Lately, I keep picturing my colleagues in media rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. When I mentioned this to a friend, he replied paraphrasing Fredric Jameson — he’s always good for such things — noting that all glimpses of the utopian horizon have the apocalyptic about them.
It’s hard to spot the utopian amidst the apocalyptic. Two thousand newspapers have shuttered in the past fifteen years; by February 2 of this year, the Guardian could already write of two thousand journalism jobs lost in 2019.
I was on a labor panel with one such journalist two weeks ago, and we fielded questions about how we, collectively, can sustain labor journalism. It was hard to find a response that didn’t feel like a lie. What was there to say when my co-panelist, Kim Kelly, had recently been forced into full-time freelancing (in her case, thanks to a mass layoff at Vice)? Kelly and I had spent the moments before the panel comparing notes on health insurance, sharing descriptions of how we respectively cobbled together a living (answer: very carefully).
Earlier that day, I’d spoken on the phone with a storied labor writer, and her comments rang in my ears as I sat facing the audience: “You know what’s happened with journalism,” she had said, and it was as if I could see her body deflate in exasperation. What’s happened? There is no money. There was never much for left-wing, pro-working-class writing, obviously, but with the decimation of organized labor and the Left, and the institutions that emerge in and around those poles, there’s less than ever. I apologized to the room for being in such a pessimistic mood.
The next night, I attended a magazine-issue launch hosted by Dissent. The theme? “Why We Need a Working-Class Media.” The reasons “we” need such a thing are manifold: corporate media is hostile to the interests of the working class, and no number of exceptions in the form of talented, determined individual journalists can resist the dictates of the business model. Without such an independent media, readers can expect more depictions of the working class as Trump diehards in Midwestern diners, or an occasional view of an Appalachian mining-town-turned-pill-mill-host, but only very rarely anything more. Sure, reporters may technically, on occasion, let the working class speak, but it takes resources and tangible, material, editorial freedom to let them say what they’d like, and to ensure it makes into the final copy.
Only a century ago, there were thousands of labor and radical publications, with workers and leftist journalists writing about struggles at the workplace and among the class at large: dispatches from the front lines, from picket lines and mass protests and even general strikes — plus the occasional letter to American workers from Lenin. A working-class political program once included “a free labor press” as a standard recommendation.
It’s not simply that “we” need to elevate a more diverse cohort into existing journalistic institutions; so long as those institutions are controlled by the ultra-rich, they’re functionally opposed to the interests of working-class people, even if they may let one or two left-leaning voices through for the sake of novelty, or to capture an “emerging market” — socialists — or, consciously or not, as cover for the institution’s otherwise conservative political slant.
Which brings us to Deadspin. The website was one of several properties of the newly rebranded “G/O Media” bought earlier this year by Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm. It was one of the most beloved, and most profitable, of those sites: Deadspin was about sports, but more than that, it was about whatever the writers immersed in the world of sports wanted to share with their audience. Though it was run for profit, it somehow, despite all the odds, remained an island of editorial independence and irreverence amidst the sea of staid corporate media. The site’s ethos was a skepticism of the powerful, and a complete lack of interest in pretending to feel otherwise. I don’t care much about sports — though I did read Dvora Myers’s coverage of gymnastics — but Deadspin also had some of the best political writing around (notably from David Roth, who despite seeming like a very nice person, is apparently cursed to transmit messages straight from Trump’s psyche for the foreseeable future). It had some of the internet’s funniest writing, too.
Not long after Great Hill’s purchase of the properties, signs of trouble emerged. Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell quit in August, putting up one last blog post explaining just how grim things were behind the scenes at G/O Media and citing a particular concern over bosses’ refusal to guarantee editorial independence. Not long after, Splinter, the politics site, was shuttered completely — just as the presidential campaign season heated up. And then, this week, a memo was sent out to the Deadspin staff commanding them to “stick to sports” — even as the not-so-strictly-sports-writing consistently garnered the most traffic on the site. It’s no surprise their writers and editors couldn’t stick to what the company keeps insisting is an “incredibly broad” mandate — sports writing has always been a capacious, experimental, fluid genre.
What followed was an ugly demonstration of capital’s unwillingness, or inability, to foresee its own undoing: the famously independent-minded staff refusing to abide by the memo, instead plastering the site’s homepage with old favorites that were decidedly not what the bosses had in mind; the bosses removing posts from sites, in violation of the unionized workers’ contract; the firing of acting editor-in-chief, Barry Petchesky, for his insubordination; a day of deliberation within the union; and then, finally, yesterday, and today, mass resignations. (The last editors stuck around to get their final few stories from freelancers online so that those freelancers could get paid; one such story on Palestinians and soccer, published today at 10 AM, is exactly the type of writing that made Deadspin unique from the shell-of-its-former-self Sports Illustrated, or the mostly-sticking-to-sports ESPN.)
Others have written ably on the ever-hungry maw of private equity, which will forever gobble up workers who simply, congenitally, cannot and will not work to the metrics of a robot or an algorithm. People aren’t robots, and the rub is … that’s not a bad thing in any world other than the one we live in, where profit is the only consideration on a spreadsheet, and control is the only mandate from the view of the C suite, and everything that threatens these aims must be flattened by the garbage truck that is the boss.
But more than a garbage truck — though I cannot stop picturing G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller as just that, a garbage truck with a very bad haircut — capital, as Marx put it, is “dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour.” What the Deadspin staff did was deny capital that labor — leaving en masse was a stake to its heart. They did so in spite of the pressures of the market, which dictate hyper-competition between media workers, particularly at a time when journalism jobs are all but extinct.
Such a refusal to shed one’s humanity is a reminder of another possible world, a radically different universe — a utopian horizon, if you will. It’s a demonstration of the solidarity, the obligation to one another, that is the foundation of unionism. Refusing to let the vampires leech off them, the only living thing at Deadspin, the workers left: may Deadspin never rise again.