I was in the Florida courtroom in the spring of 2016, the day Peter Thiel succeeded in taking Gawker down—though the puppet strings were hidden still, since Thiel had kept his involvement in Bollea v. Gawker a secret that would not emerge for some weeks. Eventually, it became clear that one thin-skinned man had covertly spent millions to crush Gawker, a publication whose writers had repeatedly, and effectively, expressed withering contempt for him. As a result of this lawsuit, millions of people were permanently deprived of a website they liked to read.
The slow digesting of these facts changed a lot of people’s minds, including mine, about the fragility of the independent press in America. Most of us had been accustomed to believing that the right to express withering contempt for billionaires was as sacred as the right to accuse Jerry Falwell of drunken incest in an outhouse—a right upheld by arch-conservative Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist, writing for the unanimous court in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988): “The fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it.”
I couldn’t agree more with Justice Rehnquist, particularly at this moment in our history, when the independence and freedom of our press seems in new danger from a variety of political movements that seek to shut down voices they abhor. That fear, and what I saw in that Florida courtroom, have changed my life, and have prompted me to focus on finding ways to protect speech rights and press freedom. One is the column I write here at CJR, keeping a public editor’s eye on MSNBC. Another is the Brick House Cooperative, a group of nine publishers who’ve banded together to demonstrate the benefits of a cooperative business model for our industry—and, we hope, to insulate us from the Peter Thiels (and Donald Trumps) of the world. If this thing works, we will expand it to include more publishers as quickly as possible.
By pooling and sharing our subscribers, revenues, and expenses, the Brick House can deliver independent publications to readers collectively, efficiently, and at an attractive price. The ultimate goal is to provide everyone who publishes at the Brick House with enough revenue to pay sustainable salaries and benefits, and to provide streamlined publishing and business resources to all. We launch our first promotional campaign on Kickstarter on August 25, with a projected publishing debut in October 2020.
In working out ways of protecting speech rights and press freedom, I kept coming up against the problem of careerism, for lack of a better way of putting it—the “meritocratic” myth that has kept journalists from working together toward a common goal.
Like most everyone in a market-driven society, journalists are taught to compete. On the one hand this means: do your very best. On the other, it means: your brothers and sisters are there to be beaten, not looked out for. Do your very best and, with luck, that will be better than the next person can do. You’ll get better assignments, more followers, lots of TV appearances, a fat book deal. As journalists, we are taught to race along on our own little hamster wheel toward our own little Pulitzer.
The competitive spirit elevated the strivers and strengthened the bosses but weakened the profession. The result is that all of us—even the strivers—became increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, with the results you see before you: tens of thousands laid off, scores of publications sabotaged and shuttered.
But journalism isn’t a zero-sum game to be won; it’s a public trust. A community of journalists looking out for each other, committed to the strength and vigor of the profession before their own individual careers, will be stronger in every way—better at producing stories that matter, better in business, better at serving the public. The Brick House represents this enlightened self-interest. Solidarity is not what we were taught, but it is what we need.
After a lot of painstaking research, the Brick House’s novel form of ownership was formalized last month with the help of Cleveland business attorney George Carr. Shares in the cooperative are equal, with one allocated per publication, and they can’t be sold or transferred. No member can own more than one publication.
Each publication is run independently, but under a collective umbrella: one subscription grants access to all member publications. There are, and will be, no ads, no owners, and no executives. The cooperative is supported by readers and is accountable to readers alone. (There is an Advisory Council, a group that includes Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, together with the Tow Center’s Emily Bell, editor and Postlight founder Paul Ford, and journalists and editors Anna Holmes, Gabriel Snyder, and Hamilton Nolan.)
The Brick House’s founding publications are:
- Jason Adam Katzenstein’s AWRY, a brand-new hub for comics with an emphasis on new voices, critiques of power, and stories never before seen in cartoon form
- Harry Siegel and Alex Brook Lynn’s FAQ NYC, a podcast that tries to make sense of the only city in the whole world
- Tom Scocca and Joe MacLeod’s HMM WEEKLY, featuring culture, commentary, and opinion from veterans of Gawker, Deadspin, and the Baltimore City Paper
- Brian Hioe’s NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, focused on Taiwan and other places Western media have tended to ignore
- Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s OLONGOAFRICA, a pan-African community of opinion makers
- Maria Bustillos’s POPULA, the home for humanist, egalitarian perspectives on news and culture
- Myriam Gurba’s TASTEFUL RUDE, a new site drilling into the intersection of art, literature, celebrity, and politics, eschewing the white cishet male gaze in favor of all others
- David Moore and Donny Shaw’s award-winning THE SLUDGE REPORT, an unfiltered view of the swampiest politicos behind the week’s headlines
- Mike Kanin and Sunny Sone’s PREACHY, a new home for writing about spirituality, religiosity, and modes of peace and introspection
That’s what we are building: a community of journalists who look out for each other and serve no one other than our readers. This is a test of the emergency cooperative publishing system. Join us. Publish with us. Read us.
Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.