Upon hearing the news that Bullett Media was folding and reading the staff’s eulogies, I felt a mix of emotions. It was a eulogy to a certain sort of media that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. I always refer to it as media that creates a world — aka the magazines you grew up reading that not only informed you but acted as a true (and ideally weird) arbiter of taste. For me, those magazines were Jane and Nylon; for others, they might have been Sassy or i-D.
Idil Tabanca, Bullett’s editor-in-chief, starts off the eulogy, titled Conscious Uncoupling: RIP Bullett, explaining that “conscious uncoupling” seems a particularly apt phrase to use considering the publication’s heyday was 2014, the year Gwyneth consciously uncoupled. 2014 is only three years ago, but things have MUCH changed for the media. Print was already on a downward slope in 2014 — that’s not new — but I think something about how we consume culture and news has shifted in ways subtle and not-so-subtle in the last three years.
The Content Machine has accelerated its efforts — sites like Refinery29 (mentioned in the Bullett piece), Buzzfeed (of course), and others churn out essays, slideshows, and short videos at alarming rates. While there are certainly more nuanced personal essays and excellent longform reporting on these sites, there is also so much consumable candy — and when I say candy, I don’t mean to insinuate that it’s fluff, but more that it’s packaged in such a pristine, appealing, and sanitized way. A quick scan of Refinery29’s Facebook page offers an ASMR-like video on how Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is made, “Lovable Joe Biden Moments,” and Kate Middleton’s “best reaction” to Meghan Markle’s engagement.
Everything is “the best reaction” or “This [blank] is EVERYTHING.” Everything reads like the same tabloid. As a freelance writer, I’ve noticed that, most times, when I use an unusual description or write an intro that isn’t immediately internet-friendly, it is often changed to be so. It’s also frequently given a headline that is clickbait-y, sometimes to the point of being misleading as to what my story is actually about. I don’t blame my editors for this; I know it’s something they have to do to keep their job. It will be given whichever headline beats the A/B test.
And how can you blame these sites? They’ve found a model that succeeded! They are exceedingly good at what they do. That’s where I get a bit skeptical of Bullett’s “We can’t beat ‘em, so we’re going to quit” mindset. I think it’s simplistic, and frankly, I think it’s lazy — though they are aware of the irony.
Like everything else, journalism is also becoming a form of sedation, Bullett writes. Thus, our competition: self-proclaimed fashionistas and their outfits-of-the-day, Tumblr-girls-turned-Instagram-girls and their cyber-goth selfies, Refinery29… We. Just. Can’t. We can’t conquer something we don’t even understand anymore. And we don’t really even want to. (Yes, all of a sudden, we are the grandma shaking her cane in the air, complaining about millennials. The irony is not lost on us either).
The sentence “journalism is also becoming a form of sedation” is the truest thing I’ve read in a while. With the utterly strange, dark cloud that has hung over 2017, most media is either fucking depressing or saccharine. Room for the weird, the subtle, the “niche content” seems to have dwindled, though I’m inclined to think (and hope and pray) that’s not completely true. I think, as my coworker Lindsey pointed out, that perhaps these culture-based publications have to realize how to reinvent. Being a generic, catch-all culture magazine doesn’t resonate anymore because we can sniff out these new things on Instagram — and these days a single Midwestern internet teen can curate a more exciting, relevant feed than most any publication.
To these publications, I offer unsolicited, relatively untested, and (soon to be unheard) advice: Find your niche. Why should people read your publication or site? What voice are you going to offer that isn’t already out there? And also, make people care AND have fun. We have too many other things to take seriously this day in age; we don’t necessarily need to read an oral history of an obscure B-list action movie longer than 1,500 words (sorry to any writer friends I just offended!) Those longer, more obscure pieces, of course, have a place. But I think, too often, people feel it’s one or the other — it’s “10 Celebrities With the BEST Reactions to Dogs” or 15,000 words on a social trend only people on Twitter are aware of. I think there’s a middle ground: a world where a publication like Bullett can publish their story on a woman raised by monkeys or where Spencer Pratt can review SXSW movies. High meets low. Or better yet, maybe they can take a page from younger generations and realize that high and low don’t exist, and simply make things people care about or that make people at least feel something (even if it’s “What the fuck is this?”) I think there are some publications doing this pretty well right now — The Cut and MEL are two random names that come to mind, and I’m sure there are many other smaller ones I don’t know about.
I hope there are some folks out there that read Bullett’s eulogy and, instead of feeling depressed and like no one wants to read what they’re writing, instead become inspired. Facebook’s media-destroying, video-pivoting algorithm can’t last forever — and even if it does, aren’t some of the best things born out of subverting the forces that sanitize and/or suppress our voices? Teens aren’t even on Facebook, anyhow. And now I’ll take my own advice, shut up, and let people who will hopefully read what we write talk. What do you like to read? What do you care about? Are you tired (or not!) of everything being “the best” or “this one weird thing” or a list? Leave it in the Facebook comments (LOL) or better yet, shoot me a good ‘ol fashioned email at firstname.lastname@example.org.