The saga of The Believer—a magazine hampered by apparent mismanagement and the unwelcome sight of its editor in chief’s penis on a Zoom call—continues to curve sideways. Months after the magazine was abruptly shuttered by the University of Las Vegas and the affiliated Black Mountain Institute, it has been quietly purchased by a company called Paradise Media whose plan appears to be to stuff it full of SEO-grasping search terms and affiliate links for adult products.
As Gawker was first to report, the new owners created a backdated page on The Believer site which directed readers to the best hook-up sites, generating both scorn and mass hilarity. (Paradise Media didn’t identify itself as the buyer, instead using the Twitter account of one of its subsidiary sites, the Sex Toy Collective, which is exactly what it sounds like, to respond to criticism.) Paradise Media’s CEO Ian Moe then told Motherboard in a midnight Pacific time text message that given the amount of backlash the page generated, he would focus on “more mellow ad content” going forward as part of his plans to revive the site. Those plans do not seem to currently involve hiring writers or publishing new, non-garbage articles, but do seem to involve Thought Catalog-style listicles, which—who knows?—may be so out of date that they’re now in once again.
The Believer—a respected and long-running literary magazine that published both giants like Greil Marcus and emerging writers—was abruptly shuttered in October 2021, not long after staffers publicly complained about what they said was a disastrous pattern of mismanagement from UNLV, Black Mountain, and then-editor in chief Joshua Wolf Shenk, who was placed on leave and ultimately resigned after inadvertently showing his penis to staffers on a Zoom call. Believer staffers described Shenk’s management style to Motherboard as both disastrous and deeply strange, and said they understood him to have been the subject of a previous Title IX complaint in 2018 or 2019. (UNLV told us at the time it couldn’t not discuss Title IX complaints. Shenk and a representative wouldn’t respond to a question about whether he’d been the subject of such a complaint, and said to ask UNLV.)
At the time The Believer was shuttered, Jennifer Keene, UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts dean, did not clearly outline the reasons for the closure of the publication, telling the Associated Press in a statement: “After reviewing the data with internal and external stakeholders, it was clear that there was no path forward to continue publishing the magazine. Print publications in general have been facing increasing headwinds in recent years, which makes them a financially challenging endeavor.”
Gawker’s Tarpley Hitt determined that the Sex Toy Collective, which identified itself as the new owner of The Believer on Twitter, is owned by Paradise Media, a digital marketing company extremely reliant on SEO, which has curiously scrubbed its staff page in recent days. It previously listed “Ian Munro” as its CEO; on his LinkedIn page—which has now also been deleted—he used the name “Ian Moe,” which he subsequently told Motherboard is his real name, something we confirmed with public records. Paradise Media also recently bought the Philadelphia Weekly, a respected alt-weekly that has undertaken a number of desperate bids for increased market share, including, back in 2020, a weird detour into selling so-called alt-right politics in America’s most Communist city. Since Paradise took it over, a blog about “hookup sites,” identical to the one on The Believer, dated May 10, is also published there.
Believer staffers have been extremely skeptical of the timing of the magazine’s shuttering, seeing it as a potential act of retaliation against staffers who complained about Shenk’s conduct and their overall uneasy relationship with UNLV. They also revealed this week that they tried to get it back themselves. Former Believer founders and staffers affiliated with McSweeney’s publishing, the literary organization which founded The Believer, said in an open letter published on Medium on Tuesday that they’d tried to buy the magazine back. Between October 2021 and early 2022, they wrote, they had “many meetings with representatives from UNLV,” adding, “Beverly Rogers, who had not only funded the purchase of The Believer but had paid to expand the staff and reach of the magazine, clearly expressed her wish that the magazine return to McSweeney’s.”
UNLV representatives were, the statement adds, “opaque in their dealings. Finally, on Friday April 22, The Believer editors found that they were locked out of their own website. Hours later, the site began showing ads for '25 Best Hookup Sites' and Paradise Media was suddenly listed as the owner. Neither Beverly Rogers, McSweeney’s, The Believer’s contributing writers, nor key staff of The Believer was given any notice or consultation about the sale of the magazine to Paradise Media.”
