A Tragedy: The Toast Is No More

Today came some really bad news: The independent publisher and ingenious-literary-themed-essay-site The Toast announced that it will close.

The main reason was that the site was simply not making money.

NICOLE: We really started to feel it while talking to our publishing team about ways to improve revenue, I think. Every time I shared another John Herrman article on Twitter like, “yes, ad revenues are down across the board and indie digital media is on the bubble!” I felt like Cassandra. We considered making one of those (excellent) deals with Medium, but only briefly, because of our relatively unique community and what it would do to that community if we lost our ability to meaningfully moderate comments, and also because it had become clear that the bigger issue was not money, really, it was just…not wanting to do it anymore.

MALLORY: It’s difficult to convey an accurate sense of how much we both love The Toast and everything it’s become and also being ready to stop! Both are true, at the same time. We’d both, I think, started to notice the ways in which we just couldn’t keep up the pace we started three years ago.

NICOLE: I had to step back and look at how my responsibilities at The Toast had gradually drifted from writing and editing over to day-to-day administrative WORK and watching the money, and calling accountants and dealing with lawyers, etc. And to realize that I didn’t trust anyone to take over that chunk of my duties, nor could I pay someone to do it even if I DID trust them to do so responsibly, unless I started privately bankrolling the site on a regular basis, which Ayn Rand made clear is a mug’s game. I have bailed out the site on a couple of different occasions, but there is a big difference for me in one-off unexpected emergencies and part-subsidizing the site month-by-month, which was starting to be more of a reality.

On the one hand, this probably seems to many people an unbelievable outrage. The Toast was a huge success. If you like Harry Potter or films or books or life you have almost certainly clicked on one of their articles. Mallory Ortberg, too, is a 100% comic genius.

For many people starting a blog or an independent publisher or a podcast, The Toast’s readership must have always seemed like a distant pinnacle, too lofty to even hope to reach. To get half their success would have seemed, surely, like making it.

And yet, on the other hand, the owners had been clear for a long, long time that things were not as great as an innocent fan might think.

Read Nicolle Cliffe’s amazingly honest and remarkable tweet-essay, posted back in October 2015, about the problems keeping the site afloat, and the absolute need for outside capital.

For her, this was her husband’s salary, but, as she suggests, this was not unique to The Toast. Almost every “independent” site that you and I love has some alternate form of Cliffe’s husband as a backer, and to believe otherwise is to be very misled.

The site’s running costs were never fully funded by ads.

The whole time the site was becoming beloved by former Art History students across the world, neither she nor Ortberg were earning a salary. And eventually (as anyone would) they grew tired of working constantly with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.

I wish, at this point, I had some useful advice to offer people interested in starting their own new big thing, or that I could expertly tell Cliffe and Ortberg the one magic trick they should have used, but of course I can’t.

As Cliffe suggests, it’s why I skeptical of all those memes people share on FB about trying harder, or trusting yourself more. It is always good to trust oneself more, but framing the problem in this way ignores the huge start up costs and huge on-going costs involved. Either it’s a hobby, in which case you don’t care that it doesn’t make money, or you need to have a really good plan for getting people’s attention and making a living, and that really good plan will very likely fail.

The difficulty isn’t the getting started part; it’s what you do after that.

I’m reminded of Andrew Sullivan, and his grand plan of taking his massively succesful blog independent, and charging his readers a subscription (I was one of them), and who, after less than two years of independent work, was simply so exhausted creating post after post, day after day, he had to resign from the blog for health reasons, at which point the entire site had to close, because his voice was not replaceable.

I recommend, if you’re interested in this topic, the discussion between Ben Thompson and Ezra Klein on strategies for running a media company in today’s facebook era, on Ezra Klein’s podcast. Thompson argues that in today’s market, one can either be a huge organisation or a one/two person outfit (to keep costs down). But as you’ll hear, he remains uncertain (other than his belief that whatever happens, Facebook will keep making money).

To conclude, here is an excerpt from Mallory Ortberg’s wonderful “Why Are You Lonely: A Text Game.”

WHY ARE YOU LONELY: CHOOSE ONE

  • FAILED TO NURTURE RELATIONSHIPS BORN OUT OF CONVENIENCE ONCE CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES REQUIRED ACTIVE PARTICIPATION FROM YOU
  • WATCHED NETFLIX FOR SEVEN HOURS INSTEAD OF SLEEPING BECAUSE YOU HAVE ONCE AGAIN MISTAKEN INERTIA FOR REST
  • CONFUSED “SELF-CARE” WITH “SELF-INDULGENCE” AGAIN; YOU ARE INCAPABLE OF EXPERIENCING GENUINE REFRESHMENT OR RESTORATION BUT YOU DO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY AT NAIL SALONS
  • ONCE AGAIN CONFUSED “EMPATHY” FOR “TAKING RESPONSIBILITY” AND INVITED OTHERS TO UNLOAD THEIR EMOTIONAL BURDENS ON YOU WITHOUT FIRST ENSURING RECIPROCITY, WHOOPS
  • ANTICIPATORILY BLAMED OTHER PEOPLE FOR NOT CALLING YOU WITHOUT ONCE ASKING YOURSELF WHY YOU CAN’T CALL THEM
  • ASSUMING ANY TIME SPENT TOGETHER THAT YOU HAD TO INITIATE IS SOMEHOW LESS AUTHENTIC THAN REQUESTS FOR TIME SPENT TOGETHER THAT YOU ACCEPT

….

  • THINK YOU’RE BEING PLAYFUL BUT ACTUALLY YOU JUST GET MEAN WHEN YOU DRINK
  • SPEND ALL YOUR TIME SAYING THINGS LIKE “EITHER’S GOOD” OR “DOESN’T MATTER TO ME” WHEN IN FACT ONLY ONE THING IS GOOD AND IT DOES MATTER TO YOU BUT YOU THINK “NOT EXPRESSING A PREFERENCE” IS THE BEST PERSONALITY TRAIT YOU HAVE TO OFFER OTHERS
  • PEOPLE ACTUALLY MORE AWARE OF YOUR BARELY-CONCEALED CONTEMPT FOR THEIR CHOICES AND RELATIONSHIPS THAN YOU THINK THEY ARE

The Toast is gone. No good reason, sorry.

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