The Racket of Content Creation and Digital Media

Also: what the hell is “The Outline” doing? Hey Topolsky, we can see, smell, and taste your bullshit, too.

Zoë Hayden
9 min readAug 10, 2016

Joshua Topolsky published a screed of reasonable length on Medium in April, describing his proposed digital media startup, The Outline, in terminology worthy of a revolution. (Like many incredibly cool things out there, if you go to, there’s no information about what it actually is going to be, but you can give them your email address to find out.)

Topolsky (formerly of: The Verge/Vox, Bloomberg, and Engadget) talks about the democratization of media thanks to technology and how the old-school physical limitations of media and communication continue to influence our conversations about how media works and is supported. His rallying cry is about how most media is “shit”, and modern consumers are too wise to it and sensitive to the nature of Shit to buy into the same models. He’s sort of right, you realize:

Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.

I am also one of many people to arrive at this conclusion (that a lot of content out there is just cheap shit). Last year, I started a website called The Victory Press which would cover women’s sports, discuss women in sports media, and pay its writers. I realized I’d inadvertently started an experiment to see what people will directly pay for from a niche publication. The more I looked into advertising models, sponsorships, and the way that digital media companies operate, the more I realized that I didn’t want to be involved in it. “I would like to be excluded from this narrative” as a constant state of being online is emotionally exhausting. Still: thousands of dollars poured into my Indiegogo and then, more slowly, into the website’s Patreon.

One year of doing Victory Press has shown me how small my operation is. It’s basically me and my copyeditor, who also handles shipping out merchandise and rewards for readers. I suck at fundraising; I am not good at advertising. Once upon a time, I had fantasized that our website would be kind of like The Toast, except about sports news. The Toast had “donate” and “tip” buttons on it, too. I should have realized that for any content creation website hoping to stay in the black, a donate button is the beginning of the end. Victory Press has been almost entirely funded by reader donations from day one. I figured: people who are interested in this content and value it will provide money for it. And the idea of doing it full time instead of my day job, plus supporting other writers full time, is literally so outlandish as to be absurd. The cash amounts I offer my writers are small — they’re incentives more than anything else; my way of saying “hey your work matters a lot to me! Please have some money to spend on your life!” I’m not trying to build careers as much as I’m trying to contribute a new and different voice to sports media that is questioning and inclusive. And also: not cheap shit. Not bullshit. The Good Shit.

Right now I have two jobs — I do IT support for a small school, Monday through Friday, 9–5. Most spare moments at my desk I spend writing, reading, and learning about tech, media, and sports. At home, I’m working too — doing paperwork for Victory Press, budgeting, planning, writing, and editing. As it stands, I’m hoping to double our Patreon pledges by October, but it takes a lot of work to keep the operation going, and between work and trying to have a personal life it often feels too big. Sometimes I hide in my apartment and play video games; sometimes I go on long runs while listening to Beyoncé and tell myself that I’m not fucking up. Sometimes it takes me a couple days to get to something that will just take an hour to finish. I feel guilty that I’m not actively working on Victory Press with every spare moment that I have. Trying to do something like this means you constantly feel like a failure, even if you’re trying to operate outside of the paradigm that established the definitions of success and failure.

If you expressly don’t want traditional advertisements to be the backbone of your content (because you are suspect of capitalism and its influence on journalism and, well, public opinion about what is and is not true), then what do you do? Venture capital and investments and being purchased by a larger media company are other paths to a semblance of stability, but they yield the same ethical problems if you are a writer or editor interested in these issues. I feel like a direct relationship with my readership is the only way around it, and the only model currently available that doesn’t compromise the content on Victory Press.

Really, I’m fully accountable. If you don’t like something about the site, I’m the only person to blame. You still pay The Victory Press, LLC when you give us money and it goes into the dedicated business bank account, totally separate from my own finances. But I’m the decision maker, the editor-in-chief. It’s empowering and it’s scary. It can also make you feel rather small when you realize you can only do so much on your own.

So Topolsky’s whole spiel was interesting to read at first. There’s going to be a new model, you say? I am intrigued. I respectfully ask to be re-included in the narrative.

It’s funny, because when Topolsky spoke to NiemanLab, he basically had the same coherency on the subject as Donald Trump about US foreign policy. His pitch for the Outline is ultimately a pitch for himself rather than a mission to improve digital content:

There is no other business that I can think of right now, and feel free to correct me, where the editor-in-chief is the CEO. If you can find another new media business where that’s the case, that actually has the ambition that we have, I’d be delighted to hear about it and see it and talk to that person. There aren’t that many. If there are, they’re not executing. I think it needs to be different now. That’s what we’re trying to build.

