Soon Will Come a Day That None of This Exists
Media-wide layoffs at legacy publications are the most visible sign that our industry is being replaced by something worse.
For most of the 20th century, mass media worked in generally the same way. You had large daily newspapers that covered local, and sometimes national and international, news. And you had magazines, which were weekly or monthly publications that covered usually a specific topic or general area of interest. There were other bits—wire services that covered basically everything and contributed content that the newspapers and sometimes the magazines would all use, and of course TV news, which became its own insane thing that I’m mostly going to ignore for this particular blog—but that’s generally how people got information about the world for like a hundred years.
Then the internet happened. All these physical publications and even the broadcasting ones had to have websites. For a decade or two this was pretty much fine, too; there were boom and bust cycles as publishers figured out they could get ad money when a lot of people clicked their stuff and then watched as Google and Facebook stepped in and took all that ad money away for themselves. After this nobody really had any idea what to do and publications started to die. A lot of the online ones died first; now the print ones are going extinct too.
There are many aspects to this—private equity strip-mining previously profitable local chains, evil right-wing conglomerates consolidating publications and using that as an excuse to do the same kind of strip-mining the private equity guys are doing, et cetera. I’ve written literally dozens of blogs about all this stuff over my career and will probably keep writing them for the next decade or more.
Take Sports Illustrated, for instance. The other day, I was thinking about a sports story that I wanted to pitch—a meaty magazine feature that would look good in a glossy magazine, a rousing tale of human endurance against all odds that (I thought at least) would probably make for a pretty good film option. This is the kind of stuff that generally was Sports Illustrated’s bread and butter (well, besides the bikini issues) since it started in 1954, but unfortunately, the magazine hasn’t really existed for quite some time. And, as of today, it somehow doesn’t exist even more.
Please help Discourse Blog not die. Consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Today, the Authentic Brands Group announced that it would not let Sports Illustrated’s parent company The Arena Group (formerly Maven) publish the magazine/website anymore for reasons to do with money, meaning that basically all of SI’s remaining (unionized!) staff would be laid off. Here’s the memo the staff got if you want to try to puzzle this out:
SI has been on life support under The Arena Group/Maven/ABG for years; hence why I couldn’t figure out any editor or any reason to pitch them my sports feature a few months ago. Again, this is a storied and famous magazine that started in 1954 and was legendary for publishing basically the best sports journalism of the modern age. One of the best professors I had in journalism school was this like super old-school shoe-leather titan who was an editor at SI for decades in the 70s and 80s and 90s. SI was the real deal. Now what do we have? The Athletic?
This isn’t exactly a surprise. It’s also not an isolated incident: earlier this week, Conde Nast randomly and bizarrely decided to subsume the Pitchfork music publication under the GQ brand, despite the fact that the former was their best performing website; the LA Times, meanwhile, is on strike for the first time since 1881 as its union braces for a massive round of layoffs. Conde Nast is a black box of financial fuckery and the LA Times was really only hanging on due to the “fickle billionaire patronage” model, so these events are not exactly surprising, even as they are incredibly distressing for anyone who works in the general field of “writing things down so other people can read and know about them.”
This shit is all dying. It’s all fucked. There is like one place you can work right now with any kind of job security and it is The New York Times and that’s only because they have a shitload of recipes on a nicely coded little cooking app that you can subscribe to and also because your parents are hooked on Wordle and the myriad other “put letter or number in little box” games that they put on their reading glasses and log on to the big family Dell PC together each morning to play. Who knows how long that business model will last. In the meantime definitely try that gochujang cookie recipe though—someone brought those to a party I was at once and they absolutely slapped.
If you’re a writer like me who’s generally early/mid career and has written some good stuff for some good places and wants to continue doing so, all of this is just about enough to make you want to strap on a [redacted] and go wandering around Wall Street or the state of Delaware looking for an office park with a bunch of guys in McKinsey or Blackrock windbreakers. But as you’re doing a different little walk, maybe to get lunch, you may start to think “I wonder what’s next.” Here’s what I came up with.
