’t prefer the taste of shit anymore is a radical act. They’re painting us into a smaller and smaller corner in a room and there aren’t that many more directions people can go anymore.” In the aftermath, some of the Deadspin exiles have been doing freelance work for places including The Outline and Vice. [You will not be surprised to hear that I have written for Vice.] Earlier this year Vice underwent a restructuring that involved the elimination of 250 people’s jobs.
At CJR, in a profile titled “The normalization of Bryan Goldberg,” Lyz Lenz penned this conclusion:
If BDG continues to buy up media properties, Goldberg will own a significant portion of the internet, leaving writers and editors with nowhere else to go. But in an industry facing shrinking budgets and mass layoffs and political attacks, is Goldberg’s model any worse than any other option out there for writers? Those who work with him say ‘no.’ But it’s a nihilistic vision of an industry struggling to survive.
This is absolutely right about the realities of the industry and the dismal nature of its prospects, and Goldberg is far from the most concerning player. There are no pat answers and there are no leftist billionaires to swoop in with funding. But there are also people doing their best to combat the nihilism.
As I am typing this, workers at two dozen publications under Hearst Magazines have decided to unionize with Writers Guild of America East (though their bosses are doing their best to discourage them). The last several years have seen organizing efforts at a heartening number of media outfits, especially on the digital side, in a wave that took thousands of people’s hard work, but was at least partially kicked off by Gawker’s unionization in 2015. Networks like Study Hall and freelance organizing efforts like the IWW Freelance Journalist Union and NWU Freelance Solidarity Project [I have participated with the IWW FJU and am a dues-paying member of NWU.] are creating solidarity and connecting people outside of staff Slack channels. As Clio Chang put so well at The New Republic, organizing is one of the only things that might be capable of saving journalism, and as Paul Blest explored at Current Affairs, building on that solidarity might give workers a chance to create more ethical, sustainable models.
In the meantime, it’s all a compromised mess. It’s unthinkable to me at the moment that I would ever pitch Deadspin again, but the truth is that I’ve done work for employers who were no better. I wonder how my standards would change if my circumstances were more desperate. If I’m lucky enough to find an outlet who will run this there’s a good chance that they, too, will be grandly corrupted in one way or another. This system is built to pit workers against each other, and turn even the best-intentioned into scabs. The only solution is that enough people can come together to build a better one.