Of course, by calling it a new media business, he’s already shown his hand. His interviewer, Ken Doctor, describes him as “a rookie CEO and he rejects marketing shorthand in favor of deep and wide editorial explanation.” But his venture-capital-funded project has been crafted much the same way that any digital media company or advertisement is: by looking at data and finding a sector of it that can be exploited, preferably in creative and narrative terms that mask its ulterior motives with romance and objectification. And “wide editorial explanation” is a laughable way to describe what our pal Josh is doing. Says Topolsky of his future Outline readers:

They live in urban areas. They’re really tech-savvy. They fund Kickstarter projects. They eat farm-to-table food. They care about politics, they’re engaged…The data is really starting to show that there are a lot of people who self-identify as smarter and savvier and less susceptible to bullshit, and are hungry for a story every day, or multiple stories every day, that talk about their world.

The irony is almost too delicious, and it’s very important to pay attention to his terminology, since he clearly isn’t stupid. He’s talking about people who self-identify as smart, savvy, and less susceptible to bullshit. He’s publicly identifying the data points which he has used in a pitch to obtain VC and make the company valuable in the traditional sense. He has identified these data points because there is money in these data points. Marketing and digital media companies know that they operate at an intersection between bullshit and reality; their goal is to make that liminal space between truth and advertising less of a theoretical borderland and more like a big, glowing, friendly space that we all inhabit 24/7, and also spend money in.

To do that, you take subjects that resonate with people and capture their attention — like ethical/local food, political trainwrecks, and Kickstarters for interesting products — and figure out how to use that innate connection to take people’s money. Traditionally, this would have been by advertising a product and watching people buy with and connect to the product. Nowadays, it’s about using media and data to bridge the gap between people and products, and it’s both insidious and pervasive. Topolsky doesn’t actually think his audience is smart or savvy or unsusceptible to bullshit. He knows that they think they are, and that is what gets you $5 million dollars in venture capital. He basically knows that his job is to bullshit the people who don’t think they can be bullshitted, and he seems to be delighting in it:

But the smart things aren’t really cool. The cool things aren’t really smart. I think that we’re going to set the market niche that there’s a lot of demand for: stylish and smart, style plus substance. I don’t think anything really exists and I think that’s going to really help us break through.

Later on in the piece, Amanda Hale, Topolsky’s chief revenue officer, actually talks directly about that glowing in-between space where consumers go to happily spend dollars:

What’s that area between a native article, a narrative native article, and a banner ad? I think that there’s a lot of unexplored territory in that middle. We’ll be servicing lighter-touch, more turnkey native with an mid-sized in-house account management team.

Topolsky’s ending quote is about being an outsider and trying to make sense of the world around you, and saying that that is inherently what is behind the concept of The Outline. It’s ironic, though, because his digital media startup can only exist because of what happens when you are an insider. You get investment, you get VC, you think about advertising. That’s already how all of this works. Tell me more, Josh:

Being outside looking in, to me, is quite important. I think that, for the audience and also for a lot of the people involved in this, it’s a lifelong feeling of trying to make sense of a world that you’re not necessarily inside of or a part of. It’s kind of fundamental.

I feel like this where I hit a wall with the current landscape of digital media, at least personally as someone who spends a great deal of time operating online and generating content online. Overwhelmingly, it’s very difficult to make a living as a freelance writer, and this is the economy you have to participate in if you want to get paid to write. I have the privilege of not participating in it, of viewing it as an outsider, and basically publishing a symbolic set piece of my journalistic ideal. I float people small sums of money to bare their souls about sensitive topics, or to sit in the press box at a women’s hockey game. As an outsider, I can’t really make sense of it, because it runs contrary to what I experience as reality — and also counter to a lot of opinions I have about right and wrong, and ethics in journalism and writing.

More than anything, I’m shocked (though I know I shouldn’t be) at the brazenness of Topolsky’s con. Media that’s going to be better needs to re-think the economics of its own production to be sustainable, kinder, and more honest. It’s laughable to present a revolution of content creation in the form of a premium brand for premium advertisers. You’re right, Topolsky; you’re not just selling cheap shit. You’re selling a golden shit stain. It’s been done before; it’s a latest-capitalism rush to the top for the nicest shit in order to escape the growing piles of cheap shit and non-urban, non-self-identifying-as-smart-n-savvy, poor people shit at the bottom of the content totem pole.

Honestly, the best I hope for is to be well in my life and do some good work. You can’t back that with VC. If only for this, I feel #blessed. Good luck with your premium shit.