The Urgent Need For Worker-Owned Media
Above Photo: From Currentaffairs.org
Can media workers seize power away from the useless rich people who destroy everything?
Another quality media outlet has been killed, another talented group of writers and editors pushed out of their jobs. Today’s casualty: Deadspin, the acclaimed not-just-sports website, where staff resigned en masse to protest the elimination of their editorial independence. Earlier this year, private equity firm Great Hill Partners acquired Gizmodo Media—which included not only Deadspin, but the Onion, Jezebel, and Lifehacker. Great Hill rebranded the company G/O Media because of course they did, and began to do what rich owners do to successful and high-quality media properties: destroy them.
As Jeremy Gordon recounts in his explanation of the travesty, Great Hill soon “fired top editors, asked sites to be friendlier to advertisers, closed its only politics site on the eve of an election year, gave jobs to their cronies, installed intrusive new advertisements, and more, while showing no curiosity in enabling its employees to do good work.” At Deadspin, after the staff “fail[ed] to meet ad impressions goals for an agreement with Farmers Insurance,” management “decided to make ads autoplay with the sound on,” enraging readers. The new CEO, Jim Spanfeller, appears to have been a world-class dipshit. His philosophy of media was that quantity is quality, focusing on churning out endless (virtually worthless) content clogged with invasive ads, and when he ran Forbes the site used to publish an astonishing 5,000 stories per day. Spanfeller immediately told the staff he expected them to double page views, then several weeks later told them he expected them to quadruple page views, forcing writers and editors into a frenzied quest for clicks. Needless to say, one can do almost nothing of any substance under this governing philosophy.
But the last straw came this week when Deadspin’s staff were told that going forward, they were only allowed to write about sports. Because the site has built its entire reputation as a sports website that goes beyond sports, and because this model was profitable and popular, staff were aghast. And it became clear the management was serious: An editor was fired after failing to hew to the narrow sports-only mandate. That triggered a revolt among the rest of the staff, who—tired of rich idiots telling them how to run the editorial side of things—departed as a group today.
One remarkable aspect of Deadspin’s collapse is that it isn’t even a story of owners trying to “make as much money as possible” and doing what it takes to increase revenues. In fact, the new owners messed with the writers and editors whose independence had made the site successful in the first place. In August, Deadspin editor Megan Greenwell, on her last day at the company, wrote that it wasn’t just that the owners wanted money and the writers wanted good journalism. The writers wanted money too, and the owners were just the kinds of scummy vulture capitalists who don’t actually understand the companies they buy:
An ever-growing number of media owners, meanwhile, are so exceedingly unwilling to reckon with the particulars of their own business that they refuse to accept our eagerness to help them make money. They’re speaking a language no one else does, proud of their own inability not just to not fail, but to not understand the terms on which they’re failing. The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.
I am reminded here of Maureen Tkacik’s excellent reporting on Boeing, where a similar thing had happened. The people in charge of the company had no idea how it ran or how to make airworthy planes. The engineers and pilots who did understand planes were not listened to. A catastrophic design flaw was introduced, with horrible human consequences, one that probably could have been avoided easily if workers rather than money men had been leading the decision-making. The managers weren’t even executing good business strategy. They were just arrogant and incompetent and it killed people.
Here, too, the failures here were avoidable. Journalists know how to do good journalism, editors know how to edit it. Deadspin worked. So did many of the other outlets that have shuttered in recent years. 2,000 newspapers have shut down since 2004. Certainly, some weren’t sustainable. But here in New Orleans, for instance, the oldest newspaper in the city, the Times Picayune, was recently bought by the rival Advocate. The Advocate’s owner immediately shuttered the Times Picayune, putting 140 people out of their jobs. (The firings were announced on World Press Freedom Day.) The owner called the closure a “trophy,” meaning that he just wanted to destroy his rival to achieve dominance. The town could sustain two newspapers, but because some rich fucker wanted a trophy, 140 people lost their jobs and a bunch of critical local news will go unreported. (We also lost my favorite local columnist, Jarvis DeBerry, who moved to Cleveland.)
This is capitalism’s fault. Many people think capitalism is about “markets,” but the more central and destructive feature is the question of who owns capital: Is it workers and the public at large, or is it a small class of capitalists? If workers owned their companies, many of these tragedies wouldn’t happen. It would be up to the journalists and editors to decide whether they wanted to sell their newspaper. If it was a cooperative the Times Picayune would still have had to compete in a “market,” and could have pursued a profit (which would be distributed to workers rather than owners), but decisions about the fate of the company would be in the hands of those whose fate it actually was.
Look at the tragic losses that have happened recently in media: MAD Magazine, the Village Voice, Splinter, Pacific Standard… Often, workers at these companies do not get the opportunity to try to save them. Consider Pacific Standard: Its crack team had been building a highly-respected outlet, but their patron simply “lost interest” and decided to give them the chop. First Look Media recently decided to pull the plug on the Nib and Topic, and staff were simply told: That’s that, sorry.
This is not always simply a problem of “profit;” Pacific Standard, for instance, was overseen by a nonprofit. But it is always a problem of ownership: A magazine dependent on a patron operates at the whim of that patron, regardless of whether it is for profit or not. Even though the Onion’s success is entirely due to its hilarious writers, its ownership has passed to Univision and then to “G/O” because the Onion’s writers do not own it. This is ludicrous: They make the funny articles, the funny articles are the entire site, why on earth should anyone other than the writers of the Onion own it?
The biggest threat to journalism today is not “technology.” Journalists can innovate ways to use technology to produce excellent new work, and even to get people to pay for it. The big problem is ownership: The journalists don’t own the companies.
