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Feb. 14, 2024, 1:20 p.m.
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“Nobody solves media except temporarily”: Four indie media owners on money, sustainability, and “making cooler, weirder things”

“Blogging is the media. Blogging won.”

It’s been a rough start to the new year for the news industry, between layoffs, shutdowns, sales, and strikes at news organizations across the United States.

But even in the most chaotic times, there are bright spots cropping up that inform communities and celebrate the craft of writing and storytelling. A new podcast, Never Post, launched at the end of last month, aims to do that through telling stories about internet culture. The podcast is produced by a team of six and is owned by the people who make it.

For the first episode, host Mike Rugnetta gleaned advice for the new venture from a roundtable of independent media owners: Gita Jackson, co-founder and writer for worker-owned video game publication Aftermath; Alex Sujong Laughlin, co-owner and podcast producer for Defector Media; and Rusty Foster, owner and writer of the newsletter Today in Tabs.

The four talked about why they went indie, the traumas of working in legacy media, the pros and cons of working for yourself and in a collective, money, and work-life balance. Their conversation is funny, candid, and hopeful for a new era in journalism. The transcript of their discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below. Listen to the full episode here.

Mike Rugnetta: We wanted to talk to Gita, Alex, and Rusty about what they’re doing because they are all, in one way or another, doing what we want to do running independent media companies, organizations owned and run by the people who work for them with no outside investment, and that rely on direct support from audiences to do what they do. We think this work is good and important and necessary. We think it’s the future of this industry and probably a lot of others too.

Right now, Never Post is a news podcast, an independent audio publication, but we want it to grow into a larger scale, audio-focused media concern over time. And we want to do that ideally as much as possible through listener support. And so we wanted to have this conversation with these people, both to learn from them, from people we admire, but to also announce our intention, really our hope that these folks would be our peers. We like them, we look up to them, we want to work alongside and with them. So this first upload is us figuring out some of that.

The first question I asked was about how this moment compares to that mirror moment around 2010.

In a recent issue of Tabs, Rusty, you called this the “Awl Inflection Point” in reference to The Awl. You wrote that this is “where the tools to start a subscription-funded blog are cheap enough, and the pool of unemployed reporter goblins is deep enough to start generating a new cohort of publications.” The first thing I want to ask is what the last year or two has been like working in and around the media industry and, Rusty, since the “Awl Inflection Point” is your coinage, I would love to hear from you first.

Rusty Foster: The argument that I made is that it was a dark time in media in 2009, 2010, but as one type of media was collapsing — mostly print and magazines — the tools online existed. Blogs were getting really popular. I think we’re seeing the same thing happening now. And it’s been a grim year working in media, a hard time, people just constantly losing their jobs.

Tom Scocca just wrote an essay for New York Magazine about how he got sick. He got a really bad, probably autoimmune disease. But the beginning of that [essay] was a lot about how he lost a job and was really scraping for money. I mentioned it in Tabs the other day got a bunch of responses that were like, “Dear God, if Tom Scocca can’t make a living in media, what hope is there for any of us?” Which is a fair point. So it’s been like that. It’s been grim.

But I do also sort of remember 2009, 2010, 2011. A lot of people were losing jobs until the rich guys started hiring everybody. BuzzFeed [News] launched and all that stuff happened. It feels like an in-between time to me.

Rugnetta: Gita, what has the last year looked like for you?

Gita Jackson: In the last year or two, I got laid off in an airport on my way to a wedding…tears in my eyes, fully crying still. And then they gave the last boarding call for the flight we were on, and I just had to get on board.

I could see something was really changing. I could see that there were a lot of layoffs. At the same time, there were a lot of really talented people, especially in the very micro niche of video games. I could feel the landscape changing around me and I suddenly became very miserable, just contemplating: How do we get out of this hole if everyone’s unemployed at the same time and there are no places hiring? I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this and keep writing for a living without either going into copywriting or PR or starting my own media company.

