In media if you haven’t been laid off it’s just that you haven’t been laid off yet

In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people

Welcome to Welcome to Hell World buddy. Today we have two interviews one with a journalist in Seattle who’s raising money for hundreds of colleagues who’ve been laid off or furloughed and one with the editor behind the new Discourse Blog the latest offshoot of the dearly departed Splinter which was the last offshoot of the dearly departed Gawker both of which sites were gunned down in their prime by avaricious and cartoonishly idiotic villains.

Please toss your fucking email in the box here to get these newsletters a few times a week for free and if you have any money you can send my way to keep things afloat around here I would appreciate it greatly. Tell a friend maybe?

Get 20% off for 1 year

If you're at all surprised that we're condemning so many prisoners to death during the pandemic then the way that they were treated during hurricane Katrina might be illustrative. I wrote about it in a chapter of the Hell World book which you can read here.

When the waters of Hurricane Katrina began to rise many of the deputies guarding the inmates in Orleans Parish Prison abandoned their posts. Not before — according to prisoner testimonies obtained and published by the ACLU — taking extra cautionary steps like handcuffing the prison cells shut to make sure no one could get out in the event of the doors opening.

“As the locked cells began to flood, prisoners hung signs out of the broken windows for help, and others jumped into the water below,” the ACLU wrote. “According to the testimonials, deputies and members of the Special Investigation Division shot at some of the prisoners who were attempting to escape the rising water inside the jail, and several prisoners report that they witnessed fellow prisoners getting shot in the back.

“When the prisoners were finally evacuated from the jail, many were forced to wade through toxic, waste-filled water to the Broad Street overpass on Interstate 10. Prisoners reported that the armed guards at the overpass had K-9 dogs, which were used to threaten them and that they were maced and beaten. Female prisoners also report that deputies directed degrading and sexually offensive comments at them.”

That piece is called The Fascism In Us All and aside from the above I was also reminded of late of the central idea of it which is that we all enlist ourselves into the operation of the systems of own subjugation. In short: we’re all a bunch of fucking narc snitches who scarcely need to be constantly monitored by the authorities because so many of us are happy to do the surveillance and reporting work for them for free. Something to think about if you’re considering calling the police because a jogger ran by you weird or whatever.

Maybe don’t read the next ten or so paragraphs if you’re sensitive to talk of suicide right now ok?

An emergency room doctor in Manhattan named Lorna M. Breen has died of suicide. Her father said she had become overwhelmed by the experience of working on the frontlines of the hardest hit city in the country.

From the New York Times:

The elder Dr. Breen said his daughter had contracted the coronavirus but had gone back to work after recuperating for about a week and a half. The hospital sent her home again, before her family intervened to bring her to Charlottesville, he said.

Dr. Breen, 49, did not have a history of mental illness, her father said. But he said that when he last spoke with her, she seemed detached, and he could tell something was wrong. She had described to him an onslaught of patients who were dying before they could even be taken out of ambulances.

“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he said.

He added: “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

When I first saw that story shared on Twitter I was honestly shocked at some of the responses to it. A lot of them were just the usual “fake news New York Times” type of shit but there were some that seemed to suggest it’s a hoax or a lie or something because doctors don’t do things like that which is very much untrue they do it more than we would like to think.

In another chapter from the Hell World book which you can read here I wrote about the silent epidemic of suicide among medical professionals that was going on long before this pandemic hit.

“Mostly due to exploiting cheap labor, medical trainees have not been protected by many of the labor laws that the rest of the country enjoys. They are in an educational system that is rampant with human rights violations, and, as a result, some don’t make it out of their training because they take their [own] life,” Pamela Wible a physician in Eugene, Oregon who runs a suicide hotline for medical professionals told me. “They’re not able to see a logical way out, they’re $300,000 in debt from loans, all these people are dying around them, and they have guilt for any mistakes they may have made after working twenty-eight hour shifts. It’s just a perfect storm.”

“All of these forces are converging on these young idealistic humanitarians who go into medicine. I think they don’t quite understand what they’re getting into, what their working conditions will ultimately be,” Wible said.

While numbers vary the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says male physicians are 1.4 times more likely than men in general to die of suicide and women physicians are 2.27 times more likely. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among medical residents after cancer and the leading cause among male residents. Although to be honest those numbers are likely a lot lower than the reality of the situation.