It certainly seems like publications as we know them are, unless something drastically changes to the U.S. tax code, going kaput. They dead. Some of them will cling on for a while and the brand names may persist, but in general, the idea of an organized institution where a group of journalists all collaboratively publish under one masthead in service of, generally, a shared ideological goal—that’s going tits up. There are only so many blogs a really good gochujang cookie recipe can buy, and sooner or later even the Grayest of Ladies are going to hit that limit.
This presents a problem, in my opinion. The good thing about publications is that with enough people working at them and enough people reading them you get something that approaches popular accountability. These publications are widely read and powerful enough that the people who run them were generally incentivized not to fuck up in public and embarrassing ways; couple that with a tiny shred of public altruism and belief in “the truth,” or at least in journalism as a foil to institutional power in other governments and industries, and you get for better or worse a mostly free press that mostly does good work that makes society in general a bit better off. That’s the best we can really hope for, I think. But right now you basically can’t make money doing that, and nobody who has money is willing to support policy that would shuffle around the money to let that kind of industry exist (at this point, it would take a strong federal government hacking that money out of the tech monopolies and big financial institutions’ bottom lines, which does not seem likely).
What we’re going to get, then, is a whole lot more blogs like this. The one you’re reading. Discourse Blog. “Great!” you may think. “Independent, compassionate, reader-supported journalism, that also publishes funny stuff about birds!” First off, thank you, we know. We’re great. But the problem is there are many many people under this same model who are not great. Substack, the platform we use which is basically the best business tool we can get to keep ourselves doing this work, also helps run some Nazi and Nazi-adjacent blogs. Some of the largest and most influential “media” brands in the world right now are individual YouTube or TikTok or whatever accounts, run by individual people with their own goals and ethics and interests and basically zero accountability to anyone who actually consumes their content beyond creating content that those people will consume. The end result of all the publications dying is that we get a pure form of anarcho-capitalist media—everyone out for themselves, with the most successful and savvy and cut-throat rising to the top.
This is, to put it mildly, less than ideal. We’ve seen time and time again that people, on an individual basis, are not particularly good at discerning disinformation and resisting propaganda (it’s part of the reason there are small groups of dumbasses posting Houthi rebel fancams because they think they’re brave anticolonial forces and other large groups of dumbasses posting Andrew Tate fancams because they think he was a good kickboxer [he was pretty average imo]). The publication-less internet is an absolute Petri dish of idiotic shit, and for every Discourse Blog or Defector (pretty good, trying our best, really just want to give people good and true things to read) there is a far larger and angrier The Free Press (doing a low-effort 2010 Fox News impression in service of the same general goal of bigotry), and also 10,000 TikTok and Instagram accounts with six-digit followers called “RebelliousMama” posting shit about how GMO foods give you gay brain parasites. Welcome to the future.
If things don’t change, this will get so much worse. In 20 years you truly will not be able to believe anything that you see or hear online—which will be the only place you see or hear things. Every person trying to learn more about the world around them will be forced to navigate a chaotic ecosystem of rage and deceit in search of one of the few honest or good-faith news-providers that still exist. Almost all of us will fail at this.
We will muddle along in a new Dark Ages caused by the constant static of an overwhelming blitz of contradictory and false content that largely only serves the aims of the people and companies that create it, pulling us further and further from one another and our shared interests as a species that should seek the improvement of ever member of its kind. I know this is some pretty hyperbolic stuff to extrapolate from the death of a magazine that published photos of bikini babes, but that’s where I’m at. I wish I had better news. I wish I had a solution for you besides voting for the few political figures who don’t want this to happen and maybe wandering some car parks if that doesn’t work out. You can subscribe to Discourse Blog, of course. We appreciate it.
Again, we’d love it if you subscribed.
We’re going to try to keep this thing going no matter what happens in the future, and we’re not going to lie to you to serve some weird outside or nefarious interests. You know who we are and what we’re about. Granted, every other publication will tell that to you as well, which means it’s on you to figure out if they’re lying or not. Good luck.