Worker-Owned Industry

businessman -> business, man.

by Pete Albertson

January 30, 2024

It feels like every couple of months or so another massive round of layoffs are announced at some major media publication. As I write this, the latest round comes from the LA Times, Pitchfork, Sports Illustrated, and others. Having never worked in the media industry, I’m not going to speak directly to the economics of that industry and what can or should be done to prevent future layoffs. But I can speak to a thought that’s been on my mind for some time now and has worked at least once so far: worker-owned media publications.

A few years ago, Deadspin, a sports-focused blog part of the formerly Gawker Media now G/O Media network, went through some very public drama between its staff and ownership. The staff of Deadspin, in protest of new editorial restrictions from their private equity owners, resigned en masse. Deadspin being a publication with a unique voice, its staff knew it couldn’t compromise that voice and allow profit-focused management to tell them what they can and cannot write. As this played out, I wondered to myself if they couldn’t just start their own thing? And then they did just that!

The new publication, Defector, is completely owned by the staff and as far as I know, has no outside investors. In fact, you can read their annual report for yourself and see how much money they’re making and where it’s going. I don’t know how G/O Media is doing these days, but Defector pulling in $3.75 million in subscriber revenue alone seems pretty damn good to me.

While the reason for Deadspin’s staff to leave and start their own thing differs significantly from what’s happening at the LA Times and elsewhere, I think the success of their endeavor is an important lesson for others. Writers with a strong voice and quality reporting have a decent chance of building an audience without the need for legacy institutions or deep-pocketed investors. I do sometimes wonder about subscription fatigue for consumers given the increased fragmentation of media, but that can’t be any more risky than sticking with a publication that can and will lay workers off at its earliest convenience.

Within the tech and startup space, I can see similar issues. A lot of software design and development talent has been hoovered up by large corporations who offer substantial compensation packages and flashy offices, but as we’ve seen in recent months are also susceptible to layoffs and the pressure to serve investor interests. Startups, while not always able to pay salaries quite as high, attract talent on the promise of returns on equity. In both cases, business decisions and worker experience are driven by investors be they public or private. Meanwhile an organization like Defector gets to focus entirely on the needs of their readers and themselves, nada más. I find that kind of arrangement highly attractive.

Watching Defector’s success has made me wonder if the same model can be applied to other industries where a healthy but less than a unicorn-sized business might thrive. It wouldn’t be easy, but neither is scaling a startup to unicorn status. Can we localize larger tech business models in sustainable ways? Can we raise the baseline work experience in exchange for a lower ceiling? How can we redefine the relationship between technology companies and scale to create more healthy businesses and minimize the extractive nature of tech? Perhaps you’re a business owner or fellow tech worker who’s had similar thoughts or finds the idea of a different kind of ownership structure interesting. If that’s you, I’d love for you to reach out and share your thoughts.