Reporting Critically on Tech
Jason Koebler, Samantha Cole
Paris Marx is joined by Jason Koebler and Samantha Cole to discuss why they launched 404 Media, how it was inspired by their work at Motherboard, and their reflections on the state of tech media.
Jason Koebler and Samantha Cole are co-founders of 404 Media. Jason was editor-in-chief of VICE’s Motherboard. Samantha was a senior editor at Motherboard and is the author of “How Sex Changed the Internet.” Find out more about 404 Media.
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Paris Marx: Jason, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Jason Koebler: Hey, thanks for having me, longtime fan. Very excited to be here.
PM: Thanks so much. And Sam, very excited to have you on the show as well.
Samantha Cole: Thank you so much. We’re very excited.
PM: Now I’m very excited to talk to you. You have this very exciting announcement that you made the other day, that you’re starting a new tech media venture, 404 Media, with you and two of your colleagues. So to start us off with the obvious topic, why did you start 404 Media? And what is the mission of this new media organization that you’re starting?
JK: So, we have worked in journalism and tech media for, I think about 10 years each, we’re all roughly around the same age. We all came from Motherboard, where we had incredible editorial freedom there. We’re very proud of what we did at Motherboard. But the broader Vice company, while it gave us a ton of editorial freedom, it didn’t give us very much financial freedom. And by that, it’s not like: Oh, we didn’t make enough money; we didn’t get rich at Motherboard. It’s more that we didn’t have the ability to make hires when we believed we should. Our team size and sort of the investment in our team was subject to the whims of the broader company, which is a very complicated and huge company. Even when we were very successful, which we were a lot of the time, our team would get smaller and smaller.
So that was hard to deal with over time. But then there’s also a lot of things, like we were doing a lot of reporting that was being turned into documentary films, and things like that. That was always a very wonderful process to take part in. But it’s not something where we benefited from it, financially, and I’m not even talking about us as individuals. But if Motherboard reporting was turned into a bigger documentary, those resources didn’t come back to the team. And so after a while, things like that, and lots of other stuff, started to become frustrating. And I ran this team, so I started to feel very frustrated in terms of being stuck in middle-management, for lack of a better term. Vice has a very strong union. I agreed with a lot of the things that the union was saying. I was management, but I didn’t have the ability to affect change, more or less.
And so that’s sort of the logistical reason of why we started this —it’s to have more control over, not just the daily output of what we’re doing, but also the business side of things. We can decide what we want to spend money on. If it does not work, it is our fault, or it’s the economy’s fault. I don’t know, but it’s our fault nominally. And so I think it’s just that we’ve seen sites like Defector; we’ve seen sites like Hellgate. The idea of quite literally seizing the means and becoming the company, were very appealing to us. So that’s the ideological reason for starting it, at least mine. Sam, I think, is in a similar situation, but comes from a different perspective as being a big part of the union.
SC: I think we’re all pretty much aligned on what Jason said, as far as the frustrations that we were facing at Vice, but it’s just the state of media right now is really rough. It’s rough out there for a lot of people. And it was it was rough working at Vice, to be totally honest. Constantly facing the possibility of layoffs, watching your colleagues get laid off, people who were amazing at their jobs, and you knew that they were doing incredible work, just being told to pack it up and go. Because of, like Jason said, the whims of people who just are so out of touch with what’s actually happening and what the work is. So that was a big part of it for me. It was just kind of like: What am I going to do next? I was looking for a long time about what I want to do. Do I want to get into a different media outlet? Do I want to try to get hired somewhere else? That’s also really hard right now. Do I want to jus get a normal job doing copywriting or something? Or do something totally different?
I think we were all just in the same place of it feeling like we have more left in us, and we want to give this another shot. Like we want to try this in a slightly different way and see what happens. See what happens when we have the ability to call the shots. So, it’s more creative freedom. It’s definitely scary to leave a steady paycheck, to be honest, for who knows what? We don’t know what, still. So, that was kind of my reason. It was kind of a complicated mixture of things that just boil down to: I feel like I still have some left in me. I don’t want to give up yet, but what is that going to look like? I think it looks like this.
PM: I think that’s great! And there’s so many things that I want to drill down on a bit in what both of you said. I would certainly say thatdoing podcasts is pretty fun in my experience [laughs]. But Sam, just to pick up on the last thing that you were saying there, there must be some risk involved in this, as well. You are kind of going out on your own, the four of you, together to try to make this thing work. We’re in this environment where the media itself is in flux, it feels like —and we can talk about that a bit more — but how do you reflect on that risk of saying: Okay, we had these stable jobs at Vice. There were some problems with the conditions that we were under, and the expectations of management and stuff. But now we’re going to do our own thing. And now we’re at the whims of our readers and stuff like that, how are you reflecting on that?
