This week, it was announced by the Onion Inc. Union that the seven Chicago-based employees of the pop culture site the A.V. Club would take their union-contract-protected severances rather than move to L.A. without a cost-of-living adjustment. They had been informed several months prior that their office was being moved thousands of miles across the country, and their jobs with it. G/O Media said that they were being ‘invited’ to move their lives to a new state. The employees, who have a combined 50 years of experience at the company, knew better. ‘It is simply not reasonable,’ the union’s statement reads, ‘to expect people to uproot their lives for what amounts to a rather severe pay cut to commute every day to an inconveniently located office for a company that would make such a decision. It’s clear G/O’s “invitation” was never meant to be accepted.’ It is likely, they also wrote, that ‘those who replace the departing A.V. Club workers will almost certainly be underpaid too.’
UPDATE: The seven A.V. Club workers in Chicago have decided to take their union-contract-protected severances rather than move to L.A. without a cost-of-living adjustment. A statement from the union (1/X): pic.twitter.com/IOUwuR0TWn— Onion Inc Union (@OnionIncUnion) January 18, 2022
There’s so much about this news that is utterly heartbreaking. For so long, the A.V. Club has been a stalwart publication, defining and redefining how cultural commentary and criticism takes shape. You’ll struggle to find a critic or hot takes merchant, myself included, who hasn’t been inspired by them in some way. The site survived many of the ebbs and flows of online madness, seemingly remaining a safe port in a torrid storm of algorithms. Yet the signs of danger grew increasingly evident once G/O Media purchased the site, along with Gizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, and many others, from Univision in 2019 for a paltry $20.6 million.
Former Forbes executive Jim Spanfeller became the CEO of G/O Media, and the complaints began almost immediately. In October 2019 Deadspin’s editor-in-chief, Barry Petchesky, was fired for refusing to adhere to a directive that the site, known for its unique personality and sharp writers, ‘stick to sports.’ Soon after, the entirety of the site’s staff resigned in protest. They went on to found Defector while the remnants of Deadspin became an SEO-obsessed shell of its former self. On February 4, 2021, the Writers Guild of America East filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that G/O Media had told employees that they had fired Alex Cranz for labor activism. The year prior, the GMG union, which represents the staff of G/O media, announced a vote of no confidence in Spanfeller. Last October, G/O Media removed thousands of images from the 11 websites it owns. Writers and editors were not informed of when or why this would happen.
Whether you’re in this industry or just a fan of its work, it’s become increasingly crushing to see the same cycle of patterns play out. A site with a unique identity and loyal readership is bought out by some Silicon Valley conglomerate that starts raving in buzz-speak about how they love the ‘content.’ They don’t want to change anything, no siree, they’re fans too, and they just want the site to be its best self, Oprah-style. Then writers start leaving. The distinct atmosphere of the site changes. A lot more generic listicle posts and clickbaity headlines appear. There are rumblings about management ignoring union organizers or outright targeting them. Job postings go viral, revealing the staggering workloads expected of an employee for well below the minimum wage. Soon, that site you loved just looks and feels like a dozen other sites, covering the exact same headlines, reviewing less niche works, making the same lists of painfully familiar things You Won’t Believe. And you know it’s not the writers’ faults, but something just isn’t the same anymore. Then the site is gone, shuttered or sold off to the next SEO goon.
We know this pattern because it happens all the f**king time. Hell, it’s a disgusting inevitability these days, wondering if one of your sources of income will be bought out by anti-union creeps who don’t care in the slightest about the work you do or the people who enjoy it. It’s aggravating to see men in suits with no understanding of the industry barge in, make utterly impossible demands, suffocate necessary funds, then throw the baby out with the bathwater when their beaten-up new toy doesn’t make them a billionaire. To quote Linda Holmes of NPR, ‘It happens over and over: Disrespect the thing, buy the thing, wreck the thing, close the thing.’
It’s weird to work in an industry full-time (a rarity given how many of my colleagues, far better writers than I, are forced to do this part-time because of low pay) where you’re constantly petrified about such inevitabilities. It’s disheartening to watch incredible talents be forced out of their positions for making demands so unreasonable as to be paid fairly for their labor. Mostly, it’s bloody infuriating to see these parodic figures of supposed innovation toss aside the uniqueness and personality that makes so many of these sites adored in the first place. I’ve written for a site that many described as a ‘content mill’ and I know what it’s like for you and your colleagues to try your hardest to do good and worthwhile work while bombarded by increasingly nonsensical demands, and all for pennies. I spend a lot of time wondering if I should prep my C.V. just in case I need to return to office work at a moment’s notice.
Venture capitalists continue to strip-mine our industry for parts, all while broken algorithms and outright lies help to sink the ship faster in the name of business. It was bad enough when the infamous ‘pivot to video’ all but killed large swaths of the internet because Facebook falsified numbers on the supposed money-making effectiveness of video over words. We know that people have never mattered to this lot, but the endless process of degradation never becomes any easier to bear. Those crooks went back to business-as-usual while the writers they screwed over tried to scrape together a decent life from six or seven side-hustles.
I don’t know how we fix this. It feels like we’re all on the agonizingly slow spiral downward. The Onion Union were mercifully able to protect their members’ severance pay, and it will be labor organizers who continue to fight against this cannibalizing. If you’re a fan of these writers, support them in any way you can. Maybe they have a Patreon or Ko-Fi account you can toss a few quid to. Share their work and stand in solidarity with unions and workers. Those writers are still around. Hopefully, their voices will continue to be crucial parts of our cultural conversations.