What I’ve actually done is both. I have two full-time jobs right now because I’m trying to earn enough money to start a family. I got married this year! He proposed before I lost my job. I feel like we are at the point where we have to reinvent the magazine from the ground up for the internet, because the transition from print to the internet never really reinvented [how] media could be using this format. It was just sort of an experiment. A lot of newspapers did like having a website to put their little articles online, and we never really thought about how that could best serve readers. How could that be long-term profitable? How could that be a stable industry for people to live and work in?

And now we’re at the point where people who have been writing for the internet, we just have to remake everything from the ground up. And it’s terrifying. But I don’t see any other way out of this.

Rugnetta: Alex, what about you?

Alex Sujong Laughlin: My perspective is informed by the fact that I’m kind of straddling both digital media at large and then the podcasting world more specifically. So I want to talk about podcasting because that was what I was primarily working in before about three years ago. The last decade has been this massive boom and bust period. There was so much money coming into the [podcasting] industry because everybody wanted their own Serial. Goldman Sachs wanted their own Serial, Google wanted their own Serial. I helped make those shows. Entire businesses grew up around that corporate demand for podcasts.

In the last two years, for a variety of reasons, that has collapsed. A lot of the people who were getting into the business cynically — to churn out a bunch of sponsored shows and branded content and sign really lucrative deals that didn’t actually advocate for the integrity or humanity of the workers who are actually making this work — those people made a lot of money, and then they also got out of the business.

Ad revenue has collapsed in a lot of ways. Spotify made really big moves into the podcast industry, and this year made some really big moves to get out of it. It laid off a ton of people, canceled legendary shows. So yeah, it’s awful. It’s a bad time. But the thing that I’m hearing from most people is that it feels like we’re in 2012, 2013 all over again in the podcast world specifically, where it’s a pre-Serial world, a pre-Daily world, a place where there’s not as much money as there once was. It’s easier to make things. A lot more people now who know how to make these things, but nobody’s becoming a podcast millionaire anymore.

I think that also opens the door for discussions about new business structures, ways to make this work for more people. When you’re freed from this demand for a very specific type of sanitized product for selling shit, you have room to make cooler, weirder things.

Rugnetta: I want to try to pick up a thread that I think we’re putting together here. When there was money, everyone was really busy because the people who had money wanted their hit shows and they wanted to churn out shows, and so everybody was working their fingers to the bone to get out the hit shows, to get the money, to hit the KPIs.

When there’s no money, everybody’s working their fingers to the bone because they have to work two full-time jobs. They have to go into PR and writing, they have to produce a podcast and write.

When you look at a bunch of the new independent media organizations that are coming up now, to your point, Alex, the word “sustainability” shows up a lot. It is a thing that people are thinking a lot about, are worried about, and are designing for. And I think in a lot of ways they are trying to teach their audience more about it. When we started thinking about making this very show, the first thing that we started talking about is like, O.K., how do we do this and not go crazy, not hate ourselves, and not hate each other?

I’m curious if each of you could talk a little bit more about why that word “sustainability” — as it relates to workloads, publishing schedules, performance indicators — has become the touchstone that it is and what relationship it has to being independent or worker-owned.

Jackson: I jumped head-first into what I now believe is one of the more destructive forms of working in media that could possibly exist. They had, in the Gawker office, a TV that just had Chartbeat on it, which is what we used to measure our hits. So you’d know how everybody was doing at all times. I had Slack on my phone. I had Chartbeat. I had that on my phone. I would check it on the weekends.

Everyone: No!

Sujong Laughlin: That’s so dark.

Jackson: You had all of your strengths and weaknesses displayed to you at all times, in real time, for everyone to see. Every time you posted a blog, you could see where it ranked against all the other people you worked with.

It made me absolutely insane. It worsened my mental health problems enormously. I’m already very competitive and a huge perfectionist, so I dove into work. There was never a time when I was not working, and I vowed after that job to never, ever, ever do that again. I love writing and I love journalism, but there has to be a way to do it without killing yourself.