SC: I’m still reflecting on it. I’m still processing. I think I had an idea of what it was going to feel like, once had happened, and then it was like: Monday was my last day, and then my email got shut off. And it’s like: Oh, my God, I actually quit my job. What have I done? And then the next day, we launch. Now all of a sudden, we’re getting taken away on this wave of excitement for launch. So, I mean, just jeflecting on that and processing. I think the biggest change for me is just, I’m not going to get laid off. That’s not going to happen. If I lose my job, it’s because we have massively fucked up. And so far, it’s only been three days, obviously, we don’t know what’s ahead. But it feels good to have that kind of power in our own hands and say: No one else is going to make the decisions for us whether or not we keep doing this.
We’re going to keep doing this because we want to keep doing this, and that’s the biggest change. My job was stable, but really, there’s not a stable job in journalism right now, to be totally honest. I think we will see in layoffs in the news every day. And, especially at Vice, so it just kind of felt like the ground was crumbling a little bit. We were losing access to a lot of really key products that we needed to do our jobs every day, while at the same time, executives were making six figure bonuses to do I don’t know what. So that was the biggest change, emotionally, I think. It’s the relief of: Oh, I’m not facing a layoff tomorrow.
JK: I think for me, it was just the idea of betting on ourselves, knowing that we’re doing really good work, that we have people who respect our work, which we’re very thankful for. And then just kind of making a decision like: This is going to be hard, but let’s try and let’s bet on ourselves. If it works, then we’re going to be in charge. And we had a lot of respect at Vice. There were not obstacles that were purposely put up by people to prevent Motherboard from doing good work. Motherboard did great work when I was in charge, and it’s going to continue to do good work. There’s actually a lot of support for Motherboard within Vice. But trying to get very basic things done there, is like trying to get the codes for a nuke launch or something. It’s like fifteen people have to just sign off on a basic hiring decision.
Motherboard hasn’t made a new hire in over three years. And that is really hard to abide as someone who’s nominally in charge of the site. And I had huge freedom there, but at the same time, I’m like: We should hire this person, it would be an entry level position; it would be great for any number of reasons. And there was just no way of making that happen. And now for me personally, and financially, it’s pretty scary. Like Sam said, where I got my last paycheck last week. It’s been less than a week since I got my last paycheck. And when I don’t get a paycheck, as lots of journalists have experienced. But I haven’t because I’ve been so lucky to have a job for the last 10 years, which I don’t take for granted. But I’m gonna be like: Uh, oh. No money game.
So, we’re starting this thing. We’re asking subscribers for support; we’ve been overwhelmed by the support. But at the same time, we’re not taking for granted that this is going to work. We have this hope and idea that it will work if we consistently do good work, and if we give people a reason to support our work. At the same time, we’re overwhelmed by all the attention, and the readers and the people have signed up in the first week, but we have a long way to go. What we’ve gotten so far is not going to pay any of our rent. And so we’re going to experiment, we’re going to try things. It’s also been three days, we didn’t expect to create a solvent company in three days. And so I would say very cautiously optimistic about it, but also a little terrified for sure.
PM: Absolutely. I’m sure you haven’t run your own media organization in the past. But you’ve both been tech journalists for quite a long time. You are a senior editor, Sam. And Jason, you were the former editor-in-chief, so that must also bring some skills and some knowledge of how this works to help you try to make this thing a success. Would you think that’s the case?
SC: For sure. I think just our combined experience has been, I don’t know, it’s like creating Voltron over here. We all have our specific skills, and we’re going to use them. We’re very used to working as a team, so it feels very natural. But I can’t imagine just jumping into this without any experience. But I think we take for granted how much experience we have sometimes.
JK: We had no idea how many people would subscribe on the first day, like that sort of thing. And so working in the very theoretical, we had no idea. But at Motherboard, we used to run Waypoint as well. I mean, really, the Waypoint team — which was the video game site at Vice — ran themselves, but they reported up through me. And so when they launched WaypointPlus, which was a subscriber-funded project, it’s like: I helped them spin that up, logistics wise. Then I saw how that launch went, and it went really well. But I also saw that the pain points for customers, things like that. And then also part of my job as EIC was pitching Motherboard to advertisers and stuff like that. And so I don’t know how to structure an ad deal, but I do know how to talk to an advertiser. Like: Here’s what we do, and here’s what we want to do. And different things that we could try to do.