“Asked why he thinks the virus could just go away without a vaccine, Trump responds: ‘It's gonna go. It's gonna leave. It's gonna be gone. It's gonna be eradicated.’

Trump thinks of the pandemic like an addict who refuses to do any work at therapy or group. He thinks it’s just gonna get better one day magically on its own.

Speaking of addiction many years ago I stayed up for forty eight hours straight partying with friends for the first and last time in my life. I don’t remember the details any more but I know we reached this like scary coke psychosis realm of the mind caverns that I never wanted to experience again. Anyway here’s this tweet about Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade.

I don’t have too much to say at the moment about the Biden allegations but one thing I think more people could understand is that let us say you are some random dedicated lib who wants very much for it to not be true. Fine. One thing you could do is just… shut the fuck up. No one is employing you for your alleged rape apologia on Twitter. Unless you’re vying for the VP spot in which case Biden’s team is very likely employing you for just that. Even if you think it’s fake your best bet is to not say something super weird and show your entire ass! Tossing your take in has absolutely zero upside for Biden or for you.

As a reminder however MSNBC 100% destroys people’s brains in the same way Fox News does.

I wish I had ever loved anything as much in my life as Harrison Ford loves getting into plane mishaps. Vexed by the persecution of Star Wars nerds for decades Ford now longs for the release of death which due to a curse can only be achieved via aviation disaster and yet the gods in their unknowable cruelty see fit to torture him further. May he someday know peace.

The Irish poet Eavan Boland has died at age seventy five. I was reminded of this poem of hers recently.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season
    of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
     There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
      Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Around 30 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks and that’s clearly an undercount because so many more have likely been confounded by janky online portals that weren’t designed to handle such a volume of requests or are contending with systems in states like Florida that are purposely designed to frustrate and demoralize people to the point where they give up and say ah never mind I guess I’ll go fuck myself and die.

One industry that has been hit particularly hard under the pandemic is the news media which is funny because it was us who conspired together to invent this fake coronavirus hoax to hurt the president and now it’s biting us on the ass. We really fucked up on that you have to admit. It’s hard to say exactly how many media jobs have been lost of late — Poynter has been compiling a running tally — but the New York Times estimates that “36,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.”

“It’s hard to imagine an industry more poorly prepared for the arrival of a global pandemic than the media business,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote a couple weeks ago. The industry at large has been contracting so consistently for so long now the introduction of a pandemic into the equation seems to have only exacerbated an already miserable trend.

Even before “coronavirus” became a household word, the industry was already reeling from a series of body blows, most of them delivered by Google and Facebook and their dominance of the advertising market. Since 2008, nearly half of US newspaper journalism jobs have disappeared, according to the LA Times, leaving fewer than 38,000 reporters, photographers, and editors. Waves of layoffs have become the norm, not just for large chains like Gannett and McClatchy but for smaller papers, and even for digital giants like BuzzFeed and Vox, who at one time were seen as the future of online media. Then along came COVID-19, and with it the unprecedented shutdown of entire cities, and the erasure of huge swaths of the advertising business. For many outlets, it will likely become what media analyst Ken Doctor calls “an extinction event.” For some it already is.

Part of this is because of declining ad revenue not because there’s no appetite for the news. Obviously people are starving for information and many have little else to do but to stare at their screens all day. But a lot of it is good old fashioned predatory greed from piece of shit companies like Gannett who would have been slashing jobs around the country after their merger with Gatehouse last year pandemic or no.

Left twisting in the wind a lot of media workers have devised fundraisers to help alleviate some of the blow for un- or underemployed colleagues. Vox Media employees recently launched a GoFundMe for the hundred or so employees who are set to be furloughed without pay for three months on May 1 which you can find here.

Other journalists have started efforts to dispense a little extra cash to colleagues who might need a quick bump to cover a bill or a groceries or what have you. Paige Cornwell a reporter at the Seattle Times is one who’s seen what she thought was going to be a small fundraising effort really take off. In the past few weeks she’s raised $69,000 (nice) which she’s been distributing in $250 chunks to journalists in need. (If you’re one of them you can apply here by filling out this form. If you’d like to chip in to help go here).