At Aftermath, we all experienced that, capital T, That. So we have to figure out: How do we do something that we all know we are good at and can make money from — and we’ve made money doing before — in a way that doesn’t need to feed the search engine optimization beast or rely on ad revenue? Is there a way?

It feels like it is the right time, but to me, sustainability is an in-progress idea for us. We don’t have a lot of proven cases of how to make something, and then to make something last and grow. There’s still so many question marks about how you grow in a sustainable way. How do you not overpromise? How do you bring people into the fold who really, really, really want to be there? It’s important to us because we’ve all made careers in this industry. We want to remain here.

Foster: I have, honestly, not too different a backstory. It’s not coming from journalism, it’s coming from software. I started working for Scripto in 2013, so I was doing Scripto and Tabs at the same time. I was live support that entire time. So if you used our product and you hit the little chat support button, that went to my phone. The number of times I stopped on a run to answer a little chat from one of the users…

Sujong Laughlin: I’m so sorry.

Foster: I’m just remembering the time I was standing in line for a roller coaster with my kids at Universal Studios on vacation, and I got a phone call from “The Daily Show” saying their software had crashed and nobody could write the show for that day. It was like 5 p.m. and they recorded it at 6 p.m. I know in a lot of ways it was good because it made us a great product. I love helping people, and I sort of did love that aspect of my job in a lot of ways.

But I also wished that there was a time of the day that I could put it down, and there really wasn’t. So, weirdly, launching a subscriber newsletter was my escape hatch from my nightmare job. And I was like, well, it worked. So, wonderful. And here I am.

Sujong Laughlin: I think that a lot of us think of sustainability as the pinnacle of what we’re aiming for in these new projects, because many of us have seen time and time again, our bosses blow just shit tons of money on stupid things as we are destroying ourselves trying to feed the beast and keep the thing going.

It makes me nuts to think about how much of my life and my creativity and my energy I gave to these companies that didn’t last and that, frankly, don’t deserve what I gave [them] and don’t deserve what all of my colleagues gave [them].

The last decade has been marked by this boom that has been reflected in fancy offices and cool titles and really high salaries. One thing in the sustainability conversation that I’m really curious about, and I don’t have an answer about, is: What is the minimum that we’re willing to accept if it means we’re trading off to get a more sustainable business model? There’s a lot of conversation about salary transparency and what are we worth and advocating for how much your salary should be.

There are so many people who I would never, ever, ever suggest to come work at Defector because our base salary is $72,000 and [they] were making that 10 years ago. But you can’t have a Defector where everybody makes $200,000. You just can’t. I do think there’s room for a more nuanced conversation about things like, what do we owe each other in what we’re gaining individually? And if we gain less individually, how are we putting that more into the collective?

Jackson: That’s a conversation we’ve had a lot at Aftermath. We are just beginning and we don’t know where the ceiling is on how much money we can potentially get through subscriptions, or whether or not there are other revenue models that we can explore. What 404 Media does, which I really like, is they have, in a limited capacity, some ads. Not nearly as many as if you go to a Vice website now, [where] it feels like your phone just starts feeling like an improvised explosive device.

Rugnetta: I call it the “content slit.” There are so many ads, you have to read through the content slit.

Jackson: It’s like reading through a mailbox, just one sentence at a time. It’s horrible. [At 404], they’re able to not only get ad revenue off of the pages that are free, but if you’re a subscriber, then you have the added perk of no ads, which is a wonderful perk to be able to offer.

We have a certain amount of money that I think some of us would like to make, like paying off mortgage payments, etc. etc. But it’s also a conversation of, we all need to make concessions for each other. There are simply only five of us. So how much can we give into this company without burning ourselves out, in order to create enough revenue so that we can all support each other and possibly, hopefully grow and start having freelancers and supporting other people?

