The Party's Over
digital media as a community of humans is dead, and the few of us who enjoy crowdfunding success throw dirt on the grave
I did an interview for the fun and thoughtful Default Friend newsletter. It’s had me thinking about stuff.
Someone who’s been reading me since the Blogspot days was very invested in me writing some big angry response to this tepid wave at an anti-Didion piece. (It’s 200 words long.) But I couldn’t imagine rubbing two sticks together long enough to generate any heat. Who cares? I don’t understand why you’d bother to gather the energy to get offended by something that was produced with zero energy itself, a zombie provocation in a zombie publication written by someone who’s ultimately guilty of nothing more than making a very bad career calculation. (You can still get out, Sarah. I assure you, this is not professional growth for you.) Of course the word that is meant to throb with power here is the word “white,” but I’m afraid that the millions of white people who appropriate that term as an insult against members of their own race, every day, have rendered it toothless. Even Edward Said could not have unfurled a more effective demonstration of the totalizing power of whiteness: we have colonized even the use of our own racial descriptor as a pejorative, entirely for our own ends. Against it stands an internet brand, slightly used, bought at auction.
Honestly the only thing that even gets me mildly annoyed about that post is the last sentence, where I’m meant to be impressed that a Gawker writer is a college dropout. I don’t know why reading Joan Didion, a popular magazine writer often praised for her widespread appeal, would required a BA. Either way - honey, you work in New York City media. You’ll be an undergraduate for the rest of your life.
I am fairly sure that “Gawker” editor Leah Finnegan said “oh, yeah, we’re supposed to be Gawker, someone has to write a pointless Didion flame.” But the whole staff was like, it’s Christmas and we don’t read! And they drew straws and Sarah Hagi lost and she farted out a couple dozen words, then sent it to Finnegan with the subject line “you owe me.” Honestly the output of new Gawker is so narcotized, so listless and existentially half-assed, that I imagine if they were in an office right now you could visit and they’d all be in a coma, sprawled out on quirky office furniture, drooling all over their open floorplan. I can’t imagine that I’d hurt anyone’s feelings over this given that no one employed there seems to have invested a nickel’s worth of emotion in the endeavor. Gawker existed to offend; new Gawker could not achieve offense if you promised to trade its staff Juul pods in exchange for fighting words. But who would even notice if they tried their hand at it? I’m fairly certain everyone involved, including the investors, sees the site as a short-term cash out, a summer job, a pop up shop that sells disaffection and “ironically” shitty graphic design. Only, from what I hear, almost no one is buying.
For the record, if you ever feel affronted by someone at new Gawker, you only need five words: you work for Bryan Goldberg.
From Gawker to new Gawker is, I think, a cruelly effective metonym for the path of the digital media industry, the selling of ads attached to short-form argumentative nonfiction that almost invariably takes the tone of an Emerson sophomore’s idea of cutting humor. You never could say it was a good job, exactly, but it was, for a certain kind of person who’s bookish despite never reading books, a vision of a way to exist professionally. For some years now, it seems, there’s been a subtle but consistent chipping away at what was once a way of life. A particular dream of media careers as a scene, as a social club, is fading and dying. More, though, it increasingly feels like there isn’t a single vital digital-native publication even on purely creative terms. Which digital publications are must-reads, now? Pieces go viral, but publications see a traffic spike and then it fades away. To the extent that anything written enters The Conversation it’s because everyone just gloms onto the same essays that get shared on social media, plus they paid for the goddamn NYT subscription so they browse through that one and complain about everything they find. But who ever visits a homepage now? Who are the people who read every word published at Vox, the way so many once did with digital publications from previous generations? The Awl had a relatively small readership, as I understand it, but every writer I know used to refresh the page all day long. What site now fulfills that role?
