Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Profile

The normalization of Bryan Goldberg

June 19, 2019
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bryan Goldberg wants to save your internet. Since the creation of his Bustle Digital Group, Goldberg made a name for himself as a digital slumlord—snatching up gutted media properties, bidding low and running them on cheap labor. In the past year, Goldberg’s Bustle Digital Group has sought to go legit, raising the pay for his writers and editors, and buying up The Outline, Elite Daily, The Zoe Report, Gawker, and Mic. If he has his way, he’ll keep going—colonizing a digital news business that seems to have no other savior.

But the world of Goldberg’s internet is a weird and wild one, full of rumors and paranoia. On the one hand, there is the entrepreneur as normalized recently in Bloomberg Businessweek, the former bad boy once blamed for a digital media collapse he now is trying to soften. On the other: the man who posed for a New Yorker profile using a woman as a desk, who snooped into my own Venmo account to try and discredit me as a journalist.

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Goldberg became Goldberg when, in 2012, he sold Bleacher Report, the site he founded in 2005 with David Finocchio, Alexander Freund, and Dave Nemetz. The four built the site off the free labor of fans, who published a never-ending stream of articles about sports. The frantic mass creation of content from 6,000 contributors lead to clicks, and clicks lead to ads, which created a profit. They sold the site to Turner Broadcasting for an estimated $200 million.

The men were heralded as geniuses, though what they built wasn’t that different from sites like Associated Content, Huffington Post, Forbes, XO Jane, and eHow, popular in the early ‘00s for  using Google analytics to see what people were searching for and creating free or cheap content that met those search terms. The difference is that Bleacher Report knew when to tap out. After the sale, and flush with cash from a successful round of fundraising, Goldberg founded Bustle, a website for women.

Bustle’s launch was immediately met with derision. The New Yorker’s profile described him as a “puffy six-year-old” and quoting him as saying, “If no one’s going to go out there and create the next great new women’s media property, then I’m going to do it.” And also “…knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner is not my job.”

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Elizabeth Spiers, a Gawker founder and former editor of the New York Observer, called Goldberg’s strategy “Lazy Entrepreneurial Solipsism” which she defined as: “I, entrepreneur, have never heard of a product like the one I am producing (largely because I did no research, which I don’t need to do, because if there were such a product, surely I would already know about it!), therefore said product must not exist. And I do not personally know anyone addressing this market, therefore this market must be new and fundamentally underserved!”

Yet Bustle survived by keeping costs low and ad revenue high and being run entirely by women. When the site launched, editors were paid $100 a day, according to a deleted Craigslist job posting. Glassdoor estimates that writers at Bustle now earn $16 an hour, which is skewed by part-time writer rates. And freelancers make about $125 per article, with established writers earning closer to $200.

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“The company pays writers and editors competitively,” Goldberg says. “We have consistently raised salaries and freelance rates, even while the rest of the industry suffers mass layoffs. Our retention rates are high, and it’s common for writers and editors to stay with us for many years.”

But it’s not hard to treat employees marginally fine while digital media is a hellscape. New writers breaking in are lucky to get offered pay at all for freelance articles, especially for sites that focus on women and mothers. Many sites that run essays and takes from mothers often don’t offer more than $100 per piece. As a result, any place that pays on time feels like an oasis.

But who gets the credit? Is it Goldberg and his money, or the legions of women who built the Bustle brand? Goldberg by his own admission has had very little involvement in the day-to-day operations of his sites. And when he has gotten involved, like with the Bustle launch and the Gawker relaunch, the result has been a trash fire. But as one editor for the site pointed out, “How is he worse than any other boss or any other man in media?”

And then there are claims of union busting. After more than 100 Mic employees were laid off ahead of BDG’s takeover of Mic, Goldberg immediately hired some of the writers back as freelancers. The move froze out further talks of unionizing. Goldberg says the layoffs happened before he took over.

Now, Goldberg wants to expand his empire, building on the Gawker acquisition. He said that was always part of the plan, but that he just wanted to do it in a sustainable way. “The business model we are building—which takes significant cost out of business and technology expenses—will soon empower us to invest heavily in long-form writing. BDG will spend millions on longform in the years to come.”

Goldberg’s attempt to relaunch Gawker in January backfired spectacularly, when two of the writers hired for the site, Maya Kosoff and Anna Breslaw, quit before the site launched, due to comments and unprofessional behavior by the site’s editorial director, Carson Griffith.

The mess started when Splinter News published a story with screenshots of racist tweets sent by Griffith calling black people “half tranny” and Mexicans “scary.”

Breslaw and Kosoff told The Daily Beast that Griffith sent an email about a prominent businessman, discussing his penis size. She also joked about misgendering a non-binary writer and noted that, “people of color prefer to only write serious pieces about race.”

Kosoff (who also has written for CJR) said that she and Breslaw took their concerns to human resources at the company. The solutions HR came up with included building bigger desks so Kosoff and Breslaw didn’t have to sit near Griffith, moving them to other media sites owned by BDG, or taking a severance package, which included a non-disparagement clause. Kosoff and Breslaw took a fourth option, quitting with no severance, and going public with their concerns.

