Every day as a child I would spread out the Sunpaper and read the comics, plus some news and sports, with never a glance at the stock tables or the department-store ads—a fully satisfied customer, in a constellation of other satisfied customers, with all of our separate or overlapping satisfactions. There was something for everyone, which meant some things were not for everyone, which made the whole thing in its own way a reflection of the world, which also had many interesting parts and many utterly boring parts, depending on who you were at the time. Broom-Hilda: for me, and interesting. Inflation: not for me, not interesting. Naked person apprehended on airplane: not for me, but interesting,
For a long time, the slow death of this arrangement could look like even more abundance. The Baltimore News American, the paper my Great-Aunt Melba got at her house, shut down, but the Sunpapers picked up its columnists and its comics, printing them alongside the ones who were already there. Then the Evening Sun, the one we’d been getting, shut down too, and its columnists and comics were folded into the Sun in the morning. It was a truly incredible array of comics for a while. But then they started shrinking in size and dwindling in number, as the paper itself got cut smaller and published thinner, and now my middle-aged eyes can’t really read the panels when I see them in the wilted little paper at my mom’s house.
Even though I depended on reading the Sun, I did not particularly want to write for it as I grew up, any more than talking on the telephone made me want to work for C&P. There were so many other places a person could write, it turned out. I spent a summer at The Aegis, one of my two weekly local papers, which the Sunpapers had recently bought, the Sunpapers themselves having been recently bought by the Los Angeles Times. The year after that, they stopped paying for summer cub reporters, switching over to free college interns; I was 19 years old and my first paid journalism job had been restructured out of existence.
But there was so much out there, still. I went to City Paper in Baltimore, the free alternative weekly, assembled in a semi-palatial rowhouse office, as fact-checker and then the lowest-ranking editor, but also a movie reviewer, sports writer, restaurant-review editor—if anyone ever said “No” to anything, it didn’t register. My office was in a converted bathroom, and my next office was in a bigger bathroom.
Then I needed to be in Boston and the Boston Phoenix needed the cheapest feature writer it could get. The Phoenix came in sections, a fat and prosperous little bundle of newsprint, with an edition that people even paid to purchase. The economics of the alt-weekly business were not far out of view—subscribers or no, we ran “massage” ads, as City Paper had, and seedy-looking people would haunt the lobby with cash in a paper sack—but it connected readers with advertisers, and the money kept coming in, even if very little of it sifted down to the features desk.
A person could get hired away, in those days. City Paper wanted a sports columnist, and then it needed more writing and editing done, and I moved back to Maryland and into an even larger bathroom. Then Washington City Paper was looking for a No. 2 editor, and after two years of that, though I had never thought about aiming at life in New York, I got a cryptic phone call from Peter Kaplan, of The New York Observer, and suddenly I was at a rickety desk in a corner of who-knows-what, an upstairs parlor?—in a grimy but fully palatial brick townhouse mansion.
The reader who follows the history of independent journalism should by now have caught on to a certain running subtext here. All the while, as it seemed I was swinging from limb to limb through a flourishing jungle of journalistic opportunity, a desert had been advancing behind me. The soil around the roots became dry dust and sand; the trees cracked and toppled. The townhouse mansion was sold, and a few years later so was The Observer, to a striving young businessman named Jared Kushner, who would eventually reduce that paper, a proud salmon-colored broadsheet decorated with Kaplan’s ornately stacked print headlines, to a sort of online wight, unrecognizable to its faithful subscribers. Washington City Paper hangs on, after a couple of near-death experiences. The Boston Phoenix is dead; Baltimore’s City Paper was bought by the Sunpapers (which were owned by the Chicago Tribune by then) and killed too.
All this was beginning to add up to a story about business history—about consolidation, and technological disruption, and what we called the devaluation of writing; really it was the devaluation of ads. It was always ads; at the giveaway papers we knew that the respectable press was respectably delivered to subscribers for less than it cost, in order to guarantee advertisers a reliable audience. And now the advertisers had options so cheap, they no longer cared about the audience, or if they did, they could pay fractions of pennies for an algorithmically generated audience of millions. People still wanted to read the writing, but the circulatory system of money that had made the writing possible was punctured and bleeding out, and draining into Silicon Valley.
I went to China to write a book, and while I was there I hung out and watched the last Beijing bureau chief of the Sunpapers clean out the bureau’s bookshelves and pack them up. Local newspapers were not in the business of bringing their readers the world anymore, and before long they would barely even be bringing their readers the local news.
Still, there was a future. Back in America, I got asked to write for Deadspin, a sports blog run by the disreputable Gawker Media. My recruitment involved a $200 tab for liquor and oysters; the day I arrived they brought me a box with a brand-new Macintosh in it. I’d been in the business for nearly two decades and no one had ever set me up with a new computer before. There were big screens at the front of the room listing the top-performing stories, with a live count of how many people were reading them. You could publish a story and watch the numbers grow as it moved up the chart, gathering readers—and downstairs, people were selling ads to those readers, and money was coming in. Lots of it! And some of those stories could change the world, a little or a lot, if not always as intended or predicted.
Outside forces were chewing away at these new paradigms, too. Facebook and Google were interposing themselves, with their own incredible—literally, in Facebook’s case, as their numbers were lies—masses of viewers. The numbers said people wanted video, and we started making video, and so did everyone else. It was a stupid, colossal waste, but it was all OK.
And then something else entirely happened. It still seems impossible, but it did occur: Technology billionaire Peter Thiel decided to destroy my company, through a secret conspiracy, because we had been rude to him and his peers. By then I had gone from Deadspin to Gawker to the company’s central editing corps, and we watched in puzzlement as the nuisance lawsuits kept on coming, all out of proportion even to our seedy reputation, until one of them stuck and a jury decided to give us the death penalty: a financial award that was impossible, even for a very successful business with tens of millions of readers and a thriving ad department, to pay.
After all those years, there was something bracing about being annihilated by a rich person on purpose, rather than as collateral damage to someone’s business plan or whim. At least Peter Thiel, in his own stupid and malicious way, cared very deeply about what we wrote; his colleagues on the Facebook board had simply squeezed publications to death for the sake of fueling Facebook’s own growth. All the while I had also been writing for free, scores of thousands of words, for The Awl, a small site dedicated to giving readers and writers the chance to see and do things they couldn’t elsewhere. But that freedom and generosity still had ads behind it, and the ad money was gone, and so was The Awl.
Either way, the conclusion was the same: As far as the daily or weekly exchange of information between writer and reader was concerned, the business part of my job was an illusion. The product, which had seemed like the whole attraction, was useless, or actively undesirable, to the people and corporations who had been entrusted for so long with distributing it. We were on our own.
What’s left? Admit it, and try to see where we can get with it. The New York Times is now getting the majority of its revenue from subscribers, not ads; my full-time, digital-native employer, Slate, has set up a paywall to bring in paying members; dozens of podcasts and newsletters have prospered by selling themselves directly to their audiences. It may still be possible for the media to bring us the world, but the industry shaped by the 21st century technology behemoths is an obstacle to it, not a vessel for it. Independent publications are down to their last, most direct proposition: If you want this to exist, give us the money to pay for it.