The lack of vitality and virality for born-digital publications would seem to have unfortunate career consequences for the kind of people who work in Jonah Peretti’s salt mines. I can see people grinding at Buzzfeed or Gizmodo Media (or whatever it’s called now) or somewhere, catching the eye of a sympathetic editor, getting poached for a traditional media publication and from there achieving industry prominence. But it’s very hard for me to envision how these publications themselves can create stars as digital-first writing once did. Lately it feels like media has adopted the “up or out” system of the US military - if the Times or Post or Atlantic isn’t sending you an offer to staff up (one that’s long on prestige and short on dough) then you’re consigned to the same basic existence as a 24-year-old who’s very eager to distinguish themselves with droll TV recaps of The Masked Singer for Fuckbuzz.com. What a reversal! For twenty years, they wrote eulogies for print media. Now you’re lucky enough to be extended a rescue buoy by one of those stodgy dead tree organizations or else you’re feverishly trying to convince yourself that it’s still the Village Voice in every way that matters, man, and waiting for a direct deposit of $517 every two weeks. Bleak.
Why? Well, for one thing, one subject and one kind of story became such an effective click harvester that it crowded out so much other content. As it does for all things in American life, 2016 looms large. Trump broke media, utterly distorting all of the incentives for what gets published and turning a lot of thoughtful people into deranged, anxious, bloviating conspiracy theorists. This is most obvious on MSNBC and CNN, but it has torched written digital media too, as companies with very thin margins (and, often, dreams of cashing out once profitable enough) feel they can’t afford not to beat the Trump drum. But all Trump stories are the same, all of them - have you heard that he’s kind of a bad guy? - so there’s no room for writers to distinguish themselves. Everyone can write that shit. “Trump Bad.” There. Now I light the sacred incense in honor of Mark Zuckerberg and hope the Holy Algorithm blesses me this day. Gimme all them clicks please. Since there has never been anything interesting to say about Trump there’s no way to make yourself stand out by writing about him. I hate to break it to you but if your publication has you on the Trump beat then your appeal to that publication is your existential replaceability.
But it’s also hard to escape the corona of some of these publications themselves. They sell a particular attitude - almost always a Poochie, for the record - and this can overwhelm whatever individual style the writer is going for. And not by accident; the disposability of people who write for the internet was carefully crafted by the powers that be, as it strengthens the hand of management over labor. Nick Denton was famously willing to fire people, always trusting that there was some younger, cheaper version of whoever he was letting go, confident that microcelebrity and access to stepped-on New York blow (allegedly) would be enough to attract someone who had enough brain cells to rub together that they could write about the time Luke Russert shat himself during his college graduation… with attitude. But as he was in so many things, Denton was only the most crass, which is to say the most honest, about it all. Buzzfeed wants you to read their shit, and they’ll groom whoever needs grooming, but they don’t want another Ben Smith to get lifted out of their grasp by the NYT like one of those crane games, dribbling stock options of their pockets as they go. (Any day now Ben.) They all value replaceability more than personalities.
Also, I’m afraid reading may have declined in general. I have no data on this. But the digital war of attrition on reading has gotten so bad that the kind of people who once didn’t have the attention span to read novels now don’t have the attention span to get through an entire text message. I think the next big social network will be called Peekture, an image-only network for those who find they get too bored to finish Tik Toks now. No text allowed, naturally.
Whatever stars born-digital publications produced have been poached by legacy media (Choire Sicha, Ezra Klein, Caity Weaver, Jamelle Bouie) or launched an independent newsletter (Roxane Gay, Matt Yglesias, Anne Helen Peterson) or are fucking Deadspin’s rotting corpse (Defector) or Keith Gessen (Emily Gould). The smartest have gotten Hollywood money (Emma Carmichael, Cord Jefferson, Erin Gloria Ryan). Staffies who are in the best position, it seems to me, are people like Elizabeth Bruenig, who are able to start in traditional publishing while having crowdfunded side hustles that bring home cash, typically podcasts. But one way or another, writing for digital-only and earning a respectable upper-middle class American income is a status enjoyed by few, and before you deny it, yes, that was once a dream of many. Make no mistake: the underpaid and overly ambitious staffers at many of these digital publications are in it precisely long enough until they find that escape pod. Unfortunately it’s musical chairs, and every mass layoff ends up with people taking seats they would have turned their nose up at a few years before. At a casino you wouldn’t go near these odds.
Also almost every writer who you admired as a writer, for writing, would drop text for podcasts in a moment, in this biz. And it hurts to say I can’t blame them. Ask Jesse Singal the writer how much more Jesse Singal the podcaster makes. That’s not an insult. It’s just math.