The statement adds, “We are currently exploring all our options.”
In a press release about the sale of the magazine, dated May 10, which they shared with Motherboard after we requested comment, UNLV said it had undertaken “a rigorous bid process.” The university said Paradise Media took over the site on April 1, and that the “transfer process” would be finalized by mid-May. “We weighed all viable options for the future operation of The Believer. This was a sound business decision and the best step forward,” Jennifer Keene is quoted as saying. (Motherboard has filed public-records requests with UNLV seeking information about its dealings with McSweeney’s and Paradise Media.)
In response to a request for comment sent earlier this week via email and Twitter DM, Ian Moe texted me back very early Wednesday morning, a little after midnight Pacific time. (The message seems identical to what he sent to Gawker’s Hitt; she too wrote that the message she received was sent late at night.)
“I really just want what’s best for the Magazine as I read it a lot in college and a big fan,” Moe wrote to Motherboard. “I was lucky enough to be able to be in a position to afford purchasing it.” He added, “I don’t have any other Twitter and it was probably a mistake to reach out via our sex toy website which caused a lot of controversy, but I just wanted everyone to know that this dating article wasn’t meant to be spam. It was part of many tests to make money using alternative methods like google (not readers) as a first step towards getting things back to print. We're testing other topics as well like "top 10 Charles dickens novels" and doing bookshop.org and Barnes and noble affiliations.”
I just need to have it make enough money to make the payroll and printing fees and keep growing from there, I want to reinvest all the earnings back into it for the first few years. Full disclosure: If we can get it to the level of other publications like Vice then yes, I'll probably take a cut and store something in my 401k, but it's not the focus for the first few years, the reader's happiness is the focus.
If the writers and readers aren’t comfortable with our ideas for revenue we’ll keep pivoting and asking them for feedback until we find something that works for everyone!
Moe added that the hook-up site page on The Believer has been replaced with a statement about its “new content plan,” which also contains a long and highly detailed list of search terms and itself seems to be another SEO ploy. All of this is weird, to put it lightly: it has the effect of immediately making your site look like shit, creating a weird muddle between ad and editorial content, and tends to—as it did here—make formerly loyal readers and staff really cranky. The page also invites readers to text a phone number with “suggestions and feedback on how to reach our goal of $5000 revenue a month to bring The Believer back to print.”
In response to a follow-up request for comment, Moe said he was ill and unable to talk on the phone, but would respond to questions via text.
Moe would not answer questions about all the other sites that Paradise Media owns. “It’s risky to share all our websites publicly because of competitors copying your niches, hackers and negative SEO,” he wrote. That said, he added, “I can say we’ve got other websites in software reviews, dating, and personal finance. When a website is big enough it becomes immune to negative SEO and then it can be shared more, but it has to be the size of something like the Believer.” He regretted engaging with the public via the Sex Toy Collective site, he said again, but added, “I thought reaching out with STC might help because we have a good mission. We make sure all products are non-toxic.”
Moe said he’d deactivated his “social media,” meaning his LinkedIn page, “because People [sic] were very upset about this and a news article linked right to my profile which seemed a little too invasive.” (LinkedIn profiles are public and are meant to help with networking.) Moe added that Paradise is less than five years old and a “small company,” writing, “Four years ago it was just me and other freelance writers making websites.”
As to the details of the Believer sale, he wrote, “I don’t know if I can legally share the cost of the sale, but I’m open to it. The sale was kind of like a closed auction. I didn’t know who else was bidding at all, honestly I thought I could have been the only one. I made a very high bid I think, probably way overpaid. But the site is so beautiful and there’s so many great interviews and stories there I really fell in love with the idea of keeping it going.”
Moe thought, he added, “that I could bring some real power and voice to it again using SEO. Imagine if the magazine had a $100,000 a month budget again? It would be in every airport, let alone bookstore. I really think this is possible using SEO content in a way that regular readers don’t notice.” (In its heyday, The Believer was in every bookstore and probably a few airports too, doing things like hiring writers, selling ads, and publishing normal articles. The hookup sites article was immediately noticed by former staff and readers of the publication, because it was weird.)
