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8 May 2023

Mourn the death of online media’s optimism and anarchy

The decline of Vice and BuzzFeed marks the end of a time it was easy to believe the internet was making our lives more fun and interesting.

By Marie Le Conte

Oh, can’t we just have a little fun? By “we” I mean journalists here, and the people who read us. Is it too much to ask? Can’t we just have a good time?

Vice was reported to be on the verge of bankruptcy this week, BuzzFeed News closed down last month and so did Gal-dem. Gawker failed (again) a few months before that. The Awl is no more; the Toast and Grantland are but distant memories. The Outline has already been forgotten.

It’s all gone, all dead. No one even does the “my friends just got laid off, please hire them!” threads on Twitter any more because everyone knows there’s no point. No one’s hiring. The lights have been turned back on; everyone go home.

If you were to look for a silver lining, you could say that traditional media has, in the end, managed to survive it all. For a while it looked like the legacy press was drowning, pushed under water by sharp, new and nimble online outlets. But it won in the end. In Britain and the US a number of traditional newspapers and magazines are not only surviving but thriving (great news for democracy!) – including this one (great news for my landlord) – but it seems worth thinking about what we had for a time, and what we’ve lost now most of it is gone.

Many hacks will have their own stories of that era but my main memory is of Brussels in 2017. I was going there for a conference anyway and thought I may try to get a commission or two on the way, to make the trip worth it.

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Being a political hack at the time was hellish; we ate Brexit, drank Brexit, breathed Brexit. It was endless. Desperate to have some fun with it, I emailed Vice and asked them how they felt about the idea of a drunk voxpop. The EU bubble gathers every Thursday evening in the bars of Place du Luxembourg for one to seven glasses of wine – could I please get paid to get sloshed with them then, at around 9pm, ask everyone what they made of Britain’s predicament?

Somehow they agreed and the end result was – I like to think – both funny and informative. Crucially, it gave me a platform when I had recently gone entirely freelance for the first time, and was terrified about what the future would hold. As mentioned previously in these pages, journalism can often feel like a slot machine, where everyone is technically allowed to have a go, but only a few have the funds to keep going until they hit the jackpot.

What this proliferation of often chaotic but usually daring online outlets offered was a number of free shots for people whose pockets weren’t especially deep. Their budgets were too small to afford established hacks; instead, they had to rely on younger writers with weirder ideas. It was a match made in heaven.

It also made the internet a more interesting place, full of off-kilter reporting and opinions from people who were usually seen but not heard. By definition, national newspapers have to appeal to as broad a readership as possible; these places thrived by creating their own niches. Maybe that is why they were never going to last. Many of the people and companies behind those sites were not after originality or a richer online polity. They just wanted to get rich, and failed. It’s been a common refrain recently, and not one confined to the media industry.

For some time, it was possible for people who didn’t earn cab money to zip around town in an Uber whenever they fancied. Food delivery stopped being a once-in-a-while luxury and suddenly became something most people could do, such were the discounts and offers made available. There were apps and start-ups for everything and they were so desperate for you to use them that they would offer you the world for cheap, even for free. It was easy to feel optimistic and believe that the internet was changing our lives for the better. Clever and stern people did warn us that it couldn’t last but, well, you can’t always listen to clever and stern people. You’d go mad if you did.

In the end they were right, of course. Many of the apps that felt like the future are now broken and expensive, or so reliant on cheap, dehumanising labour that using them just feels cruel. The odd and exciting websites have closed down and they’re not being replaced any more. The window that was once open has now been sealed shut. It’s hard not to get survivor’s guilt about it. I was one of the young and hungry journalists who found a way in thanks to those defunct outlets. I get to play with the big boys now; those closures affect me emotionally but my wallet won’t take a hit.

I worry about the journalists who are young and hungry today. Do they really feel comforted by the fact that most traditional publications are alive and well? Only a lucky few will be able to work for them straight away, and without having accumulated experience elsewhere in the first place. Are they sour and cynical, already assuming that those gigs will surely go to those with connections and suspiciously familiar last names? I would be, if I were them.

It’s hard not to feel like we’ve gone back to square one. Still, I suppose we had fun while it lasted. That’s probably better than nothing – just about.

[See also: Is this the end of newspapers?]

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