Goldberg issued a statement to The Wrap, saying that while he didn’t condone Carson’s tweets, the plan for Gawker was to move forward. BDG employees, who met with HR to demand action after Griffin’s comments were made public, considered a walkout, which didn’t happen, but many of them remain convinced that the site is threatened by the decision to keep Carson in her role.

BDG began an investigation into the allegations and created a diversity taskforce, which has momentarily addressed employee concerns and staved off the walkout. Goldberg said the internal investigation, which was conducted by Goodwin Procter, the firm that also serves as BDG’s in-house counsel, cleared Griffith. The investigation, however, did not include the participation of Kosoff and Breslaw, and Goldberg declines to say whether or not the investigation is complete. But he insists Griffith did nothing wrong. Griffith declined to speak on the record. Kosoff tells CJR, “I’m not entirely sure what it means to ‘clear’ someone in this particular case. The message you send to your employees when you take a dismissive attitude toward legitimate criticisms of a manager who is at best unprofessional to her reporters and at worst transphobic and racist in her language at work is that this behavior will be tolerated and accepted, while mild dissent will not be.”

Kosoff also noted that Goldberg was a “loose cannon” and recalled that, on the night after the Splinter story, he called her after work hours to try and talk her into staying at Gawker. “It was just an inappropriate phone call. I had left the office and was home and had been drinking. He called and his tone was intimidating.”

Goldberg is marching forward with his plans for the new Gawker, hiring Dan Peres as editor in chief.  He says he plans for the site to be a home for sustainable digital longform journalism, a huge departure from the listicles and hot takes that have built his empire.  He told BusinessWeek, he wants the site to be The New Yorker, to be The Atlantic, to be Vanity Fair. In sum, he wants prestige. But prestige is built on reputation, not piles of cash, and the blowback is hurting. Three writers told CJR that they declined opportunities to work for the new Gawker because of Goldberg.

Recent profiles of Goldberg have made him seem more like a complex bad boy, who speaks “fluent hipster,” works out, quotes feminists, and is a rising digital player. But this is the result of rebranding aided by some aggressive PR. In reality, Goldberg is a volatile personality.

In my case, after I reached out to him in January, he called me relentlessly, while I was having a late dinner with friends, while traveling, and on spring break with my children. Once he called me three times in a row, while I was on the phone with another source for a different story. When I called back, he was furtive. He wanted to set the record straight about a story in the news, he just didn’t want to do it on the record.

In one of our calls, he accused me of being “compromised” because, he said, I had a friendship with Kosoff and was biased. He alleged I was part of a media conspiracy. He later backtracked on the word conspiracy, but insisted I was biased, citing money I had sent to her on Venmo. I’d never spoken to Kosoff before working on this story. The Venmo transaction was for the purpose of purchasing drinks for laid off Huffington Post reporters at a media party. I also sent a similar transaction to another reporter, whom I also don’t know. When reached for comment, Kosoff said, “Lyz Lenz is not my friend.”

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head”

I asked why he was reviewing my Venmo history and he said cryptically that it had been sent to him. Later, when I was on assignment for another story, he saw that I was having dinner with another journalist, and texted her wanting to know why she was meeting with me.

It’s a weird game of insiderism, where Goldberg routinely pushes professional and personal boundaries. It might not matter at all, except that Goldberg has big plans for his empire.

He made sure, for instance, that the world knew that when Gizmodo Media Group recently went up for sale, news stories reported that BDG was bidding on the company. Yet, employees familiar with the sales process questioned whether BDG was a serious contender. Asked to resolve the dispute, Goldberg declined to provide supporting documents but instead asked a CJR reporter to a meet a BDG PR person in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, she was shown evidence on a BDG laptop, which didn’t actually resolve the question one way or the other. Says one source close to the GMG sales process, “He’s desperate to position himself as a significant media player, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

A private equity group, Great Hill Partners, bought GMG for an undisclosed sum. Univision declined to publicly comment on the sale.

While Goldberg has grown more media savvy since the New Yorker profile—Businessweek is a case in point—his base instincts haven’t changed. He shouts. He spins. He just does it all on background now. The allure that comes off so fetchingly in a business profile is a lot less alluring when it comes to his treatment of employees. The personal volatility isn’t charming, it’s a liability. But it’s a lesson media, and America, never seems to learn until it’s too late. And we aren’t learning it.Goldberg’s attempts to buy up legitimacy are working. Press coverage now skews towards forgetting, too willing to give credit to Goldberg for an empire built almost entirely on the backs of women. Recent articles from AdWeek and the Hollywood Reporter crown Goldberg the hero conqueror, rather than the problematic colonizer.

If BDG continues to buy up media properties, Goldberg will own a significant portion of the internet, leaving writers and editors with nowhere else to go. But in an industry facing shrinking budgets and mass layoffs and political attacks, is Goldberg’s model any worse than any other option out there for writers? Those who work with him say “no.” But it’s a nihilistic vision of an industry struggling to survive.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.