We haven’t done any of that at 404, I think that we’re open to it, but we really want to be, primarily, reader-funded. But I think we’re very cognizant that this is a really hard business. And so we’re going to try different things, while still always putting the journalism first. I don’t think you’re gonna see chumboxes on our website, like Outbrain or Taboola, just crap links. But I think if some company wants to advertise with us, we’re going to take that meeting, and we’re going to talk to them. And we’re going to like, see if it makes sense. I feel, personally, like I’m equipped to have that conversation. Then the things that we haven’t known how to do, there’s a huge diaspora of Vice people who were in the commercial team, were on the audience team, SEO experts, designers. We had a former Vice designer, Aaron Shapiro, make our website for us, and he did a fantastic job. People have been so generous with their time and their labor. And we’re just very, very thankful. We’re three days into this thing, but there’s been no disasters yet, and people seem to like it. So that’s good.
SC: Knocking on my fake wood desk, like.
PM: Good launch. Hopefully it keeps up. We’ve talked a bit about 404, you’ve obviously been mentioning Motherboard. We’re very clear that your experience comes from there. You’ve both been working there for a long time, as well as the two other people on your team, Joseph and Emanuel. I want to talk a bit about Motherboard itself, because it feels to me like Motherboard occupied this really kind of unique niche within the tech media. Where it did take a much more critical perspective, toward tech and towardbthe industry than a lot of other publications were doing. I wonder how you both got involved with that, and whether that influenced your desire to work at a place like Motherboard or whether that affected your perspective on tech as well.
SC: I can go first with that one, just because I’ve been very nostalgic on several different interviews for, and Jason’s heard this a couple times and experienced it firsthand. I was dying to work at Motherboard for years before I worked at Motherboard. I was signed up for their newsletter where they would send little doodles in them of whatever they wanted for the week. I drew a doodle to try to get a job there and sent it to Derek Meade and Adrian. So I was like: Can I please work with you, please, please? And then I basically just freelanced until they legally had to give me a phone at my desk, and then they had to give me a paycheck. I was like: I know my rights, I want to a paycheck. But, I think that’s kind of where we’re all coming from is like we were huge fanboys of Motherboard before we worked at Motherboard just because of the legacy that the brand had and still has, and I think they’re still going to keep it going, as such.
If anyone’s going to overcome some of the challenges they’re facing, it’s going to be that team. We’re all super rooting for each other. So, Motherboard was always technology for humans, the underlying ethos there. We were writing about people, we’re not writing about computers, or robots. These are humans behind these things, and we want to talk to them. And I think that’s something we’re going to continue doing at 404, but it was definitely inspired by all of that work and that DIY-punk kind of mindset of like: We’re gonna fuck up the Internet, today. We’re going to log on and see what powers that be, that we can ruin.
JK: Crawl into weird spaces. I had been there for 10 years and I found it, honestly, through one of my friends who was not a journalist but loved Vice and loved Motherboard. He was studying nuclear fission at Carnegie Mellon. And he showed up at Vice and knocked on the door and was like: Hey, can I work here? And they were like: Sure thing. That was 2009 or something. He wasn’t a writer. He didn’t do anything there. But he was one of my close friends from childhood, and he knew I was a tech journalist and was like: Hey, you should read this site and apply to work there. And one day, I saw that one of their editors had gotten a job at Gizmodo, so I thought: Hey, maybe, they need people to write things for them.
So, I emailed Derek Meade, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, and I was like: Hey, I work at U.S. News and World Report. I cannot possibly think of a stuffier publication than U.S. News and World Report, but that’s where I was working. And I was writing a lot about piracy and drones in the United States, and those are like kind of Motherboard-y topics. It was surveillance type stuff, and to be totally honest, U.S. News and World Report was a right-leaning publication, or center right, whose entire strategy at the time was like: Can we get on the Drudge Report? I had an editor who was obsessed with this. But Drudge has this weird soft spot, or did at the time, for future type stuff, like robots and, even at the time, AI. So I kept writing articles, I would see a scientific study and write it up. It wasn’t right leaning, I’ve never been right leaning, but he would pick it up and then to do massive traffic or whatever. But just because it got on this page that really clicked. That has nothing to do with why I worked at Motherboard. But that’s why I started covering those topics in the first place.
