Today's first bummer came in the form of news that The Toast, a three-year-old blog run by Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe, will be closing July 1. It's tempting to add another drop to the ocean of tearful, shame-spraying tirades bemoaning the current state of electronic media (you'll note I didn't say "think piece" or "hot take," two terms I've never actually heard in a newsroom, except in jest), because I genuinely love the Toast and (despite feeling lucky to have a job at all) I genuinely hate what web publishing has done to writing/ reading/ thinking.
Despite showing early promise in this department, it turns out the internet is not a very hospitable environment for intellectual absurdism, hilarious media/literary critique, and, generally, inspired feminist silliness. At least not as a business. But then again, neither is print (nor was it ever). Nor are radio, TV, the legitimate stage, broadsides, the oral tradition, or America, really. That doesn't mean upholding the tradition of being too clever for your own good doesn't matter. It matters all the more. It also means it can't be the only thing you do. Not for long, anyway.
On the "About" page, Ortberg and Cliffe wrote that the Toast is:
"a daily blog that publishes features on everything from literary characters that never were to female pickpockets of Gold Rush-era San Francisco. The Toast is one of those mass-market science fiction paperbacks some used bookstores put out on the street in big press-board rolling carts, the kind with drawings of women in long white robes standing in front of a horizon with two or three moons on the cover.
The Toast is a long email chain about force-ranking the Mitford sisters. The Toast prefers free weights to circuit machines but also enjoys a good sit. The Toast doesn’t care how much you or Marilyn Monroe weigh. The Toast is happy, then dignified. The Toast is not haunted, but would welcome a visit from ghosts."
They upheld these standards with care and skill, taking the baton from the actually-funny periods (or actually-funny parts) of humorous publications like McSweeney's, Might, Spy, the Realist, the early Onion, and certain eras of certain periodicals. I've struggled for half an hour to find a less-indelicate way to observe that most of the publications listed above were dominated by male voices (John Hodgman didn't mint the mock-title The Journal for Extra-Smart Boys without reason) while the Toast was not. Which obviously also matters a lot.
In addition to Ortberg and Cliffe's prodigious talents, the site was a repository of excellent freelance contributions from women writers—Molly Pohlig, Rebecca Shaw, Alexandra Scott, and Molly Priddy come to mind, but there are many others—who remain underrepresented in the ever-shrinking forest-glade-thicket-stand-clearing of actually-professional web journalism.
They published this. And this. And this. And this ("if you hit God’s mom you’re in trouble I don’t care how many popes you are.") And this. And this. Not to mention this. Plus this, of course. And who could forget THIS? (P.S. this.) And more.
They also published this little gem: "The Toast is committed to paying its freelance contributors."
Maybe New York is full of people who are as good as Ortberg and Cliffe at writing and editing, and who write and edit as frequently, and who have the additional talent to engage with the frequently hypothetical business of web publishing until the race (which is also somewhat hypothetical) is run and won. If so, I salute those people. Until I ever meet or hear of one, though, I will reserve my respect for those journalist types who are simply dancing as fast as they can, until the ability to reflexively refer to old TV movies loses its last few droplets of cultural value, and one of us is appointed designated mourner.
I suppose a particle of "current state of media" bemoanage did creep in there after all. Sorry. It's my Friday.
From Ortberg and Cliffe's post this morning:
NICOLE: I had to step back and look at how my responsibilities at The Toast had gradually drifted from writing and editing over to day-to-day administrative WORK and watching the money, and calling accountants and dealing with lawyers, etc. And to realize that I didn’t trust anyone to take over that chunk of my duties, nor could I pay someone to do it even if I DID trust them to do so responsibly, unless I started privately bankrolling the site on a regular basis, which Ayn Rand made clear is a mug’s game. I have bailed out the site on a couple of different occasions, but there is a big difference for me in one-off unexpected emergencies and part-subsidizing the site month-by-month, which was starting to be more of a reality.
MALLORY: And we looked at our different options – running a lot more ads/generating a ton more content that’s pegged to The Cycle of News, trying to sell (which, in order to do, we’d probably have to go back and do that first thing), hiring replacements who were willing to take on our pretty intense workloads (which, you still don’t take a salary! Where were we going to find that extra salary?), and none of them seemed very good. Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever. Which we found unappealing!
NICOLE: More and more it was clear that “Just close it” made the most sense. So then we told Nikki. And then we told Jaya and Marco. Which was hard, but we got to have a lot of good conversations around the future.
MALLORY: And now we are telling you, the beloved people!
NICOLE: Owls will always have faces, raccoons will always be trash-cats, monks will always draw horses badly. What am I going to do? I mean, I hesitate to say “step down to spend more time with my family,” like I got caught with an intern, but you know that my family obligations have gotten a little more complex over the last year or so, so it actually IS relevant. And I want to write more things as a freelancer (I’ve been having so much fun writing for The Guardian), and longer things, and read more books instead of just trawling my RSS feeds and Twitter.
MALLORY: I’m going to sleep for a month. I’m not going to write anything. Oh, my God, I cannot wait to not write something for a little bit. “So, what’s next for you?” “LESS.”
On reflection, the main thing I want to say to Ortberg and Cliffe is (as if they or anyone else would even CONSIDER reading this far): Congratulations and thank you—(1) for being so good and so funny and so silly and so smart (2) for so long, and (3) for having the nerve to stop, and (4) the sense to tell us not to try to talk you out of it.
I can't wait to read what you write next.