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In 2007 I was looking for something else to do. The year previous I had worked very hard on a website focusing on independent music with some friends, but after nine months I couldn't call the other writers and editors friends any longer, and the breakneck pace with which we saddled ourselves (at least three record reviews, five times a week, and more features) in our spare time had left me physically and mentally exhausted. After some time recovering, I began to get restless. My girlfriend at the time suggested I look into the Austinist, and as that website in particular was marked by music editor Paige Maguire's genius for design and a devotion to Austin music (and music in general) coupled with an insane work ethic, well, I felt like I had to convince her to take me on.  It took nudging, but soon enough myself and a new crop of writers (including Nick Courtright, future interviews editor) were invited into the fold. These were the best years.

Allen Chen was editor, Paige music editor, and the site bristled with wise-cracking commentary, expansive columns, and the staff were on their game in ways that I feel leaked out of the Austinist and into the community.  The word "family" will get thrown around at this point, which is only fair. The way Chen and Maguire encouraged and brought us into their homes and lives speaks to more than just a writing outlet; it was a way to integrate like-minded writers and photographers and multi-faceted, driven people into our orbit. To say I've met hundreds of people as a result of joining the staff is more than accurate, but having just met the few with whom I became close would have been enough. 

But of course, things change. Allen moved to Dallas, and Paige inherited editorial responsibilities that now encompassed something bigger than just Austin.  Gothamist, our parent publication, began to exert stories across the network onto the Austinist, which meant a great deal of the website was now subsumed into stories from LA and New York. We were asked to reply in turn with our own national stories, which flew in the face of what we had been striving toward. One of the pieces on which I worked the hardest and felt the most proud of said little to a nationwide audience, I'm guessing. But that wasn't our intention, and when the focus of the site bent to Gothamist's will, I believe we began to leave our Austin audience in the cold.

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After working with Paige as co-editor for a few months, we had the difficult discussion I knew was coming - she was leaving her position behind. I took over grudgingly, knowing we had lost a champion.  But there were stories to write, and new staff members, and I had to continue on.  At this point the -ist network was fully ingrained in my day-to-day, and I swapped messages with the other editors in Chicago, LA, D.C., etc.. But I began to notice a schism. Austin was the only -ist with no paid staff (just a stipend), but more and more we were expected to deliver like the others. Let me be clear on this point - no one at the Austinist during my tenure had been anything close to a full-time employee or even a contract worker. People tend to forget this. We were often critiqued like a news organization, as in one with a paid staff, office, and resources. We had none of those things, but we did have the desire to do good work. At this point I did ask Gothamist to bring me on full time to get us off this treadmill, thinking an influx of work would push us over our click goals, thus increasing revenue to the site, thus allowing us the space to allow others to take us seriously. My request was denied.

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Our friction with the powers that be came to a head during SXSW. Granted, we had a pretty good year up to that point. We were voted Best Local Blog by Austin Chronicle readers (see photo-op at left) and we broke stories that were controversial and, to use the dreaded word, even viral. But on the day of March's annual, worldwide invasion, Gothamist spewed out a list of things they wanted to see on the site - people wearing Google Glass, street fashion - though of course we had planned our own coverage for months and our writers and photographers were already assigned to other projects. In the end, we did get some shots of Grumpy Cat, who at this point had basically become my spirit animal. The "clicky" new desperation I experienced during SXSW finally sent me over the cliff. I resigned. As an insult to injury, Gothamist decided right thereafter to hire their first full-time staffer, someone completely outside of our organization.

My right-hand woman, Barbara Strickland, had been working with me for months up until this point, and while I believe she was as unhappy as I was, she decided to stick it out (a testament to her stubborn optimism and overall good nature). She was repaid, two weeks ago, by being fired.  Her access to our internal, site-building software was restricted, the digital equivalent of having security escort you and your brown box of desk things out of the building. Absolutely unnecessary, and altogether insulting. I couldn't believe it, in spite of what I had already seen.

So. We began with a community blog, a vetted staff united by not just desire, but a work ethic to match. The site now has an editor-in-chief who has met none of us and who didn't have the experience of growing up within the site - and with it all of the teasing and constructive criticism and event-planning and attending that used to define us. He's missing out, but more than anything else, the site on which we worked so hard and built so doggedly is a shadow of its old self. It's clickbait. And that hurts to see.

Final thoughts: some time ago (when I was still with the Austinist) I read an interview with -ist publisher Jake Dobkin that resonated with me. He said, in part: 

There are other sites whose goal is to just get as much traffic and make as much money as possible, and I don’t think that is congruent with being happy, or being wise. Wisdom is something i really care about. Making a really high-quality product — odds are it’s not going to make you rich, because in our country, we tend to reward materialism with wealth, and celebrity with wealth, and that’s just a fact. So if you want wealth, I can see why you might want to publish that. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not that interested in wealth, at that level. I don’t need that much to be happy. To compete with Nick Denton or Arianna Huffington would mean embracing those values, and I don’t want to. And so everything I do, including what I read, is shaped by that.
The Austinist is no longer a hub for writers and photographers, and it is no longer even a tangential family (don't let the staff page fool you, most have resigned since Barbara's outing). Furthermore, today's output is so far from what we aspired to - I wouldn't call it "wisdom" so much as "quality" - that I can't even begin to square Dobkin's above comment with what New York ultimately decided to do with our site (and theirs). If wisdom is what they're after, throwing a dedicated staff under the bus in favor of typo-laden, Reddit-quotation posts is a strange way to go about it. 