Rugnetta: It feels like there has a been a shift where maybe 10, 15 years ago, a lot of people were willing to put a lot of effort — maybe too much effort — for the amount of money that they were being paid into this kind of work for the prestige of the people that they were doing that work for. It feels like the shift now is one toward putting more effort into the work that they’re doing, not for the prestige of the people that they’re doing it for, but because they feel like they are a member of a community and that they owe it to their coworkers in making something that they all have a stake in and are excited about.

Which is maybe a little bit more noble, but then also might mean that you are likely to do even more work that you shouldn’t be doing, because you feel like there’s more of a social cost to it, or more of a social aspect to it.

Jackson: Time and time again, I’ve had to understand that a job doesn’t love you back. I can love journalism, and I can love specific people in journalism, and I can try to pay forward the guidance toward other younger writers. But part of that has to be by ensuring people make moves that are good for themselves and their mental health and mental well-being, and not good for the job or the industry. You do have to put yourself first because the job is never going to put you first. You have to be the person that thinks about that. I’m very selfish now with my time. You’re not going to talk to me on the weekend. That’s not happening. I’m not answering emails after 7 p.m. That’s just not happening.

It makes the work better if you are not working 24/7. I would love for people that are in the trenches and thinking that this makes them better journalists or better writers, to understand that it’s just a different way of working and it’s not better. A lot of times maybe it is better just to, like, take a weekend and go on vacation.

Foster: I was thinking about that and how the co-op media structure feeds into healthier work patterns. With Tabs, people pay me directly for it. There’s the smallest possible feedback loop between what I do and why I make money. The people who pay me, I know who they are, and I have all their email addresses, so I don’t waste time pretending to work ever, because there’s no point to it. I work for myself. I do the work that I need to do, and then I go walk the dog or whatever.

Hopefully working in a cooperative structure where you’re an owner as well, not just an employee, it feels like that should make it clearer that the work you do has an immediate feedback in the income that comes in. There isn’t that weird separation between, like, “Oh, somebody’s paying me to do a job and I’ve got to be here and act like I’m doing a job,” and then there’s a mysterious cloud of money somewhere and you don’t really know how that works. The co-op structure is really exciting to me, to see all of these starting, because I think it meaningfully changes that equation.

Sujong Laughlin: I think that’s definitely true. But as somebody who is not part of the founding team of Defector, and I came on two years into Defector’s life, I had plenty of time to establish my notions of what it is like from the outside and then see what it’s like on the inside and these issues still come up.

We’re in a project right now where everybody is journaling how we spend our days because we’re having a really big conversation about, like, how are we spending our time? What are our job titles? How do we be accountable to each other in a way that’s not punitive? That has been pretty difficult at times. These conversations are really, really fraught. Everybody’s coming in with a ton of trauma. Everybody is feeling really defensive for different reasons. We had our annual retreat in the fall and I was exhausted by the end. A bunch of people got sick afterwards because we were just so drained and drinking every night…

[Drained] mentally, emotionally, probably just not eating enough. I remember telling [Defector cofounder and VP of revenue and operations] Jasper Wang this is hard work, and it’s a privilege to be working on these problems, but they’re still problems. I kind of thought that entering this new model, a lot of these issues would disappear. And they don’t. They just look a little different. But they’re still things that we need to untangle.

Rugnetta: How does everybody get to a point where they are thriving, not just surviving, and then look at each other and be like, “O.K., now how do we fix the systemic problems?”

Foster: What if we could have health insurance? My wife has a real job, which is the only reason I have health insurance.

Sujong Laughlin: Child care?

Rugnetta: Child care! The question I’m asking here is, where does industry leadership that does not look like leadership come from — so that we can figure out how all of these individual entities, both individual people and individual organizations, work together and develop norms?

Alex, I know that Defector publishes all of its financial information, all of its freelancer rates and all of its payment policies. Does Defector view that as industry leadership or is that something else?

Sujong Laughlin: I definitely think that folks at Defector take it very seriously that people are watching what we’re doing, and every time we do something new, we’re like, let’s talk about how this is usually done. Why is it done like that? Do we want to do that? And a lot of the transparency around how we work with freelancers was written in collaboration with the Freelance Solidarity Project.