This older piece in nü-Gawker on Jezebel and its, shall we say, imperfect working culture makes me think a few things, one of which is simply to remember that Jezebel still exists. That’s not me big-timing, obviously; Jezebel, as a brand, has earned its imprint on popular culture. But that’s a perfect example of a site that a lot of people found vital and which has seemed profoundly inessential for awhile now. A lot of people will chalk up its decline to G/O Media, and certainly that’s been a big part of the problem. But a) the G/O Media problem is not a one-off, but indeed will grow in time to eat more and more of the industry, and b) Jezebel’s moment may simply have passed. This too is a problem with having a house voice; there’s a period where it feels indispensable, exactly right for its times. And then the years turn, and it still feels exactly right for its times, which is to say years in the past. Vice was once a very particular perspective on a very influential slice of youth culture. (An annoying perspective, but a popular one.) Then that youth turned into today’s fattening soccer parents and Vice slouched into being just another cynical content farm like any other. “Hey bro, you check out our latest Hot or Not? It’s right next to an ad for a Subaru.”
Jezebel has been a victim of its own success, so relentlessly imitated that from like 2008 to 2015 every woman writing on the internet had to apply for a medical exemption to be permitted to write in any voice other than Condescending Sarcastic Edgy Feminist. Now the women who pioneered Jezebel are into candles and we’re on like the fourteenth wave of internet post-feminism. Stuff White People Like was an institution! Now lampooning other white people’s racial attitudes is like 90% of what college educated white people do, so there's nothing left to satirize. Moments pass.
Incidentally, I think that Jezebel story is an example of how new Gawker could distinguish itself. The trouble is that the site is now so ancillary, where its predecessor was so central (for good and bad), that it’s hard to know why people in media would bother to take their gripes there. In 2021, why would you leak to Gawker about your horrible media boss, rather than to New York or one of a dozen better-read sites that will publish that kind of story? As it stands Gawker seems content to churn out an endless stream of <500 word half-posts, vague stabs at attempting to write something where, I can only guess, the brevity and lack of point are meant to imply some deeper meaning. I’m afraid I can never find it. My eyes are too busy bleeding from the web design gimmick they should have shelved months ago.
Writing, the kind of writing I do, is in a strange place, though potentially a fertile one. Much has been made of the collapse of the newspaper industry, and there have been similar declines in the fortunes of glossy magazines of the type that once captured the yearning of young literary types. (See here.) Dreck content farms putter on, and the more nimble and forward-thinking digital-only publications survive, although part of what makes them nimble is a ruthless commitment to keeping payrolls low. A few huge incumbents in traditional media like the New York Times and Washington Post have enjoyed good fortune, though even there the economics aren’t what they once were. (The David Brooks contract isn’t really getting handed out these days, unless you bring more value to the publication by being on the payroll than through the work your produce.) I rarely get to say “I told you so” because I don’t often make predictions and when I do they’re utterly wrong, but I told you fuckers not to dance on the grave of Times Select so gleefully. As I’ve argued for a decade and a half now, trading writing for money is a business plan. Giving it away for free is not.
As the always have, a cadre of freelancers survive, with the caveat that highly successful freelancers have almost always derived the lion’s share of their income from other places than their public writing, such as ghostwriting or PR or copywriting. Independent publishing through crowdfunding platforms have been a lifeline for some of us, but as many have complained it’s mostly worked out for the already established. People keep calling a Substack bubble; I don’t know what mechanism, exactly, would compel people to unsubscribe en masse, but sure. I don’t count chickens. For now, though, I have to figure I’m making something like three or four times the average salary for a content peddler here. And I understand my good fortune. Many more people are out there grinding out every subscription, hoping to add an extra $500-$1000 a month. And honestly I think that’s the future of Substack and Patreon, though the marketing departments of those companies might not want to admit it - people supplementing normie income with some breathing room cash, that extra bit of money that you don’t want to have to rely on but which you always end up being very grateful for. If crowdfunding fulfills that function it justifies the industry’s existence.