What we once were is not what you see on Austinist today, though I do hope that the camaraderie and inspiration that powered the best of the Austinist years will come to fruition again in another project. A project, this time, that we'll own.
 


Comments

06/11/2013 08:41

Thanks for writing this. Insightful. As a local podcaster - I kinda wondered about the "behind the scenes" of the austinist and the like.

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mike agresta
06/11/2013 09:30

Nice piece, Adam. Despite my limited contributions, I always felt super welcomed by Austinist people in the Chen/Maguire days, and the listserv helped me get started as a freelancer. I hope there is a next chapter outside the auspices of IST as you imply might happen. Austin's full of great writers who'd happily write for free so long as they have the feeling they're part of a community that values them.

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Clifford E Allen
06/11/2013 09:50

Thanks, Adam. I remember fondly the years when Austinist was a scrappy local go-to.

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06/11/2013 10:34

A former Phillyist editor here, to say you all did a awesome job, and I can relate...

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06/11/2013 11:21

I'd noticed the change (for the worse) and wondered what was up. It's a story with all too familiar themes to many of us, I'm sure. Very unfortunate, but it also forces us to move on and do greater things (even it is takes some time to get there). Thanks for sharing and best of luck to you and the others.

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06/11/2013 14:03

The news about Austinist made me very sad. Personally, I've enjoyed reading it for years. Professionally, it helped keep Slackerwood on our toes -- Austinist has always had stellar local film coverage. I'm so sorry to see some of my favorite writers currently without a home and hope to find them somewhere else soon.

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06/11/2013 14:07

I'll never support a site that is built on the backs on unpaid writers. Contributions from writers just starting out are one thing. A sustained existence built on that model is purely taking advantage.

Good for you for getting out.

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06/11/2013 14:31

Hey Adam,

We will definitely miss you at the Austinist, but we're eager/hopeful about your new project which you'll own and we'll support. Keep us post please!

Peace,
Michael

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06/11/2013 15:14

I got involved at Austinist thanks to Paige, who brought me into the fold in the wake of WOXY's demise. I needed something to keep me busy and I was able to finally translate my passion for movies into a steady outlet for film writing.

I will be forever grateful to Paige, Allen, Barbara, Caitlin and yourself for the support and for fostering a community amongst the writing team. Whatever happens with Austinist going forward, it is now completely soulless as far as I'm concerned.

I don't begrudge them the attempt at making money off the site, but the way they went about it is truly sad. Handing over the site to a guy who had been involved with it for about 2 seconds and then shitcanning the people who've been slaving away FOR FREE is deplorable.

If the coverage that has been up over the last week is indicative of where they want the site to go, I hope it disappears swiftly. It's sad to watch an endless parade of one paragraph posts with absolutely no substance flood the homepage.

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Amicitas
06/11/2013 18:17

Possible Swansong in progress. New venture? I'm in. Hugs to you.

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Eric
06/12/2013 08:51

I definitely noticed the drop in quality as well as word count. Also, the Disqus comments don't seem to work. Could that be some sort of related conspiracy?

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Matt Shiverdecker
06/12/2013 12:12

I noticed that today. I suspect that the comments have been disabled on purpose based on the high number of disgruntled former writers floating around. :-)

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06/12/2013 16:28

Fascinating post for me. Recently I wrote a short blog post myself asking if advertising is destroying the internet here http://bit.ly/17HXyRB . Outside of the over the top title I was looking at the way site owners need to increase page views is changing site architecture to make simple things like reading articles harder on users. I am guessing what happened behind the scenes here is the Austinite site owner is allowing their SEO consultant to make editorial decisions in order to chase keywords more efficiently, and they are doing that in closed meetings that leave the writers out of the loop. It's another part of the same problem I was looking at in my article. I was thinking about following my article up with one showing that ad buyers consistent undervaluing of web properties as compared to other media is another driver here, but the SEO angle is one that should not be overlooked.

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06/13/2013 08:29

Adam,

My sincerest appreciation for your candor. I'm humbled and thought filled even as I read this over and over again. I read and shared your article with the crew at our fledgeling blog the Austinot. We've only been around for just over a year. We recently held our first ever Austinot party last month at my home. Currently the "feel" at the Austinot is much like "the best years" as you described. We aren't corporate, we're just a bunch of locals who have gotten together to write about the Austin we love. We're not journalists or photographers we're just.. well.. us. We started out as just my wife (Brittany) and I. We have expanded just a tad and are expanding even more over the next month. As founder of the Austinot, I am bookmarking your article to always keep in mind the spirit with which you undertook this adventure, how it evolved and how you and others departed. I'm sorry to have seen this happen. Would love to invite you to coffee/lunch sometime if you are interested. Please email me at eric [@] austinot [dot] com if you are so inclined. I have much to learn myself about this journey and the pitfalls that go along with it. I would welcome your wisdom. Whatever road life takes you on, I hope that you'll enjoy it to the fullest and never cease striving for the realization of your dreams. Respectfully, Eric

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04/22/2014 18:57

The first time I came here, less than 10 seconds the display is perfectly open, and the loading is completed less than 20 seconds and to open the article only took about 7 seconds. So I think this is very fast! Incredible! Trying to maintain!

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