… And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Pink-Slipped

On a particularly bad day for digital media, a thought about where we should go next. Hint: Let’s stop talking about scale.

By Ernie Smith

Look, I’m not going to sugar coat it. Today is one of the darker days we’ve had in the digital media sphere in quite some time.

First off, we lost Jezebel, the result of a private-equity firm that doesn’t understand what it bought and a CEO who would be better off maintaining an herb garden.

The signs of incompatibility between owners and website were obvious: Laura Basset, its most recent editor-in-chief, recently resigned over poor treatment of the team, and it had been on the chopping block for ages. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less knowing that they could have kept the site alive if Jim Spanfeller was willing to business differently. In his honor, I made today’s top image an herb garden.

(Side note: Goddamn depressing that Jezebel’s final post, at least for now, is about the end of the actors’ strike.)

Vice, a company that I have long had association with as a contributor to Motherboard, has also faced difficult layoffs amid a long-expected restructuring of the company’s many teams after its emergence from bankruptcy. One hopes the the people still there can hold on during rocky times. Many of the big changes are taking place on the video side of things. To be completely clear, I don’t have any direct visibility into what’s happening there; I simply hope for the best for all the smart people who work there.

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And most painfully and tellingly, Automattic—one of the few good eggs in modern tech—has reportedly decided to whittle down the team working at Tumblr in an attempt to minimize the losses occurring from the service. The implication is stunning: The best possible owner tried, but could not get it to work. The implication, if not formally acknowledged as of yet, is that there was just too much cruft, a model too split-off from monetization, to work. With monetization allowed to hang out off to the side for so many years, it at times felt like there was never any room for the site to thrive. It remained in stasis for too many years, and now the modern internet has passed it by.

0822 tumblr

The iconic Tumblr “t.” (Scott Beale/Flickr)

If you haven’t logged in recently, you will be struck at how busy the Tumblr dashboard looks upon a single load, with Tumblr throwing everything on the wall—commerce, video, ads, a premium model, upselling, the whole bit—just to find something that will give them a little headway.

This little social network that could feels like a lost cause. Tumblr now must try everything because previous corporate owners chose to try nothing.

(On the other hand, it is goddamn admirable that the company has ensured that there will be no layoffs. That is some amazing planning and it needs to be emphasized all the more—Automattic is a team made of good people.)

Tumblr is a social network, but it’s one that a lot of modern-day journalists and creators cut their teeth on. (Taylor Lorenz? Old-school Tumblr user.) Even if we’re not using it on the regular, we still care about it, like our favorite bar in an old neighborhood we used to live in before we moved away. Even Marco Arment, who slapped together much thoughtfully developed many of the basic inner-workings of the platform, has lived something like five distinct internet lives since he left the company well over a decade ago.

All of these issues, in one way or another, come down to bad past decisions coming back to haunt the media industry—whether the infusion of private equity, a cavalier approach to scale, or a tendency to kick the can down the road re: money.

At some point, I just wonder if we’ve let things slide a bit too far from reality to let modern journalism work in the digital age. Some of this is the broken advertising models that I’ve discussed previously, some of it involves unfair external pressures.

But I wonder if the big problem is that we focused on scale when we should have been focused on nailing down the audience. If we focused on millions when we should have focused on building ourselves a liveable wage. And if we put too much of an emphasis on global at the cost of local.

These are questions I’ve had running through my mind over the past 12 months in particular, and I think that nobody has the perfect answer. But some people have better imperfect answers than others. Worker-owned, the current trend, certainly beats the snot out of private equity. Building on your own is fulfilling, but we have our limits about what we can do. Platforms make things easier, but it makes it easier for someone to ask for rent or neglect your digital living conditions.

I think we need to scale down, get the basic stuff right, and stop worrying about getting 2 million followers on Instagram. Let’s start with a thousand people who are willing to chip in a couple of bucks and see where that gets us.

It might mean smaller empires, or it might not mean empires at all. But it could mean a better future for many more journalists than the current model seems to be able to support.

Relative Links

Humane, the new pin-style AI-driven not-a-smartphone that’s coming out next week, seems pretty compelling based on the demo, but Fast Company’s Mark Wilson has a strong dose of skepticism.

I have no good reason to share this clip of John Oliver on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon wearing a Pūteketeke bird costume, other than to note that John Oliver is the best at wastefully spending big media’s money just because he can.

Breaking my no-NYT rule to share this story of rare Japanese Kit Kats being at the center of an unusual shipping scam. Best story I’ve read about rare Japanese Kit Kats today.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And see you tomorrow!

Editor’s note: My snarky writing voice got the best of me and something I said was unintentionally taken as a broadside in one spot. Sorry about that. Fixed.


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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