You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become Barstool Sports.
If you’re actually reading this and not just staring at Britney Spears being trotted out like a bear on a unicycle, you’re obviously curious about what the hell happened to The Superficial that caused our two-man creative team/future common-law marriage to abandon ship, sparking a chain of events that ended with the site being wiped clean from the internet.
(Okay, technically it still exists on the Wayback Machine, but I could tape old posts to the back of a turtle and send them to you faster. Which I will. I have time.)
So, I’m going to attempt to tell the tale of our dumb blog’s Ragnarok, and the marginally interesting battle that was fought to save its soul. However, I should probably be upfront that this whole endeavor is almost entirely a giant ego stroke that will do way more for me than it will for you. Think of it as the digital equivalent of Al Bundy talking about scoring four touchdowns in a single game. And as you can tell by that reference, I’m still very much in touch with today’s youth. I’ve got my finger right on their pulse, which is apparently frowned upon at Starbucks. Alright, I’m going.
But first, let me temper some expectations before we kick off this part-obituary, part-shameless self-promotion.
- I‘m not going to launch a crusade against CPXi/Digital Remedy for what happened to The Superficial. Sure, I’ll probably fling some snark their way, but it wasn’t CPXi’s fault that the site ended up in a fire sale or that prior corporate neglect (along with Google’s puritanical grip on ad revenue) had kneecapped its profitability. I never expected this job to make it past the first week, let alone 10 years, and there was always going to come a point when wedging social commentary with a dick joke candy shell between Kim Kardashian’s butt cheeks would end. Also, if you’ve been paying attention to the state of digital media, then you know that sites are straight-up vanishing or teetering over a cliff. The Onion, Gizmodo, Uproxx, shit, even the platform you’re reading this on right now. Basically, the internet pooped out its butt, and no one knows if it’s going back in. Will Jeff Bezos make it all better? I don’t know. I’m just a boob blogger.
- Whatever lingering anger I do have is aimed squarely at SpinMedia while under the direction of Stephen Blackwell from late 2014 to Dec. 2016. (Although, in fairness, an earlier CEO had blown a sizable hole in the ship by nearly ramping the entire company into bankruptcy less than nine months into the job. It was terrifying.) Granted, Stephen’s story ended in a moral victory, that doesn’t reverse the large number of talented and hard-working people getting thrown to the wind in the shittiest way possible when his tenure brought the company down in flames. But again, in fairness, that’s all part of a larger narrative about venture capital-backed media companies frantically eschewing sustainability to pursue the illusion of “growth.” (Plot Twist: The boob blogger knew business stuff the whole time.) At the end of the day, even a guy like me who somehow brought in millions of users was just grist for the mill.
- I‘m not here to get anyone’s hopes up about bringing The Superficial back. Yes, I think about it every second of every day, and yes, I might still have conversations about it. But those conversations generally bump up against the reality that my kids need food to go into their mouths. They’re weird like that. Another thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that I never owned the site. It has always been somebody else’s ride. I was just the lucky bastard who woke up every morning and got to drive the shit out of it for your amusement. Unfortunately, that relationship required trusting the owners to lock down sponsorships and keep the wheels from falling off. And for a very long time that was done smoothly and professionally by people who I’m extremely humbled to have worked with. But then things were done not so smoothly, and I found myself watching the tires almost get replaced with conjoined twin porn. (Not even a joke.)
And that’s where our story begins…
Merry Christmas! You’re Fired
Dec. 22, 2016 should have been unremarkable. We were three days shy of Christmas — Photo Boy’s first with his infant son — and the holidays meant tossing up “Best Of” galleries with some light posting. For a couple of days, the relentless grind of celebrity horseshit was about to become a dull roar. What could go wrong?
This email. This company-wide email that our benevolent CEO dropped at 1:00 PM EST is what went wrong.
I am writing to announce that this morning a majority of SpinMedia was acquired.
We were hopeful that this announcement could have been made prior to the holiday break however, the timing would not allow for that.
You will be hearing more from me and your supervisors immediately on next steps and all of your questions will be answered.
Now, despite the fact that I can count the number of times we’ve interacted on one hand, my “supervisor” did get on the phone quickly to tell me what the hell was going on. Essentially, most of the SpinMedia music sites, along with Death and Taxes (RIP), were being purchased by Billboard. As for The Superficial, The Frisky (RIP), and Celebuzz? We were tentatively being purchased by CPXi. Emphasis on tentatively. (What was being unsaid in all of this is that both sales were being rushed to completion so SpinMedia’s investors could get a nice tax write-off for flushing our lives down the drain.) Anyway, after relaying the bare minimum of information, my “supervisor” informed me that in a few hours he’d be an employee of Billboard, so none of this was his problem anymore. But don’t worry, CPXi will totally call you today. Byee!