Some examples of the people she and her team have helped so far:

- A journalist in Oklahoma who was laid off and plans to use the funds to help afford health insurance.
- A journalist in California who was furloughed and will use the funds to pay her mortgage bill.
- A journalist in New Jersey whose hours were reduced and will use the funds to pay for medicine.
- A journalist in New York who has lost all freelance gigs and will use the funds to pay for medical bills as she recovers from COVID-19.
- A journalist in Illinois who was furloughed and is the sole financial supporter of his family after his wife - a nurse - lost her job.
- A journalist in Washington D.C. who has had hours cut and will use the funds to purchase a laptop so she can work from home.
- A journalist in Louisiana who was furloughed and plans to use the funds to keep her child’s spot in daycare.

I asked Cornwell about the effort and how things have been in Washington state recently.

You’ve raised a lot of money! How do you feel about the results so far?

It feels great. I’m overwhelmed with the number of donors and the amount of money and the number of journalists who have submitted statements of need. It’s overwhelming but heartwarming too. 

What was the original impulse behind starting the fundraiser?

It was just to help out Washington journalists, or journalists I knew, or knew of, around the country. I was thinking small, like in terms of a beer money situation, and it grew from there. 

You have a lot on your plate now. It’s a lot of money to hand out. How are you handling it?

It is. I have a very careful spreadsheet. I now know the PayPal and Venmo sending limits. I had to figure that out. And looking through who needs the funds quickest. Thankfully I haven’t had to do too much verifying, because a lot of people have pretty public personas online. And if you worked at a paper it’s obvious how you’re being financially impacted. It’s a few hours every day. 

You’re still working right? How’s the newsroom there? Have you had layoffs?

I think we were one of the first newsrooms to go all remote. It’s going ok at this point. We did get a federal loan, so no immediate layoffs. We’re a union newspaper, which is good for me. But who knows what will happen months or a year from now. 

What about Seattle in general? I was thinking about this earlier, and aside from people thinking the governor is doing a generally good job, I don’t know much about what’s going on out there. 

It’s a weird place to be in because we were the first to have an outbreak. It was weird that we were the one everyone was looking to, like, oh my god this is ground zero for Covid, is it gonna spread? Now I don’t think Washington is on the top ten list of most cases. So we went from the absolute worst to we’re doing better than everyone else. At this point it seems like we’re holding steady wondering what governor Jay Inslee is going to do in terms of the stay at home order, which is supposed to be lifted on May 4. It’s looking like that’s not going to happen. 

What sort of stories are you hearing from the journalists who are coming to you for money?

I was surprised that it runs the gamut of experiences. When I first started it I thought it would be mostly young journalists, just getting started, without families. The stereotypical journalist in their twenties with no money. But it’s all over the place. There’s multiple people in their sixties, some with families. Someone was concerned about paying a medical bill for their pediatrician. There’s a lot of Gannett newspapers. Lee Enterprises is another big one. There’s a surprising number of broadcast stations, which I wasn’t expecting. The biggest thing that people are worried about is rent. 

Is there any rent or foreclosure moratorium going on in Washington?

I’d need to look at this specifics, but I think it’s no eviction for a month. One thing a lot of people are saying is My state has no evictions, but I also worry that in two months I’ll have a deferred payment, so what does that really mean? I’m still going to have to pay for it. 

In Mass we just passed a pretty good for now eviction and foreclosure moratorium, which is good, people need it. [Read about it in this Hell World]. But the thing I don’t understand is what’s going to happen when… let’s say this, optimistically, ends in October. Are people going to owe six months of rent all at once?

Exactly. A thing I’ve noticed in these submissions is at first people weren’t quite as worried about that, but now they’re saying I’m one month past rent, I don’t know where I’m gonna get the money for that, please help me. I think people are realizing the longevity aspect. It’s really freaking people out. 

What’s the average amount of money you’re handing out.

Right now it’s just a blanket $250. If we do end up getting more money it might be higher at some point. People submit their positions, what they’ll use the finances for. People are really candid about their financial situation. 

It’s kind of a pain in the ass right? Being a dispenser of money like this. 

It is! Sometimes it is. The fact that everyone is getting the same amount makes it easier, but I’ve been on the phone and tweeting at PayPal and Venmo and that’s been annoying. I feel bad for their customer service people too. I have friends who work in healthcare, including one who flew to New York specifically to work in a COVID ICU. The least I can do is dedicate a few hours to help others.

I know you’ve been doing reporting on how this has impacted Washington state. Is there anything recent people might be interested to hear about? 

I’ve been focusing on nursing homes and how they’re not really equipped to deal with something like this. The toll that that’s taking on residents and employees and family members. They’re a very vulnerable population, but there’s still not widespread testing. 