That led me to write articles about Kopimism, which was this piracy religion that still exists. But I wrote that, and that went very viral on Reddit. And I feel like I got sort of sucked into these communities on the internet that ended up being pretty Motherboard-y. So anyways, Derek was like: Yes, you can write for me, pitch me a story. So I pitched him a story. And then the next day, he’s like: Here’s CMS access, which is crazy. CMS access is the back-end that allows you to publish articles on the website. And to give that to a freelancer who had written one article is like, I could have deleted Vice’s website, that’s the fear of giving those things. Or I could have published something libelous, or crazy. I never did that for obvious reasons, but it’s just that that would never happen today, like at any publication. I don’t know from there, I just like started writing and writing.
I was really inspired by Motherboard, and the people who worked there. I think the thing that was so inspiring about them is that they did not use or like technology. They weren’t gadget freaks. This was during an age where there were lots of gadget freaks. A lot of the tech blogs were covering: Here’s the new iPhone; Here’s the new iOS update; and oh, my god, the camera has one extra megapixel this year. They wouldn’t even cover the iPhone launch, and if they did, it would be like: Now the iPhone is encrypted, here’s what it means for your privacy, that sort of thing. So Motherboard has always cared about how humans impact technology and how technology impacts humans. Especially, marginalized communities, and that was very inspiring from day one. I was really just proud of that mission. I think that’s why Motherboard always, and will, continue to keep its focus, is because it’s always put that at the center of what it does.
PM: I think that makes a lot of sense. A lot of listeners of the podcast will be familiar with Motherboard and the work that you were doing there because it was such a bright spot within tech media, for people who do want a more critical perspective on the industry and technology and whatnot. It was always a place to go to for that kind of reporting, and that a perspective that you might not get as much of, or any of, if you’re visiting other tech-focused publications. I wonder, having that experience at Motherboard, which has this very distinct perspective on technology in the tech industry. How does that make you reflect on the broader tech media and how it approaches tech in the tech industry, and these billionaires and stuff like that?
SC: Maybe this is totally egotistical, but I think what I liked about Motherboard before I was even hired — and what they were doing before I was there, and then what we kept doing while I was there — was influential on the rest of the tech media. Here was a bunch of as close to Luddites as you could get doing tech journalism. And that’s what people resonate with, and that’s what people want to hear. At a time when it was, like Jason said, a lot of gadget blogging. A lot of really cool smaller outlets doing similar, more critical, more cynical blogging. But the big successful ones were mostly writing glowing profiles of executives and things like that. So, it was a bit like: What’s going on? So I think the tech journalism landscape has has changed, and it has become more critical of those systems, and those companies that are ruling the world and running everything — that are mostly tech companies. And,I mean, it’s really cool to see that happen. Motherboard was a part of that, at least to kind of drive that forward. But as far as how it looks now, I mean, Jason’s probably got a more bird’s eye view of that, too.
JK: I mean, I do agree with Sam. I’m sorry, but I’m going to brag about Motherboard for a minute.
SC: Please do.
JK: I’m very, very proud of what Motherboard did while I was there. I know that I’m talking about it in past tense, I can only talk about it while I was there. I want to be very clear Motherboards still exists. The people there are fantastic. They’re doing great work — they’re going to continue to do great work. But I’m going to talk about a past tense from when I was running it. Sam was the first person in the world to write about deep fakes, to discover them, to write about them. That was on the cover of every newspaper soon after that. Louise Matsakis was the first person to write about the “Google memo,” which was the early culture war-type situation that we’re now seeing, not just in Silicon Valley, but across the entirety of our culture and politics, obviously. I mean, Joseph Cox has been incredible, incredible, leading the way on a variety of hacking topics. Same with Lorenzo when he was there, Lauren Gurley and Edward Ongweso Jr.
Some of the earliest and best reporting on the tech labor movement — which now every publication is covering — and Motherboard was one of the first to cover that. Right-to-repair is something that I found because I broke my MacBook, and was like: What the fuck? This is crazy that I can’t fix it. And I talked about Wiens. So I fixed it and was radicalized, and then I wrote one million articles about it. And now there’s laws passed and legislation passed, and every publication is writing about it. You can say that for a lot of other publications as well, that they pioneered a certain type of journalism or certain type of beat. But we were consistently able to do it, and I think the reason we were able to do it is because of the way we approached our reporting, which was: things have changed, as Sam said, but for a long time, tech blogs and tech news websites wrote the articles that the companies told them to, for lack of a better term.
