Two years ago, Joshua Topolsky “set out to fix digital media,” as the Wall Street Journal put it. With $5 million in funding from a handful of venture capital firms, including RRE Ventures, Advancit Capital, Boat Rocker Ventures and Nextview Ventures, the media veteran – who co-founded technology news site The Verge, served as editor-in-chief of Engadget, and is one of the creators of Vox Media – launched The Outline.
The New York-based digital media company has made its name as a digitally-native source for news that is focused on “power, culture and the future.” But now the fast-growing publication, with its most recent valuation of $21.15 million, is becoming known as something else: the enemy of freelance writers.
The Outline, which earns revenue by way of branded partnerships in lieu of traditional banner ads, has been in the midst of some site-wide changes. On the heels of completing a $5 million round of funding in May, news broke that the publication was cleaning house. Early this summer, some editorial staffers were cut from the masthead. This week, others were shown the door. On their way out were front-end developers, an executive assistant, a revenue associate, and the site’s only remaining full-time writers.
The layoffs are – according to news reports – part of a larger move, which will see the site rely almost exclusively on freelance writing talent, despite a dwindling budget for freelance writers, per the Observer. And those same layoffs have found The Outline a foe in a slew of freelance writers. One hundred and fifteen members of Study Hall, the Brooklyn-based collective of writers, journalists, and content producers, have joined together to vow that they “will no longer write for The Outline” until “significant changes” are made at the company.
According to a statement published by Study Hall on Wednesday, The Outline’s actions "devalue writers’ work and treat our ability to survive as externalities" and its decision to rely on freelance writers only – individuals who are not considered employees of the company, and therefore, are not subject to employer-provided health insurance, a 401K plan and other benefits – is part of a larger, “troubling trend.”
“When venture capitalists, which media companies increasingly rely on to survive, demand profit, it is staff writers and freelancers who pay the price," the statement reads. Yet, the Study Hall writers claim that “there would be no Outline (or any publication) without the labor of the editorial staff who shape it, and it’s disheartening to see management dismiss/toss aside their employees so blatantly.”
This issue is not unique to The Outline, though. The statement continues on to note, “Numerous media organizations have recently displayed a dismaying level of disregard for their writers. Yes, media is a volatile industry, and layoffs are a fact of life.” However … “the emergent, vampiric practice of venture capital and hedge funds laying waste to journalism because they believe writers and editors have no power to resist must end.”
“If this industry wants its content to come from freelancers, it cannot expect us to roll over to their abuses,” the statement proclaims.
Study Hall has since been joined by 70-plus members of the Binders, a writing community for women and gender nonconforming writers, who have released a statement of their own, "pledging to not write for The Outline until significant changes are made to the company," in an effort to "build collective power alongside Study Hall." According to the Binders' release, "We echo their same outrage and as workers, stand with Study Hall community member."
On The Outline’s site on Thursday were two new articles. Both were penned by freelance writers, before the announcement of the strike, that is.