Rich People Are Never Going To Save Media
10:19 AM EDT on March 26, 2021
On Wednesday, the staff of MEL magazine got shown the door after Dollar Shave Club, the billion-dollar razor company that decided to dabble in online publishing, announced that it was shutting the production down. In the brief time it’s been around, MEL made a home on the internet through work willing to excavate the darker corners of masculinity while also not being afraid to be horny on main. And now, just like that, it's gone.
Whether you’re familiar with MEL or not, it’s likely you recognize a trend here. This is another year in which media job losses have continued to accelerate, and groups of journalists being cast out as nomads in search of another paycheck is a familiar ritual. But what makes the place the industry is at now especially hurtful, or at least confusing, is when ownership says shit like this:
In times of strife and calamity, one thing always seems certain: Bosses won't hesitate to say insane things like, You see, the sudden, casual destruction of your livelihood has always been a part of our design.
The staff at MEL getting sent to the unemployment line came just a few days after Medium shed staff in its latest latest pivot towards oblivion. Founder Ev Williams announced plans earlier this week to offer buyouts to 75 editorial employees, the bulk of them having worked on Medium’s efforts to create a portfolio of subscription-based titles like Zora and OneZero. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because Williams similarly steered Medium into an embankment—and laid off employees—in 2017 when he wanted to get out of the ad-supported media business in favor of developing something closer to ... subscriptions. He has continued to swerve Medium in and out of viability since, so what happened this time? He wrote:
What’s worked less well is where we’ve followed the traditional editorial playbook — specifically, commissioning stories from professional writers into publications with broad mandates. When I say “worked less well,” I don’t mean the work itself, but the equation of cost, audience, and return on investment.
Willams would not be the first media executive to throw up his hands in a shrug and say, “Uh, media economics, boy, I just don’t know!” Because the truth is that navigating the growth of any media concern right now is treacherous. Building an audience and generating the revenue needed to pay writers a fair wage and make a usable product involves complex decisions that can render unforeseen consequences in the short and long term. All of this would hold true for Medium if not for one tiny bit of reporting from Casey Newton:
Medium entered the year with more than 700,000 paid subscriptions, putting it on track for more than $35 million in revenue, according to two people familiar with the matter. That’s a healthy sum for a media company. But it represents a weak outcome for Williams, who previously sold Blogger to Google and co-founded Twitter, which eventually went public and today has a market capitalization of more than $50 billion.The Verge
Look, I’m just a simple Midwestern boy with a twinkle in his eye and an unerring sense of optimism, so I don’t know much about running a fancy business. But, it sure as sunshine seems likely you can make a good run at viability in journalism with those numbers.
The problem is that words like "viability" and "success" mean different things to different people. Tallying up 700,000 subscribers and $35 million in annual revenue would be clear markers of success to a person who just wants to run a viable, mid-sized business that pays people good wages to write interesting things. But those numbers mean something wholly different to an unfathomably rich person like Williams, who is always in search of the next billion-dollar idea. MEL succeeded in publishing work that people wanted to read, but perhaps not in providing whatever it is a razor company was looking for when it decided to launch a publication.
It’s tiring to keep living in cycles where headcount at some point becomes bodycount for editorial operations, either through incompetence, negligence, or hubris of would-be media barons. And these notions of what a successful media company actually looks like will only become more distorted as more of them are placed in the hands of rich people who suffer from a terminal disconnect from reality. The last several years in media has brought breakneck deals between former media upstarts that mirror the legacy newspaper mergers they thought they were innovating beyond. Vox Media gobbled New York magazine, Vice handcuffed Refinery29, BuzzFeed grabbed HuffPost at the end of last year. When these mergers happen, employees always get the same gaslit song about how cuts won't be made. BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti told The New York Times last fall that everyone should feel good about his company's merger with HuffPost. A few months later, he went about gutting HuffPost's newsroom.
If there was a tipping point in the business of journalism, we’re likely far past it. I was writing about these same problems as a Serious Media Business Reporter Person almost six years ago. Not much has changed since then, except the names and the amount of us who have lost or left jobs. The channels for distributing news, and the ad dollars that flow in the direction of the eyeballs they capture, are dominated by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube. The audience, either perceived or real, for the information created by journalists, is atomized beyond any historical comprehension. And the economics? Largely controlled by a collection of wealthy figureheads and tech acolytes whose motivations and interests vacillate from apathetic altruism and curious benevolence to reckless hostility.
The future seems bleak as hell, so is it a surprise writers are gleefully (or, warily) jumping to Substack? Substack, much like Medium, is another deal with a devil you only partially know that doesn’t want to share the granular details of its proprietary product. But, given the toxic atmosphere in media (I will save my rant on the ways newsrooms are hostile and traumatic to anyone who doesn't resemble a 54-year-old white man for another day), the economics and freedom, even at a newsletter company with opaque motivations, are favorable by comparison.
And yet, there is another option: collective action. There’s a reason there’s been an explosion in new unions and bargaining units within media companies in the recent years. It’s the same reason there’s been further expansion in nonprofit news, news cooperatives focused on marginalized communities, or even (ahem) subscription-based blogs focused on community. If the work is actually about speaking truth to power, that belief system has to matter in our own house.
At this point getting laid off, being a surveyor or survivor of the wreckage in this industry, should only lead to one conclusion: Nobody is coming to save the day. We have to do it ourselves. As long as journalism remains beholden to wealthy dilettantes, be they Ev Williams, Jonah Peretti, Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeff Bezos, The Newhouse family, or a swarm of locusts wearing a Tom Ford suit and Jordans that have formed a hedge fund, any endeavor will ultimately be poisoned by the bias and interests of its benefactor. Because money will always look after more money, not the interest of journalism or the people who want to read a chronicling of the world as it is ground to dust in money's path.