CPXi did not call me that day.
What did happen that day is the last two remaining officers of SpinMedia scrambled to secure severance agreements that basically fired the whole company effective Dec. 23. Which means everyone not only signed away our jobs, and were shafted with a COBRA that dissolved in three months, but now we had to wait until the next day to find out if we just jumped without a parachute. And a lot of people did! Including Photo Boy, who if you’ve been paying attention, had a baby right before this little Christmas massacre. The pants, they were being shit in.
But none of it should’ve surprised us by that point.
Oh, Are You On Vacation? We Need To Sell The Site Right Now — J/K NVM!
Jump back to September 2015, not even 48 hours into my first vacation in 18 months, so I was pretty alarmed to get a call from my “supervisor,” who again, I barely spoke to. Also, he just got married the day before. I’m talking this guy was literally on the first day of his honeymoon in Hawaii. His voicemail said he had some “exciting” news about the site, and it will only be a short call that would be really great for me. It was not.
Turns out SpinMedia was trying to sell The Superficial, and for some reason, they desperately needed me to be onboard with it right fucking now. (I would later learn that they had been secretly courting buyers for a while. What changed this time? I’ll never know.) So for the next two days, I took calls from our board and a guy who was facilitating the sale where the general gist was, “If you want to make it through this, you need to help us sugarcoat the hole we fucked in the numbers by forcing through a company-wide redesign.” Even better, I had to explain to them what The Superficial even does. They had no clue outside of, “So, you post like nip-slips and stuff?” They didn’t even know Photo Boy worked there. Just extremely encouraging stuff all around.
Except nothing happened. Radio silence. Not a goddamn peep.
So not only was a hole blown in my vacation as I stressed over whether I had a job, a real treat for my wife and kids, there was absolutely no reason for it. And no one said a word to me otherwise. It wasn’t until I finally asked my “supervisor” in January — four months later — that I was told, “Oh, I guess we’re not trying to sell the site anymore.” (They were, but back to secretly and in the shadiest, most duplicitous ways possible.)
But it’s not entirely true that nothing happened, and Jesus, now this thing is getting so long it’s launching spinoffs. During better days working with some great bosses who not only understood the site, but genuinely grasped everything we poured into it, I was tipped off that The Superficial is one of the first sites that the company will try to sell if things are starting to go south. It was low maintenance, high numbers, and before this industry became a turd sandwich, the site was a “shiny coin” that would be snatched up easily. Unfortunately, that required upper management not jamming through a redesign in early 2015 that turned The Superficial’s trademark look into generic pulp and started bleeding users. Whoops.
So now that we knew a sale was on the table, Photo Boy and I spent Fall 2015 cranking out a pitch for a new site, which actually landed us a meeting with another media company. But that’s a different tumble down the VC hole for another time.
Back To The Christmas Massacre
It’s the morning of Dec. 23, 2016. Photo Boy and I had signed away our jobs the night before, and now we’re waiting with gelatinous colons for a call from CPXi, who might not even be buying The Superficial. As I clumsily made clear in the previous section, SpinMedia spent the last two years trying to sell the site at an exorbitant asking price instead of staunching the knife wound that was bleeding users. Not to mention aggressive advertising and browser-crashing mobile phone malware wasn’t helping, but those were industry-wide headaches.
So we’re sitting on our bruised and battered ship that’s still bringing in north of a million users by sheer willpower — I warned you about the ego strokes. — and wondering if it’s even worth anything when I finally get the call from CPXi. They’re buying The Superficial. At this point, I’m so shell-shocked that it hasn’t even occurred to me yet that this is a fire sale. However, that reality quickly started to sink in when I was asked to send an email detailing what it is I even do on The Superficial. They had zero clue. About anything.
Despite the temptation to write the word “EVERYTHING” in all caps — The worst thing you can do in this business is have an ego. — I fired off a quick, bullet-pointed email about what I do at the site then spent the entire day going through every level of emotion about what the hell is happening. I’m trying to keep a brave face for my kids and not ruin their Christmas, so naturally, just as we sit down for a family movie that night, I get a call from CPXi. However, this time there’s a decidedly different tone.
“After looking at your email, it’s obvious that Mike Redmond is The Superficial. You are the site, and we want to get you onboard right now—but as an independent contractor. But that’s only temporary.”
It was not temporary. But to CPXI’s credit, they matched my salary, and to this day, I don’t know why. So for a brief moment things were looking up. The site was being bought by a digital advertising company, so surely, they had a leg up in that department. Maybe this will actually be a good thing.
Oh, except, what’s that? Photo Boy did not get an offer, and they want to jam a bunch of random-ass posts onto the site on Christmas Eve?