Let me give you a very clear example of what I mean. When we set up Current Affairs in 2015, we were adamant that we would have no investors or advertisers. The company would be owned by its editorial board, funded entirely by subscriptions and donations, and all profit would be reinvested in the company; nobody would be able to get rich from Current Affairs. Of course, that meant building very slowly: Seed money from an investor could have “jump started” us. But it’s worth it: It means that even though we’re smaller than nearly any other magazine, we are actually very, very safe. We do not have to worry that some investor will turn on us, or that we will displease the advertisers. We have to keep our readers happy, of course. But otherwise we’re beholden to no one. (We are very, very lucky, and when we see more and more news stories of media colleagues losing their jobs, it makes us appreciate just what a rare privilege independence is.)
If, on the other hand, Current Affairs was not owned by its workers, and its benefactors could sell us out when it pleased them, I might one day find myself reporting to someone who found our slow growth frustrating. And why no ads? Everyone has ads. So we’d be forced to take on ads. And we’d be told to double our output. And to do videos. And “sponsored content.” (Like the New York Times does with the fossil fuel industry.) In other words, our ownership and management structure is absolutely critical. It means that nobody can just wake up and decide to tell all the writers that we’re “going in a different direction.” I’m the editor, but I report to the board, who ultimately decide whether I’m doing a good job. This means that we have a lot of very democratic decision-making: Everyone at Current Affairs has a chance to participate in a discussion over big changes in the company. We operate on a kind of informal consensus process, meaning that even one person’s strong objection would carry a lot of weight.
Now, look, Current Affairs is small and it’s easier for us to do this because we have four paid staff. But the point is: If we are to stand a chance of having quality independent media, we must build the worker-owned, reader-funded model. Maybe advertising is a necessary evil—though there needs to be strict ethical practices around “native advertising” and other forms of corporate brainwashing. But ownership and control must be with employees and the company must be governed democratically. Non-profit, for-profit, I’m undecided—personally I don’t like the pursuit of profit and I don’t really engage in it (to the consternation of our accountants). But what I know is that we can’t afford rich billionaire owners.
Easier said than done, of course. Capitalists have all the capital, after all. Still, those in media are somewhat more fortunate than those in the aerospace industry. The ex-engineers from Boeing can hardly go and start a multinational aircraft manufacturing company on their own. But the actual capital required for a successful website is comparatively small. The problem, of course, is labor costs: How is everyone going to eat while you’re building the thing up to the point where it can pay everyone. That I do not know. But I do think it is easier in media than almost any other field imaginable, because it’s possible to produce quality material with little more than a laptop and time.
People have been trying out the crowdfunding model and some have been quite successful. My colleague Paul Blest wrote last year in “Building Media Institutions That Aren’t Controlled By Billionaires” about a number of small-scale experiments. (I just donated the other day to independent labor journalism site Payday Report.) The mass Deadspin resignations have me wondering about what might be possible with a little money and some organizing. What would happen if the entire staff of the Onion quit and decided to make their own site? The first thing that would happen, of course, is that they would lose their salaries, which is why there’s a very good reason not to do it. But as Abraham Lincoln said in one of his Marxist moments, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” The Onion really is nothing other than its workers. All the capitalists contribute is office space, and the fact that they own the brand. Nowhere are strikes more effective than in an area where workers are (1) not easily replaceable and (2) the entire source of the company’s value. (As opposed to, say, an entity like Apple where at least there’s some equipment or whatever.) The advocates of a “general strike” have always reasoned that if all the workers could threaten to stop working at once unless they were given control, they could seize power entirely. Labor needs to recognize the places where its indispensability gives it power.
After Deadspin’s collapse, a Twitter user named Talia Jane mused that “if every worker who’s been laid off or quit in media because of venture capitalists destroying journalism all joined together to create a worker-led media site it’d be unstoppable.” Hamilton Nolan, ex-Deadspin himself, noted the incredible amount of unsigned talent now waiting for an outlet: “To all the aspiring media investors who have been playing footsie with the idea of starting something new—the editorial talent for what would be one of America’s best publications is just sitting on the curb right now.” I am sure some of these phenomenally talented people will indeed be swept up by “investors.” But I doubt the dream publication will come into existence, because I doubt that a capitalist ownership model is capable of producing it. What we really need is for these editors to have a publication that is theirs entirely.
You might think it’s a pipe dream. After all, you need capital from somewhere, and in our highly unequal society, journalists don’t have it. But you know, I think we should be careful about declaring with certainty the limits of the possible. At the outset, I was told by no less than the editor of Vanity Fair that Current Affairs would almost certainly fail, because print media was a hopeless venture. Three years later, we’re still here, and we’re expanding. Because no vultures are able to clog our site with clickbait, we’re able to produce the publication we think people will want. And plenty of them, offered something like that, are indeed willing to pay. The big secret that the capitalists never want the workers to find out is that the workers don’t actually need them, because they can run the workplace themselves. I feel as if we should not be too quick to internalize the message that the billionaires want us to believe.
But perhaps we should leave the daydreaming for tomorrow. After all, today is a day to mourn, and to pay our respects to fallen comrades. Another fine outlet, built by good and talented people, mangled and destroyed for no reason. Writers and editors built something together, and it took years, and now it’s dead, thanks to the actions of selfish and ignorant people. I wish everyone from Deadspin well. On behalf of the editorial staff of our little magazine: Solidarity, and we hope you are okay during the upcoming period of uncertainty and hardship. Our staff feels helpless, because there is little we can do when we see these things happen to our colleagues elsewhere. (We do, however, offer paid work to freelancers, and encourage writers to pitch us.) What a colossal waste all of this is. None of it has to happen. None of you deserves it. How the hell do we stop this?