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Turns Out Blogging Is Hard

Media executives sometimes operate under the impression that writers are interchangeable, or that they could even do the job themselves. Now we get to watch how that turns out.

by Anna Merlan
Nov 5 2019, 7:41pm

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The first time I logged onto Gawker.com as a writer, it was early evening, my name was temporarily Enid, and I was clutching my asthma inhaler, toying with the outlines of a panic attack. I'd already worked a full day at my staff writing job at the Village Voice, and I had agreed to work a paid night shift for Gawker to audition for a role at the site, a tradition at the company. (Because I had a day job, I used a pseudonym for my Gawker shifts, and deliberately picked one that was clearly, obviously fake: Enid Shaw.) Six-ish hours later, I'd written a few posts. My eyeballs were raw, my vision was blurry, and the site's commenters had broken me spiritually. Blogging, as it turns out, is hard.

Not truly hard, of course: Blogging is not like working in a slaughterhouse, grave-digging, diamond-mining, labor organizing, surgery, home healthcare, pediatric oncology, smuggling, teaching, or fighting forest fires. But it's skilled labor, and night- or weekend blogging is a particularly terrifying balancing act, full of pitfalls, potential legal and copyright risks, and the possibility that the commentariat could rightly own you straight to hell. (Gawker commenters were supernaturally talented at finding factual errors, embarrassing typographical mistakes, and logical fallacies, then gently strangling you with them.) When media executives are forced to take on that job themselves, following a series of extraordinary self-created crises, they don't seem to last very long.

Anyone who's ever done a night blogging shift could tell any executive tasked with keeping a site live and updated just how difficult—and brutal—it can be. The sort of executive in a position to listen about this wouldn't listen, of course, but if they were willing to do so, maybe they could at least look a tad less foolish.

At the Gawker Media sites, night blogging involved cranking out five or six posts of the course of a long evening, alone, with an editor available on call for true emergencies. You found your own stories to report out or (more often) aggregate from other sites, you did your own line-editing, you sourced your own art, and you published everything on the site, praying all the while you hadn't fucked anything up majorly. Night and weekend bloggers were responsible for covering breaking news events and not just doing so in a way that wasn't factually wrong, defamatory, or phrased in a way that would turn the internet's ire against you, but doing so elegantly and cleverly.

I did not end up taking a job at Gawker, but did eventually work at Gawker Media for five years, mostly writing for Jezebel, before leaving in October to work for VICE. In that time, Gawker.com died at the hands of Peter Thiel and the company underwent a series of minor and major name changes and various cataclysms which have been covered extensively. The company is now known as G/O Media.

One basic constant throughout those five years was the number of people, mostly on Twitter, telling us that our work didn't matter, and that we were easily replaceable. ("You're just a blogger" was a favorite quip to throw at us; since it was also true, it didn't feel like a particularly effective burn.) For a lot of people, blogging seems simple, basically unskilled, something any borderline-literate schmuck could achieve, and separated from "real" journalism, even when the membrane is vanishingly thin. (I put investigative stories on Jezebel and other Gawker Media sites that took me months to do. I also wrote things like this.)

For years, before digital media unionized, that just-a-blogger sentiment was used to keep pay low, writers' self-esteem lower, and the industry as a whole unstable. Writers at a lot of companies weren't given the time, space, funding or editorial support to work on bigger stories, and then were made to feel like their professional and economic insecurity was their own fault.

Recent weeks have felt like a return to the height of the bad old days. We all watched the staff at Deadspin—all of whom I consider friends, if you need any more full disclosure here—fight their new management over autoplay ads, which are known to be objectively terrible, and then we all watched them quit over a ridiculous stick-to-sports edict handed down by the same management.

G/O Media's CEO Jim Spanfeller told the Times last week that the writers would be replaced, and that the site would continue smoothly on. "We’ve got quite a number of recruiters out there pounding the pavement, trying to find great people,” Spanfeller told the paper. “We don’t just want to get any old person—we want to get good people.”

Spanfeller is surely being sincere there; there's no doubt he'll try very hard to stack the site with his version of "good people." But in the meantime, the funniest possible thing to happen in this scenario would involve management themselves being forced to blog. And it seems possible—likely, even?—that that's precisely what happened.

With the exception of one freelance contribution from a writer who, facing immediate backlash, vowed never to work for G/O again, everything that's appeared on the site was bylined as simply "Deadspin." All of it read precisely as though it were written by Paul Maidment, G/O's short-lived editorial director, something the company hasn't confirmed or denied. (Maidment is middle-aged and British; the number of references to "chums" on the site did skyrocket.) The New York Times did report last week that Maidment "is running the site himself as G/O Media seeks a new top editor."

No matter who was blogging, it seems safe to say, it was not a success. The sentence structure was uniformly strained. The ledes were clunky. Many of the paragraphs were simply lists of scores, football plays, or marathon finishing times. (The Kenyan runners who won the New York City marathon were unnamed in a headline and described as "cantering," which is something horses do, not people, a phrasing I argued on Twitter was, uh, problematic.) Attempts at cusses were embarrassing: a few things "sucked" or were "dumbass." The headlines were dizzying verb-thickets that had to be read multiple times to be vaguely comprehensible. After a few days of these horrific word-manglers appearing on the site, whether they were his malformed children or not, Maidment resigned, citing an "entrepreneurial opportunity" he simply had to pursue.

Giri Nathan, an ex-Deadspin reporter who was one of the people to resign last week, wrote on Medium about a day he published two things: a long, meticulously crafted profile of a tennis superstar, and a blog that was kind of an extended diarrhea joke.

"They are both blogs," Nathan wrote, "'Blog' is the great equalizer. And neither was any more or less of a Deadspin blog. "

Nothing is funnier, in a dark and endlessly frustrating way, than watching media executives who thought they knew what good blogs were try to make their own. Managerial edicts are easy. Blogs are hard.

Tagged:
Media
Blogging
media meltdowns