I guess it’s kind of hard to ask for money sometimes. People who might be hesitant to ask for a few bucks, what would you say to them?

This fund was very much created, and receives donations, for local journalism, for these types of people. I think every donor recognizes that journalists across the country are working way too hard for not enough money. Even if you don’t think you are the most needy person, you probably deserve a few more dollars than you’re getting right now. I’ve received so many messages from people like, I’m ok right now. I know there’s way more people who have way more of a need than I do, so please put me at the bottom of the list. Everyone wants to be at the bottom of the list, which is weird, but then I think, no, you need money as much as anyone else. I think that’s the biggest thing. Also, if this money can help you be a little less stressed in any way, then you’re better equipped to be a journalist and tell the stories of your community, and that’s what your community needs right now. 

Nightmares are different now Michelle said when she woke up this morning and I don’t know if that’s true or not I haven’t been having any dreams at all lately. While she was sleeping I got into my protective gear and went to Dunkin Donuts for the first time in a month or so and I got the large ice with milk and one sugar and the medium hot with milk and half of a sugar and the woman said we don’t do half sugars and I said uh ok and I got a half dozen munchkins and I brought it all home and I gave the coffees a bath in the sink a very new and normal routine when I bring anything home now and I put the munchkins in a bowl and microwaved them to get the covid off. One recurring nightmare I have always had throughout my life is that it’s just before a high school football game and I can’t find my helmet anywhere no matter how hard I look and everyone is so mad at me and I’ve let everyone down and weirdly a lot of my old friends tell me they have a very similar dream and anyway someday when this is all over I bet we are all going to have nightmares like that where we find ourselves out in public at say Dunkin Donuts without our mask and everyone is going to be so mad at us and then we’ll wake up and say thank god it was just a dream.

Jack Mirkinson was an editor at Splinter when the site was shuttered toward the end of last year which was another in a series of brilliant moves by J/O Media or whoever it is that owns the suite of former Gawker sites now. Who would have possibly needed a political site going into the 2020 election?

Of late he and some of the other writers for the site have gotten the band back together to start Discourse Blog which so far has been very much in keeping with the spirit of the good old days of the site. One of the best recent pieces was this takedown by Paul Blest of a truly dreadful and lazy bit of labor reporting from NPR. Owing in part to that piece and many other complaints like it NPR’s public editor addressed the controversy and somehow fucked that up too.

I spoke with Mirkinson about what the blog’s deal is and how things are going in New York City. 

You’re in New York City right? What’s your situation these days?

I guess I have been better! I’m a lot luckier than a lot of people in the city. I don’t know anyone who’s died, or been critically ill, even though I know people who’ve gotten sick. So I feel very fortunate to have avoided, in that sense, the worst of this crisis. But if you’re here it affects you in one way or another. Everybody is very beaten down by this whole thing. Everyone is hearing sirens all the time. Everyone has had to really readjust their relationship to the outside world in a way that I think is different from a lot of other parts of the country just because there are so many more people here. When you go outside it’s a very challenging situation in a lot of ways. 

But I’m surviving, like a lot of people everywhere are. One of the things that has been the most helpful to me, just on a personal, emotional, mental health almost level, has been being able to work on this new blog with all of the former Splinter people. It’s given us the opportunity to work together again, to have fun together again, and really put our energy into something that’s meaningful to all of us. 

I really liked Splinter. As someone who’s followed the Gawker “brand” for over a decade or whatever it’s been, the way it’s all gone down is almost like watching somebody being tortured, having off one body part cut off at a time slowly over years. First Gawker went down, then Splinter got fucked, then Deadspin. How have you rebounded from all that, or have you?

First of all, I can’t go too deep into all of that stuff, because we signed documents. But speaking in a broad sense, it was very difficult to have this thing that we had really poured everything into suddenly be shut down overnight. I think this has materialized at the right moment…It’s a traumatic event to suddenly have something like that taken away from you. We were doing a lot of sitting around as the months went on and seeing the crazy primary, then this pandemic, and feeling increasingly like: If only we had something where we could just do the kind of stuff that we used to be able to do at Splinter. To say what we wanted to say. To not feel like we had to appease anybody, or look over our shoulder, or really worry about anything but doing the best work that we could and that really reflected who we are and what we believe. 

