A perfect avatar for the destruction of digital media
Capricious and pigheaded, issuing edicts from on high without thought or consideration to anyone
Earlier this week Matt Crowley left his job at The Onion. Normally a guy leaving a job wouldn’t exactly be news, but in a Twitter thread announcing his departure the five year staff writer had some choice words for Jim Spanfeller, noted herb, and the man largely responsible for fucking up a suite of everyone’s favorite websites like Deadspin and the AV Club and Jezebel to name a few. Being a fellow Spanfeller-disliker myself I wanted to talk to Crowley about how the site changed for the worse under his direction, as well as all the other important stuff you’d want to ask someone at The Onion such as why they never hired me a few years back. We also talked about the satirical site’s unionization effort, the difficulties of writing comedy about Trump and Biden, and what happened to all of the images on some of The Onion’s best jokes.
You will have to be a paid subscriber to read the whole talk below but here’s a bit of it. And here’s a very steep discount good until tomorrow.
Before we get to that here’s something funnier than The Onion could have ever written. It was tweeted out by the NYPD last night then swiftly deleted after it was mercilessly ridiculed.
It’s already embarrassing enough when cops share photos of busts like these with like one gram of dirt weed, a few plastic baggies, and a pirate gun from 1843 that they confiscated, but this is something else. I honestly don't get it even from a dumb fuck cop’s perspective. Based on everything I know about cops and every cop show I've ever seen wouldn’t these guys know they would get goofed on by their own boys for this type of thing? Ay it’s the diaper squad over here etc. We may never come to know what transpires inside of the average cop’s brain.
In other shitty media news, you may remember a few years ago when I reported on something called WorkMarket and FastFunds. It was a payment service used by a number of media companies, including the Huffington Post who I had recently written for at the time, through which freelancers could avail themselves of a very generous offer to be paid less than they were owed somewhat sooner than they would be otherwise. Here’s what my specific offer looked like:
It was absolutely fucked. Long story short, after I wrote about it, some of the media companies involved said they were going to stop using it (then started up again later). The New York Times denied that they were going to be using the service at all despite evidence to the contrary that they were planning to. Now, a few years later, it looks like the Times had decided to forge ahead with offering their freelancers payday loan style services from a different company, as noted by writer Abby Lee Hood on Twitter.
Pretty cool. Here are some perhaps related stories:
Hood wrote to me on Twitter that the Times currently owes her $750. “Last week my internet was shut off for 16 hours because I had to drum up the $ for the bill.”
Ok here’s my talk with Matt Crowley.
What were the circumstances behind you leaving?
It’s kind of a long story, but the short version is I was moving back to LA, and The Onion is based in Chicago, so they weren’t able to accommodate a remote position. There is such a position as writer-at-large, which people have had in the past, but two other writers moved to LA after I did, so accommodating three wasn’t doable.
[A very loud horn version of La Cucaracha plays in the background]
What is that? Is that a gag or something?
Yeah it’s a very hilarious gag on my part. No, a truck just went by.
I’m confused because wasn’t there something that was the opposite with the AV Club where they wanted everyone to move to LA, or is that unrelated?
It seems pretty clear that that decision was made to try to purge the staff, because they weren’t offered a cost of living increase to move to LA. Also, they were given a certain date to decide, but even prior to that date all of their jobs were listed on job boards in LA. So it was pretty clear they didn’t expect anyone to move. Even beyond that, there was a staff member who was living out in LA, working for the AV Club, doing interviews and stuff, and about a month before they told the AV Club they all had to move to LA they fired him. So, you know, it suggests it really wasn’t about having them live closer to the entertainment industry.
Sounds like some classic Spanfeller bullshit. You tweeted this about him: “Onion Inc. under Spanfeller’s watch has been a disaster. I’ve watched a place that was flawed but brimming with creative joy turn into one of exhaustion, anxiety, and fear. Spanfeller is a perfect avatar for the destruction of digital media: capricious and pigheaded, issuing edicts from on high without thought or consideration to anyone in the company.”
Some people might say that’s an understatement!
Well, yeah, I didn’t want to just be like “Fuck Jim Spanfeller!” I worked at a number of different companies before The Onion, and I’ve never, ever seen management be as hostile and condescending to its employees as I did at this place.
How long were you there?
I was there just over five years. I started right after Trump got elected actually. It was owned by Univision at the time, then they sold to G/O Media. No one was really happy with Univision as an owner either. I think they really didn’t know what to do with the brand and the company, but they did throw a little money at it. So there was the opportunity to do some videos, and more creative output. We did this podcast A Very Fatal Murder, which was a parody of Serial. So that was good. Then G/O Media came and Spanfeller gave an interview where he said “We’re not going to cut our way to success,” and then two weeks later they fired a bunch of people. That kind of set the tone for things to come.
Digital media jobs are already precarious under good stewardship. Did it feel like there was always a sword hanging over everyone’s heads there, especially after the Deadspin thing happened?
I think even prior to the Deadspin thing they had fired a bunch of Clickhole writers. I think the comedy brands had always been a little more protected. But that was some of our good friends, again, without any warning, like, boom, you’re gone. Even some people from Onion Labs, the inhouse advertising agency, people who were going and getting clients and bringing in money to the company were fired. It was very confusing. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. But certainly once the Deadspin thing happened…yeah. That was another kind of bridge, and it just continued from there.
I suppose comedy writers are used to being poor. Until you get to Hollywood and become a TV writer and lose your ability to be funny on Twitter. But was it harder to be funny under those conditions? I know what it’s like to put out news and reporting under shitty conditions, but I wonder if there’s a difference with, like, I have to go to work and be funny today at my job that’s kind of miserable and the boss sucks.
I think there is some of that, being frustrated with management and everything. But more tangibly they were very concerned about hitting targets in terms of traffic, so we had to generate a lot more content, do more slideshows and stuff like that. I think it’s a real testament to everyone at The Onion that we were able to maintain as much quality as we have. But it’s challenging, and you feel exhausted. Certainly during this last year, and the first year of Covid in particular. We’ve had this fellowship program for a long time where we bring in two additional people who we can help train, and it’s more energizing for the staff and everything, and they got rid of that. Everyone on staff signed a letter to management saying we think the fellowship is very valuable, we understand there are issues with it, but we think it’s important it be brought back in some form. They said we can’t do it because it’s like having a staff writer but not paying them as much as a staff writer. So we came back and said, ok, what if we paid them more? They were like: no.
The thing that stood out to me reading your thread on Twitter, and I think a lot of people took this as the headline too, was that they tried to institute a dress code?
I mean, it is a patently absurd thing.
What did it entail exactly?