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Building a digital hospice

“There is a semi-atemporality to web interfaces, which means that even a publication that hasn’t been updated in years might look like it’s still active. That irresolute state communicates to future readers that no one cared to treat it well in its final days. Perhaps no cared about it ever.”

Earlier this year, I talked with some people about setting up a new publication. We had a specific focus, a budget, and a great list of potential collaborators. What we didn’t have is a shared vision for what would be the end of the publication. How would we know that it is time to throw in the towel? And then what? It wasn’t so much that my cohort and I disagreed about what to do at the end, but that we had no answers for these questions. It was reason enough to table the discussion.

We talked about the many online publications that we’ve admired over the years; many of which had a nice run and now…are not running. All the work the editors and writers put into those publications now feels stranded and buried rather than properly contextualized and reflected on. What’s eerie is when deceased online media gives readers the impression of uncertainty. There is a semi-atemporality to web interfaces, which means that even a publication that hasn’t been updated in years might look like it’s still active. That irresolute state communicates to future readers that no one cared to treat it well in its final days. Perhaps no cared about it ever.

Our conversation focused on independent publications, but the questions extend to the rollercoaster that is VC-backing and other chancy methods of funding online media, which can end abruptly or zombify into content farms or hot-take flytraps. Does anyone have any illusions about the life cycle of media anymore? In 2019 and on, it will be time to face that fact that every website, magazine, podcast, blog, and newsletter — like people — will die, and we must prepare for this event to happen with dignity or it will not.

If you are afraid to have this conversation while your media product is thriving, surely it can’t end well.

A palliative or hospice approach to ending a publication will vary product to product, but the core value is communicating the archive to future readers (“This space isn’t happening anymore, but here is what it was and why it was…”). It’s a content strategy approach that should run parallel with the technical questions of archiving material after a publication has closed. The first steps would be to reorganize the content (a dead website has different front page priorities) and write an editor’s note to eulogize. Tavi Gevinson’s widely read closing letter at Rookie is an excellent example, as well as agenda-setting.

But Medium’s The Message, a publication where I was a founding contributor, is an example of what not to do. It was once an entire vertical with op-eds and essays about technology, an editorial through-line that was still unusual in 2014. A few other aspects were unique to it, including, for better or for worse, a “collaborative editing” workflow; but some really terrific writing was published there and I was proud to be part of it. Much of the information in the archives would be of interest to someone studying the rise of social media and internet in society, but no one looking at The Message today could easily discern what it was, or why it’s no longer in operation. Part of the problem was its scattered and unsatisfactory closing strategy. Reorganized under new leadership in its final months, there was no complete finish (with a note like Gevinson’s that could contextualize it for future readers). Instead, an entirely new publication was formed, using the same name but a different staff. That publication fizzled out, leaving not just one but two publications in an incoherent zombie state. It doesn’t take much time or effort to write a note or organize content for future readers. What it requires is care. The Message communicates to future readers that no one cared about it. But that’s not true.

I’m unsure whether we will move forward with the proposed publication, but our conversation about its inevitable end was useful and healthy. And I know that we aren’t the only ones thinking about the end of a publication in tandem with the beginning. I optimistically believe that incoherent dead husks left after a beloved publication ends, will be rarer next year and onwards.

Joanne McNeil’s first book, Lurking, will be released in 2019.

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