We’ve all been through a lot in the past five or six months, although at the same time in the media industry these days if you haven’t been laid off it’s just that you haven’t been laid off yet. We’re part of this unfortunately humongous club. Part of the reason we all wanted to come back together is we just felt like we had built something that was really good, and that was doing really good and, on our best days, important work. I think we all felt collectively that we didn’t want to end that. Just because our site had been shut down that didn’t have to be the end of the story. We could try to build something new out of that for ourselves not tied to any company or corporate structure. 

I have to say, as somebody that’s been doing this for almost two years now, it is so freeing to just — and you guys had a lot of leeway before — but to not have to ask some fucking editor, no offense, can I write about this, is the most freeing thing in the world. I think something is interesting and I write about it. I don’t need to get permission from this guy and that guy. I don’t have to wonder if it’s going to do numbers. I hope you guys take advantage of it. 

Why did you decide to go with Substack? Talk about the mechanics of what you’re doing. 

We started on Wordpress in March. I think. Who knows when anything happened these days. It was purely a labor of love. We were literally sitting around chatting and we were like why don’t we just do this, and then we did it. Everybody was feeling a little journalistically homeless, and there was a global pandemic happening, everyone was sitting in their houses going crazy, so why not do something? We put it up and we were pleasantly surprised by the reaction that we got. We just had a lot of people saying they were glad we were back, and we took note of that, and started having conversations about maybe taking it a little more seriously as a long term thing. We tried to go into it keeping expectations low. But we looked at the reception and thought let’s see if we can take this to the next level.

We are sending out every post for now. We’ll do that for the first month or so, then we’re going to transition into some kind of paywall. We haven’t discussed what level, what parts of the site will go behind it, what we’re going to charge… We’re just trying to use this first period to get people to sign up, test out the platform. It’s a new model. It’s a different way of interacting with the audience. 

It really is. It’s weirder. I think most of you guys have a high metabolism for blogging and posting like I do, but you almost have to be slower in a way. Even though you can write whatever you want, people don’t want to get five emails a day. I’m still trying to figure out what the sweet spot is without being annoying to people. 

Exactly. 

You already had one post that stirred up a bit of a ruckus with the NPR story. 

Yeah, Paul Blest, one of our best and brightest — although everybody is one of our best and brightest — wrote this story last week about this really shitty NPR report about this small business owner who was complaining that her workers were going to make more money off of being unemployed than they were by working for her business. Paul pointed out that the NPR people had not talked to any of the workers. If you're going to do a story about labor in America you should…

Talk to the workers!

Right. The NPR public editor put out this thing today that was like, hm, there was some “hot takes”, one of which was ours, and cynical people was saying there was an agenda but there wasn’t bla bla bla. Once you got through that bizarre level of waffling, the central point which Paul made about talking to workers was completely conceded by the reporter who did the story. He said I should’ve done that. The NPR thing was roasted up and down the internet today. I haven't seen a single person who thought the public editor did a good job. For us, it was gratifying that in the infancy of this thing we’re already able to do the kind of thing we want to do. 

To get up someone’s ass. 

Exactly. It was exactly what we want for a fledgling little site like this. 

Over the past five or ten years what happened, did I become more radical, or did NPR start sucking a lot more?

I think you became more radical! I grew up in a particular kind of household where they always called it National Pentagon Radio, so my standard is a little skewed. But I think NPR, to a certain extent, has always been this way. Especially now. 

I just loved Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me so much so I was distracted. 

I used to listen on a semi-regular basis, and now I look back and I’m like … what was I thinking?

What’re your thoughts on the [Deadspin pop-up site] Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog. In my opinion I think it should be Named Permanent Sports Blog. 

I love all of those people. Splinter and Deadspin were always very good blog friends back when all of us still had jobs. They're some of the most talented bloggers on the face of the planet right now. I have no inside knowledge about their plans, but I will follow whatever any of them does to the end of the earth. 

It’s always been real fucking stupid that people like you guys all need to live in New York City. Do you think that that’s going to change?

Speaking only for Splinter, we have always really been supportive of people working remote. Right now in the current Discourse Blog crew we have one person in Minnesota, one in North Carolina, one in Texas, someone in LA. So we have always been very fanned out across the country. It’s always been completely crazy to me that so many media outlets insist on having people in places like New York or DC exclusively because I have very close up experience with the fact that people can perform their jobs wherever they are. I would hope that, if anything comes out of this complete nightmare, that people begin to understand that you don’t have to be living in New York City to be able to contribute meaningfully to a national journalism publication, because you absolutely don’t. 

Get 20% off for 1 year