Off the Record is an email newsletter reporting on the media industry in New York City, published by Gabriel Snyder, the former editor of The New Republic, The Atlantic Wire, and Gawker. Our reporters are Julia Black and Andrew Fedorov.

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There is plenty of discussion about the media these days, but most of the outlets that employed full-time media reporters have either cut back or transformed the beat into an outpost in the political culture wars. There’s now a lot that happens inside New York newsrooms and board rooms that doesn’t get much, if any, reporting beyond a press release and a tweetstorm. While that’s bad for media gossip fiends, it’s also bad for the community of people who work in New York media. It’s time to bolster the bonds between people who actually care about what gets published each day and, of course, the politics and machinations behind the scenes that went into it.

Here's a sampling of our recent stories...

Meet the Shadow Editors of Substack

Substack does not require, nor even particularly encourage, writers on its platform to work with an editor. The company made a name in journalism circles by offering controversial, editor-allergic writers like Glenn Greenwald a place for their unfiltered thoughts to reach the masses. But as the service has grown and added more writers, the number of editors at work behind the scenes is steadily expanding. Some editors are contracted by Substack as part of its centralized support services, including “healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, design, and coworking spaces.” (Yes, it would appear they have just invented... the newsroom.) Others are being approached by writers who’ve signed one-year contracts and are paying them out of their advances.

There's No Accounting for Genius

Rap lyric decoder site Genius has been acquired by Santa Monica-based holding company MediaLab in a deal worth $80 million, a sum not much more than the $77 million of VC financing the one-time tech darling has reportedly raised over the last 12 years. CEO Tom Lehman and his co-founder Ilan Zechory have plenty of reason to be pleased with the outcome: The terms of the deal mean they are slated to receive potential paydays of over $13 million and almost $8 million, respectively, according to documents related to the sale reviewed by Off the Record. But employees (whether current or former) who had exercised stock options over the 12-year life of the company received an unpleasant surprise: Their stock is now worthless. As a legal letter informed them, “holders of common stock and options will not receive any consideration in connection with the transaction and the subsequent dissolution.”

Rebecca Carroll on The New Yorker’s Legacy of Exclusion

For the longest time, I absolutely believed my rejections from The New Yorker was because I wasn’t good enough. But if I, as a Black woman writer — who had some ties and access to the magazine that most other people do not and had been published in, among other places, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Esquire, New York, and The Guardian — have been continuously looked over, what criteria exactly were they using? Who but a few very specifically hand-selected Black writers even stand a chance? I don’t regret pitching all those stories to The New Yorker — many of them later found other homes — but I do regret the time I spent thinking that I wasn’t good enough or that the only marker of success as a writer was to be published in The New Yorker. So recent archive stats are not revelatory. But to young aspiring Black writers out there, it’s not you. It’s them. 

The Feature Creatures of Vox Media

While many publishers have shrunk the resources they invest in narrative deep dives, Vox Media has somehow accumulated a hothouse full of editorial units producing this much-revered form of journalism. Its digital titles, including The Verge, Vox, Eater, and Polygon, have long aspired to produce work with a longer shelf life than the usual gadget review, explainer, or restaurant rating. In April 2019, Vox announced it was acquiring Epic, a narrative nonfiction shop based in L.A. Later that year, Vox acquired the bastion of Clay Felker and Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, New York Magazine, and its shelves full of feature writing awards. The confluence has left Vox Media with a kind of conundrum: what do you do with all these far-flung units on the org chart, largely operating separately from each other while chasing similar cultural territory? Recently, the answer seems to be: make them find a way to work together.

Tom Bissell’s Wild Ride from Magazines to Video Games to TV

Tom Bissell has done about as much as any magazine writer could hope for. But as the writing life has shifted and (some might say) been diminished, Bissell has, about as much as anyone, been adept at charting new territory, penning video games (Gears of War) and TV shows (Masters of Doom, The Mosquito Coast) as well as books. This success, though, has been accompanied by periods of extreme volatility and financial uncertainty. “As recently as early in the pandemic, I was broke and had to figure something out,” he said. “It was really rough. I’m in my late ’40s, and I’m still scrambling and figuring out how one makes a life doing this. It’s not easy for anyone.”