Something that we talk about a lot at Defector is this idea of having an equitable structure. Having a company where everybody is a co-owner and everybody is treated as equally valuable doesn’t always necessarily mean that everyone has the same job responsibilities or level of power. I think that’s a really important thing to think about because, unfortunately, we’re all human and leaders will always arise out of a group of humans. I think it’s silly to try and pretend that those people don’t exist. But that’s just to say I think there’s room for talking about leadership and talking about a centralizing of discussions or decisions or whatever, without it becoming a toxic, horrible, political thing that replicates the media that we left.

Jackson: One of the most useful things we did in forming Aftermath was reach out to Defector, 404 Media, [and] Hell Gate and ask them about all their trials and tribulations. There is now a very small amount of institutional knowledge on how to do these things. In lieu of there being a social structure or an economic structure that groups us all together, we need to make those connections ourselves.

Being a part of the union at Vice and at Gawker were the two things that gave me the best tools for survival in journalism to know my worth and know how to fight for myself and how to sublimate my own ego in terms in order to benefit the group — thinking about things in terms of “we are all in this together.” A community with each other is the only way we’re going to mutually support each other in an effective way.

Sujong Laughlin: I want to add that if listeners want to start an employee-owned co-op website, you can reach out to anybody who works at Defector. We have a document that’s called “How We Did This” and basically, it’s a 10-page document that explains how we’re organized, all kinds of boring business stuff that you need to know. That’s a thing that we distribute all the time.

Rugnetta: Rusty, I’m really curious about your bird’s-eye view watching the ships go by, the idea of media organizations working together, this sort of coalitional structure that could emerge. How does that feel to you?

Foster: One of the reasons I’m excited to do this show is because I’m really curious what it’s like working inside a media co-op, as someone who doesn’t really play well with others and loves to work by myself. I wanted to hear what Gita and Alex had to say.

As an Internet Old, all this stuff you’ve been saying reminds me a lot of how the blogosphere developed and the arc of that community. Some tools were created, bloggers came, you could just start up a website and start writing it. That was a new thing in the world that hadn’t existed before. The people who started doing that became a community. Nobody was really in it for money; there wasn’t any money in it. People were just doing it because they loved to do it. And the community formed.

Then a bunch of money people came in. It was just flooded with money people for a while. Then that collapsed and those people washed out and everyone was like, oh no, there’s no business in blogging anymore. But look around the media now. Blogging is the media. Blogging won.

Jackson: What else is a newsletter except a blog? That’s where all the money people went to. They went to Substack and other related newsletters, and that’s literally just a blog.

Sujong Laughlin: Same with podcasts.

Jackson: Yeah, podcasts are just talking blogs! The blog will come out on top. The idea of the blog, how I wanted to start writing, is so accessible. I hate using this phraseology, but it does feel a little bit punk rock. The idea is that anyone can play guitar, you just pick it up and play it. Anyone can be a writer. Just write and put it on the internet. And your success is not guaranteed. But writing for the sake of writing is something that is now valued again in these very tiny micro niches of podcasting and blogging. The thing that gives me hope, in terms of my personal business, I see people signing up and giving money hand over fist to support writers who write things that they think are valuable. And I remember when that was a business model that was very lucrative, and people could make livings off of it and publish books off of it and raise families off of it. I’m hoping to see a return to that, not tainted by the same forces that ruined the blog.

Foster: It is a new world on the internet in terms of people being willing and ready to just pay for writing that they like. A lot of people can find an audience big enough and willing to pay for them enough to make a living, I am convinced. In some ways it’s dark times, but in some ways it’s also like, nobody solves media except temporarily. I still believe that’s true. I think everything we’re doing is temporary. But I’ve also watched 20 years of people temporarily solving one thing after another, and people still manage to string together a living. It’s not necessarily easy but it can be done. Keep doing it.

Photo by Candice Botelho, courtesy of Never Post

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Feb. 14, 2024, 1:20 p.m.
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