Moe also spoke supportively about Believer staff who’d spoken up about Shenk’s behavior although, he said, he didn’t know any details about the situation internally. “I think it’s good they spoke up and wanted what’s best for the magazine, and part of that is having a comfortable work environment and culture you feel good about.”
Moe concluded, “To summarize, the plan is to try and make TheBeliever [sic] the same again but bigger. We’re going more of a thoughtco direction to get there, if we do our plan right no one should notice the changes. If it's not working for everyone still after six months we are definitely open to giving it to another company.” He also said he’d gotten a message from McSweeney’s “and am open to talking to them about a partnership on it or if they have a better revenue plan for its growth I can consider selling it back.”
UNLV did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how Paradise Media came to acquire The Believer or whether they had entertained an offer from McSweeney’s or any other potential buyer.
Former Believer staff remain unclear if the sale was an act of malevolence or incompetence.” It could have been just a financial move,” one former Believer staffer told us. “But I think the choice definitely speaks to UNLV’s lack of care for what The Believer is and what will happen to it.”
Update, May 13, 2022:
Documents returned to Motherboard by UNLV following our public records request show that The Believer was purchased by Paradise Media for $225,000 in an all-cash deal. The “business purchase letter of intent” lists an “effective date” of December 23, 2021. The letter was signed by Ian Moe of Paradise Media on February 7, 2022 and counter-signed by UNLV’s Jennifer Keene on February 9, 2022, then approved by Chris Heavey, the school’s executive vice president and provost, on February 11. It also shows Paradise Media is headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The documents that UNLV provided to us also include the offer letter from McSweeney’s, signed by its president Brian Dice, which laid out the terms under which they offered to buy The Believer. It does not spell out a potential purchase price, and UNLV said in a statement, which is below, that McSweeney’s did not offer one.
Instead, the letter offers to create two full-time paid internships for the summer of 2022 for students in UNLV’s creative writing program, one paid academic year internship, arranges to provide two visits to UNLV from fiction writers and poets in McSweeney’s network for the 2022 and 2023 school years, two visits in the same time period from McSweeney’s staff, and consideration of UNLV creative writing students’ work for inclusion in McSweeney’s, albeit “with editorial decisions based on merit” and on a submission’s fit with the issue. It also asks that UNLV provide McSweeney’s “with an accounting of the number of issues owed to then-current subscribers to the Magazine” and to pay McSweeney’s “compensation for that liability equal to the amounts paid by subscribers for those issues.”
The letter from McSweeney’s is dated January 5, 2022.
UNLV also issued a second statement on the terms of the deal, which they provided to Motherboard. It reads, in full:
The university announced the discontinuation of the Believer in October 2021 in a communication to staff, community members, and the media. It was a difficult decision, but necessary, given the publication consumed a significant portion of the Black Mountain Institute’s resources. And while The Believer was a highly regarded vehicle for literary works, the college has a responsibility to direct resources to initiatives most central to the institute’s mission.
The university carefully considered its options. The sale of the publication’s assets was the result of a bid process and, following a review, the best financial decision was made for BMI and its continuing mission.
UNLV received two offers to acquire The Believer assets. Paradise Media offered $225,000, with UNLV covering financial liability for unfilled subscriptions. McSweeney’s asked that the assets be granted to them for free and for UNLV to also cover the financial liability of any unfulfilled subscriptions at an overall net loss to the university.
Update, 2:55 p.m. EST:
Regarding the timeline of the sale to Paradise Media, a UNLV representative clarified that an offer was received from Paradise Media on December 23, and from McSweeney’s on January 5, as the documents given to us reflect. Paradise’s letter of intent to buy The Believer was signed and counter-signed by UNLV in February 2022, and the final contract was signed March 30, 2022. UNLV says Paradise Media “assumed ownership and oversight of all content, including websites and digital assets,” on April 1, 2022.