The Worker-Owned Media Revolution Is Here
All my favorite websites—the kind I once bookmarked in a special folder on Chrome—now redirect to error pages. Rookie reminds me in capital letters that the site I’m viewing is no longer being updated. When I try to go to The Hairpin, Chrome warns me that hackers might be trying to steal my information. The Toast’s last post was published on October 11, 2017.
That’s just one row in the graveyard of 2000s media ventures. Websites like Gawker, Fusion, Mic, and Splinter have died their own spectacularly tragic deaths, be it at the hands of a spiteful billionaire or the result of pivoting to video for what would turn out to be no reason at all.
“At the time that [the Gawker lawsuit] happened, we didn't actually know what we were looking at, because it was not clear that Peter Thiel had funded all those lawsuits,” Maria Bustillos, founding editor of Popula and one-ninth of the creators behind Brick House, an soon-to-launch media cooperative, says in a phone call. She’s referring to the venture capitalist’s support for Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker (which had published a sex tape featuring the wrestler in 2012) that ultimately led to the website shuttering in 2016. “Between that and DNA Info and Sheldon Adelson’s takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which was done in secret, it became evident to me that the actual activities of journalists were under threat.”
A new wave of media ventures hopes to change that. Lead by Bustillos but co-owned by all involved, Brick House will be home to a network of nine different publications with their own respective subjects and writers. Launching October 2020, access to all nine publications will cost $75 a year. This type of bundling is one of many new approaches to media being pioneered by survivors of a steady industry decline that culminated in last year’s “media apocalypse.”
“The problem is when things are bad and when things are unstable, what you get is the people who have the most institutional power and privilege basically just protecting their own,” Jack Crosbie, co-founder of Discourse Blog, tells me over the phone. Crosbie landed at Discourse, where he contributes to the blog’s left-leaning coverage of politics, with seven other veterans of Splinter—a news site that launched in 2017 before being shut down by new owner G/O Media in October 2019 for failing to establish a “steady and sustainable audience”—after a number of unstable contract gigs. Discourse started on Wordpress, moved to Substack, and, they just announced, will next month on its own website. They will continue to charge $8 a month or $85 a year, with a few posts a week available free. They currently have 1,600 paying subscribers.
“There are a lot of power structures that are set in place with how every company works and they inherently benefit different groups of people,” Crosbie says. “We want to build something that isn't shitty.”
Discourse follows in the footsteps of reader-funded media like Study Hall, which extends beyond an email newsletter into an entire online community. Co-founded by P.E. Moskowitz and Kyle Chayka first as a Brooklyn coworking space in 2015, the IRL component shut down in 2018 to focus on their subscription newsletter and listserv. Now, all of Study Hall is housed on its own website, and has grown to over 4,500 members who pay anywhere from $1 to $11 a month (people of color are entitled to a discount) for Study Hall’s media industry reporting and essays, as well as its vibrant community of resources for writers, such as its transcriber database and articles like “How to Sue a Client in Small Claims Court.”
“My secret motto for Study Hall is 'seldom timely, always right,’” managing editor Erin Schwartz tells me over the phone. Schwartz says Study Hall often focuses on stories that are “too niche” for general interest publications. One of her favorites: a reported piece by Spenser Mestel about how English-language outlets like The New York Times have been cutting their Spanish editions.
They can cover these niche topics because instead of chasing the ever-changing algorithms of Google and Facebook, they’re writing only for readers who are already paying for their content.
“Having a durable, trusting relationship with your audience is the most valuable thing,” Schwartz says.
This is something the recently-launched Defector, a worker-owned publication formed by ex-employees of Deadspin, a beloved sports and culture website, is banking on for its own success.
“A lot of places that I worked—a lot of places in general—run their metrics for what is good and bad based on how many people look at it. That's something we don't have to do,” Kelsey McKinney, a founder of Defector, says. In October 2019, a number of Deadspin staffers, including McKinney, quit en masse to protest owner G/O Media’s directive to “stick to sports” coverage after, among many things, they deleted a piece that was critical of the website’s auto-playing ads. (Yes, that’s the same G/O Media that shut down Splinter.) Deadspin lives on in name, but the voices that made it memorable are all at Defector, which starts at $80 a year for unlimited articles, and reaches as high as $1,000 a year for even more perks. The creators are purposely disdaining the media practices they say led to the original site’s downfall.
“We intentionally are not investing basically any time into Facebook or Google. We don't think that those are priorities for us because we've seen the way those companies have treated media companies,” McKinney explains. “You end up wasting a lot of time worrying about how you get to do your job instead of actually doing it. And I think one thing that we are really focused on is making sure that every single member of our organization feels empowered to do their job because the easiest way to begin to feel resentful of your company is to feel like you have no stake in it.”
Brick House, Defector, and Discourse are combating this problem by giving writers equal ownership.
“We have a fairly traditional media structure in terms of, I report to an editor who helps assign me pieces and hone pitches and stuff, but that kind of power dynamic functions on the editorial level and is completely usurped on the business level where we are all equal owners,” McKinney says.
Bustillos, whose previous work at Civil was an experiment with blockchain-supported media, says Brick House has a similar ethos.
“The company is nine shares because there are nine publishers,” she says. “You can only have one share, the shares costs $1, and all you can do with it is sell it back to the company for $1.”
For both Brick House and Defector, business decisions are made by majority votes or by representatives elected by staff writers and editors. Decisions about new leadership, taking down a post, or changes to organizational structure—issues generally out of the hands of staff writers at traditional publications—will instead be decided by vote.
At this new wave of publications, progress is not only about giving staff a stake in management. Study Hall pays freelancers within 30 days of assignment, even if the story hasn’t been published yet. Discourse won’t take on freelance writers until it can pay them what it considers to be a consistent, decent rate (Freelancers “have the least institutional power of anyone in the industry,” says Crosbie. “I think there needs to be a very clear reckoning with how that structure works”). Brick House says diversity is “the priority” when considering staff and publications.
Perhaps most important? No one is angling to get rich.
“All we really need to do is raise enough interest, money, [and] subscribers to pay journalists a fair salary, and [cover] editors, benefits, and overhead,” Bustillo says. “We don't need a sales department. We don't need a bunch of executives.”
After years watching media companies rise and fall, the founders of the new publications know that racing to scale a media brand is a losing game, and the workers almost exclusively bear the brunt of its failure.
“The goal is not to build the biggest, most profitable organization in all of history,” McKinney says. “The goal is to build something that's sustainable."