What Substack and Patreon and assorted other forms of independent publishing can’t do, though, and aren’t attempting to, is to congeal into a community, which is what people really want. Not just a job that pays the bills, but a social world. The kind of social world that was once such an indelible part of media. I’m glad you moved to a cheaper town and I’m glad you got that day job. I’m afraid in adult life there aren’t any parties that don’t involve pinatas and shitty pizza, though. You’ve heard it from me before - an aging workforce, insane rents in major cities, and stubbornly low wages ensures diaspora makes more and more sense to people who are brave enough to keep trying to do this. Then Covid comes and whatever tether there might have been to some such thing as a “scene” is gone. It won’t come back, not in anything like the form it once existed. Is that worth mourning? For me, no. But for others, sure, and they are entitled to feel a little cheated.
But I said it was a potentially fertile time. OK, well. It’s hard for me to give advice. My own career is, to put it mildly, not replicable, nor something anyone would care to replicate. I feel compelled to say this upfront: so many people are willing to pay for my writing because I’m very good at writing, but I was only in a position to be noticed for my good writing because of good timing and better fortune. By the time I started (in 2008) blogging was no longer cool, but it was still early enough that the field was much less crowded. You could still brute force your way into the conversation, before Twitter dramatically multiplied the number of “personalities” out there. (One thing I like about Klein and Yglesias is that they have always been upfront about the fact that they were helped a great deal professionally by being early adopters of blogging.) Back then, a couple sympathetic writers with big platforms linked to me, and that got my blog some traffic. And after that I grinded on the blog for years, got paid $75 for 2000 words for my first freelance piece and similar pay for years thereafter, and gradually built up a portfolio until I was writing for the places I had always wanted to.
I also burnt it all down, all the opportunities I was lucky enough to have. I got back in because I’m good. But I could only be good by being lucky first. You can’t just choose to be lucky. What can you choose? If I have to provide anything that resembles career advice, it’s simply that you must recognize that you’re selling a product in a marketplace, and thus you must do something to differentiate yourself in that marketplace. With all the debasing things that writers have to do to survive, this should not trouble your sensibilities too much. I don’t know how anyone could question this: the market for writers who marry woke politics to affected ironic detachment is very, very crowded. I once watched a documentary about race walking in the Olympics and the first gold medalist was a guy who DQ’d in another event and just entered race walking on a whim and won. There’s wisdom in that. But for goodness sake, be sincere in your striving. If I have succeeded, it’s because I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked very hard at this, and I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I work very hard at it. I say openly that it matters to me; I believe in craft in general and my craft in particular, and I have offered everything up unironically and unafraid.
And I’m not saying that you can’t do the same. But now the field is very crowded in general. The haves pull further away from the have nots. The big-deal places feel even less pressure to pay well, knowing that most writers will feel obligated to take the “prestige” they offer in lieu of money. And, well, it’s all a mess.
If there’s any point here, it’s simply that this is a shitty business that’s not getting better and if they feel that there’s anything else that they could do and be happy, they should do that instead. I do sense that younger people have slowly started self-selecting out of the brutal grindhouse of the industry, but still, there are too many people who want in on this business and not enough seats, a problem that recent college grads have traditionally found in many desirable fields. Those who have achieved educational success often feel entitled not just to secure employment but to fields that exhibit a sense of exclusivity. Peter Turchin can tell you the rest. Would you like me to recite the litany? Tim Hwang recently put out a meticulous and patient case demonstrating that the ad-driven internet is a house of cards. Here’s Scott Galloway from NYU’s Stern School on similar themes. I have no idea if the advertisers will suddenly wake up to the fact that they’re paying millions for totally fraudulent click numbers, but whether they do or not another wave of layoffs is coming. Because that’s always coming.
Success? It’s a Pareto distribution. It’s all Pareto distributions. Look:
Those are from this analysis by Ryan McCready, which I really recommend you check out in full. It’s about freelancers, not staff writers, but it reflects the market. It finds that the average freelancer is making 30 cents a word, but even that’s misleading thanks to a top-heavy distribution. 80% of writers make less than $500 per article. But don’t take his word for it, or mine. Check out Who Pays Writers yourself. As for staff writers, here’s what I find on Salary.com, which apparently is a real website.
