The Ghosts of Websites Past
Hired and fired and dead and alive and dead again.
When I graduated from journalism school in 2015, I did not think very much about “websites.” There were “publications” that I wanted to work for, some of them online, some of them in print and online, none of whom would hire me. The online ones seemed fun, and I quickly found they were pretty receptive to young journalists pitching them pieces. This all seemed simple and convenient at the time — you would write something in a Google doc or an email and an editor would put it in a CMS and publish it online, in return you would get $300 or so and a nice url that you could link out to on your social media sites or send to your parents. I think that at the time, my sense was that the URL was as permanent as a physical copy of something — less tangible, sure, but at least it was safe in the cloud.
The truth is that all that shit could disappear basically whenever. Last week some asshole from a Singapore-based music conglomerate bought the assets to Gawker, saying he would “reinvent” it again. Its archives and past posts are down, meanwhile. Gone. URLs go to 404 pages. The homepage just looks like this and you can’t click anywhere to get to any other page.
Sometime around 2018 or so, maybe earlier, writers I know started making PDFs of their best work from various sites, just in case this sort of thing happened, which it did, all the time. In 2020 or 2021 or something, all of the images disappeared off of splinternews.com, for some convoluted legal reason I don’t remember, including a lot of the gorgeous original art that GMG’s incredible art team made for our bigger stories. The URLs still work, but the stories look like shit. I’m mostly pissed that they ripped out all of the screenshots I took of Fox News footage in order to expose the fact that the network was placing a prop-meal of 10 fried eggs in front of random diners during election coverage to make it look like they were eating. I’m still pretty lazy about making PDFs of my work, but I’m now very clear on the fact that it could all get vaporized in an instant. Substack, the platform you’re reading this on, could theoretically also go tits-up at any moment, or become so infested with Nazis that sites like ours are pushed out entirely. Who knows? Certainly not the people in charge, and definitely not the people like us, who are just here to write the words.
Today, The New York Times reported that Paste Magazine, a website, had acquired Jezebel, another website, from G/O media. As a footnote to the deal, the Times reported that Paste had also acquired Splinter, according to Paste EIC and co-founder Josh Jackson. “As for Splinter, Mr. Jackson said he planned to relaunch that website in 2024, and ‘to have it ready for a very important political year,’” the Times reported. This was the first that any of us at Discourse Blog — which is entirely comprised of the editorial staff of Splinter when it was shut down in 2019 — had heard of this. We were understandably a bit shocked and confused with this news.
It’s seems silly to get sentimental about these websites, which were just subdivisions of larger corporations that employed me for a period of time under variously humiliating arrangements, but it makes a bit more sense when you consider that what actually makes a publication more than just a platform is the people who work for it and the mission behind their work. I miss Splinter because those two things were always incredibly clear and positive to me: I sat next to people I enjoyed hanging out with and trusted on like, a moral level, and we did work that felt honest and powerful. We inherited a lot of that culture from the sites and brands that came before us in the chaotic Gawker lineage, sure, but the beauty of that was that the people who ran each site could sorta make it their own and have their own little quirks and jokes and memes and axes to grind. As Aleks wrote back when our website died in 2019:
No one told us what Splinter had to be or what it couldn’t be. We just decided, every day, what it was. And so Splinter became what it had to be. It was both a conscious and totally unconscious decision. The site purely reflected the values and interests of its staff: Splinter was a “news and politics website” insomuch that its writers and editors cared about news and politics, and thought they were interesting, or just funny, and wrote about them, and we were lucky enough to work somewhere that fostered that kind of self-determination.
Now, I guess, the plan is for Splinter, and Jezebel, to come back from the dead. I have no idea what they’ll look like when they do, but I can’t say that I’m optimistic. This is not a new idea — G/O itself tried to resurrect a dead website after all its employees quit to resounding and profound failure, and Gawker has had several incarnations, the only productive one of which was itself a reincarnation of another dead website, The Outline. If you browse around the sea of media properties long enough you will find many floating hulks of publications gone by, drifting listlessly as ghost ships or manned by a skeleton-crew of raiders who have repurposed them to trawl for the diminishing returns of SEO traffic or ecommerce kickbacks. Every now and then one of them makes a stab at a legitimate editorial overhaul, but it’s never the same. It always, without fail, feels like a possession more than a resurrection — the sense that something new and lesser is living in the body of something that was once whole. That’s a bit overly dramatic for discussing blogs, I guess, but when you’ve been at the heart of enough of these now-dead places, that’s the way it feels.
For those of us who have built or contributed to a site that felt like it had purpose and vision, at one point, all of this seems pretty stupid. If you want a politics site going into 2024, why not just start a new one? What does Splinter get you, besides a dormant Twitter account with half a million followers (not particularly impressive, as publications go) and an archive of posts written by people who will almost certainly have nothing to do with whatever it is your site is doing next? Jezebel has more years of archives and a higher-profile reputation and institutional voice, but what’s that worth if you don’t have the people who created that voice there to continue speaking it? We’ve seen how far Deadspin got by hiring a new staff of scabs to do sloppy, embarrassing work. The best case scenario, perhaps, is that Jezebel is relaunched and its writers — who all lost their jobs just a few weeks ago — are rehired. That version of the site might have a shot, and if it happens, I wish them the best — Jezebel’s most recent staff managed to produce some very good work under very bad conditions before getting the axe. But again, they’ll have to contend with a new owner, who will likely want to make his mark on its voice and editorial operations — and seeing as his most distinctive editorial legacy to date has been failing to pay writers on time, that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. (Mr. Jackson, if you want to give everyone at Discourse Blog a full-time job with salaries between $75,000 and $90,000 a year plus benefits and then basically leave us alone to prove me wrong, we’re very accessible, but we also already have a website, so maybe not.)
I’m not opposed, in general, to the idea of publications coming back from the dead. Almost all of us who work in this idiotic industry reminisce sometimes about a site or blog or magazine that we wish still existed, and parts of us will always hold out a little bit of hope that someday someone will come along with the money and grace to try to rebuild it with enough respect and care that some of its original identity remains. I haven’t seen it happen yet and I’m not sure if I ever will. To a certain extent, it’s not for me to judge — I can only really speak to the soul of places where I have worked. I’ll let the people at Jezebel and Deadspin and Gawker and the Outline and the Awl and the Hairpin and Mic and Death and Taxes and Buzzfeed News and so many others tell their own stories. For now, at least, those of us who were at Splinter will keep telling ours, right here, on our little island of a website, for however long it lasts.