Enticing. Plus the VCs are pulling back the money that keeps the industry afloat. And I haven’t even used the term “private equity” yet. Crowdfunding? Fractal Pareto:
You’re bright enough to know the odds about where you’ll be on the curve. If only the were an economic system that distributed material security and abundance more equitably….
There’s a guy I know in the industry, works at a big deal pub, and he always hates when I write this stuff. “Gawker’s dead and gone!” he grouses. And fair enough. The problem is that a lot of people in the industry seem not to have gotten the memo, that the party’s over, particularly the young and impressionable. What is the career incentive, now, to do this kind of work? The pay has always been bad, certainly at entry level. The professional ladder is confused at best - put two beers in somebody in media and they’ll complain about how Writer X or Journalist Y doesn’t deserve their success. And the accelerating diaspora away from New York and DC, driven by technological change, low wages and insane rents and Covid, eliminates what was always the draw for a lot of people who could make more money elsewhere, the opportunity to come someplace and be seen and to see others seeing you. And for all of the things I’ve said here, I understand. I do understand. The will to be somebody, to be among other somebodies, I get it. But it’s gone now.
Here’s where I point out that I’m lamenting and not mocking. I want every last one of them to have a living wage, health insurance, paid leave, a union, and the opportunity for advancement. I am however asking that we all get real about what exactly the profession is, and it’s more like being an Amazon package deliverer than Gay Talese. Sometimes in my mind pictures I compare being a #content writer to being a #content moderator for Facebook, the people who are forced to endlessly scroll through horrific stuff that gets posted there to find out what should get flagged. No doubt I’d rather write 800 words of horseshit about Ted Lasso than do that. But in both cases what you have is a human crammed inelegantly into an algorithm, a little piece of wetware that management begrudgingly throws a few bills at in order to solve a problem that the software people haven’t yet sanded away. I don’t know how long it’ll be until they literally have AI writing your average sports-section gamer or TV rehash, or if it will ever stop being a novelty and start being an actual industry unto itself. But I do know that a lot of people, bright and talented, have for some strange reason taken it upon themselves to write like algorithms right now.
I love to write and I believe there is some higher social function that writers should attempt to fulfill. That said, never misunderstand me: I am a mercenary. I have come to wring rent money out of writing for as long as I can, which may not be for much longer. In the meantime though I am content to bury all the rest of you, to let you know that your industry has turned into a tomb. Everyone is saying that this is a great time to change careers. Finally, for once in our miserable lives, the worker has the upper hand and not management. So do you want to spend this period hanging on to some job you hate, churning out words about pop culture ephemera you know doesn’t matter, for some distracted editor who's constantly refreshing LinkedIn, looking to get out themselves? I have no idea how long this job market will last and neither do you. Take the children, what’s left of them, and go. Get out now. It won’t get better. You may be exceptional. But you are not the exception.
One thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told.
I majored in English. I have a pretty good job, not particularly related to that degree, not a job that carries any particular prestige, but that contributes roughly half the household income needed to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in an expensive city that I love. I’m a reader and a writer but I’ll never get paid a dime for it and I have the freedom to love it in a completely pure and non-cynical way. I love books in a way that’s inseparable from loving my own existence. I love to write because I don’t know any other way to capture the reality of that existence. I have one big colossal failure in my life that has affected me deeply and caused me a lot of grief and I’m so grateful that that failure has nothing to do with writing. I used to feel like a disappointment, or even a coward, because there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about me and my place in the world compared to the “potential” I was once assured I had. But now I (most of the time) feel incredibly fortunate. The thing you love can just be the thing you love, especially for those of us who are not geniuses. Just let it belong to you and being you pleasure.
It's rare a piece had resonated with me quite as much as this. It took nearly 11 years of scraping by paycheck to paycheck, flat broke in NYC, and getting fired from the YouTube content farm of a major legacy publisher most people only dream of working for before I could finally admit majoring in English lit was a mistake. Fuck them and fuck the whole system. You can just walk away and do something else with your life. The workplace will be less toxic and you'll get paid better too.
I really only regret not pulling the plug sooner. It's hard to admit you royally fucked up and threw a decade of your short life in the trash with absolutely nothing to show for it, but ignoring it won't make it go away.