It’s like they played an access game, where if Facebook was launching a new feature, they would go to Wired, or Gizmodo, or the Verge, or whoever. And I like all these publications; they all do good work, but I’m saying this is how it works. They go to a specific publication, they say: Hey, do you want the exclusive on this thing, you can talk to our executives. You have to publish it at this specific time. And then they do it. The way it works is if you piss those companies off, you don’t get those exclusives. Also, on top of that, even if you have a young reporter who wants to write a bunch of negative stories about a company. Let’s say there’s someone who’s been there for a long time, who has a really good relationship with the PR people at Apple or something. If you are a junior reporter, and you write something negative, maybe that senior report is like: Yo, you fucked up my relationship with this company. And so it’s not always so direct as Apple is mad at you. It might be that someone at your own publication is mad that you wrote something that their contact might interpret as being negative, and therefore that would make it harder for them to do their job.
That was just never a thing at Motherboard. We didn’t care. We did not care what Facebook was launching, did not care what Apple is launching, did not care about Google, or Tesla or Elon Musk, or whatever. We can get into what we did care about. But we never played that access game. We always cared more about how these products were impacting communities and workers and the people who were using them. And that’s where we got all our stories from by talking to people who are low — I mean, I use this not with any sort of morality or anything— but like entry-level workers, and blue collar workers at tech companies and stuff, who were saying: This surveillance program, Amazon just rolled out is really affecting us as a delivery driver. Here’s the document they sent us. And in that way you can get these exclusives about these big companies. But you don’t have to be handed them by Jeff Bezos.
PM: I’m sure Jeff Bezos is going to hand you a very different story than those entry level of blue-collar workers. I think that’s really fascinating because that’s one thing that — as we talk about the role that tech media plays and the perspective of it — the influence of access, I feel like, is something that’s getting more and more attention recently. Because if you write something negative about Apple, then your journalist won’t be invited to the big keynote or whatever. And it’s the same with the other companies. You’ll get cut off from that access to these executives, to these events, that are perceived as being important.
One of the key aspects of that coverage, say: Look at the new product; look at the new feature, this is what it’s going to mean for you. This is how it’s going to be so great that, as you say, your camera has one more megapixel or whatever. It does seem divorced from that broader consideration of what these technologies, and what these companies are actually doing in our broader society. So I wonder you were both at Motherboard for a while, what it was like to be working at this place that was doing this very critical journalism on these companies. That was not interested in access, but then seeing the broader tech media having this, in some cases on critical coverage, but then also seeing the evolution, I feel like, in a lot of those publications. Where they were starting to be more open to doing more critical work, even if that was still alongside some of these access pieces, or what I tend to call rewritten press releases and whatnot.
SC: I mean, seeing that, it feels good. But also, for a long time Motherboard was an underdog in the fight. That’s not the case anymore, Motherboard is one of the most respected tech journalism outlets there are. But for a while, we were punching way, way above our weight, and we knew it. So seeing the very highly resourced, highly “respected” tech magazines, getting the access and getting the scoops it was like: Okay, you need to fucking link to us. We need some credit. We’re out here grinding and you’re taking the credit for it. So, it’s kind of a double edged sword. It’s like: Okay, we’re kind of inventing the game in a lot of ways, and a lot of these beats — like show some respect.
JK: I’m really not trying to talk shit about our competitors. I respect what they do, they do a lot of good stories. And, like you said, they do a lot of critical stuff alongside some of the rewritten press releases. And I’m guilty of when I am getting a new phone, I want to know the features of the iPhone, so I’ll go read that somewhere. And I don’t like begrudge, it’s just not how we operated because we knew we couldn’t compete on that. But one thing that Motherboard did, and that has nothing to do with a specific strategy at Motherboard or anywhere else. It’s that we wrote about the things that people on our team cared about, and people’s interests change over time. I do not write about drones anymore because I don’t care about drones.
We never hired for like: This is going to be what you write about, and you have to write about it forever. It would be like: We’re hiring a writer, tell us what you care about. Tell us something we don’t know. And you have someone like Edward Ongweso Jr., come in and say: I just wrote a dissertation on Uber and its labor policies. And I’m tied into all these workers rights groups and things like that. And then you take that, and you take Edward, and then take his interest. And he says: This is actually happening at Instacart, too. This is actually happening at Amazon, also. And you ride these people’s interest to where they may lead, and that usually goes to really interesting places.
SC: I think the building of the team was always one of the strongest, if not the strongest, part of Motherboard. I wasn’t really a part of the hiring decisions, but when someone new came on, it was always like: Fuck, yeah. It was always some like anti-establishment goblin. It was great. It was fantastic. Yes, welcome to the family, you fit in immediately because you are not like trying to get this, and the glowing access type stuff that we don’t care about. We want to write what we care about and what we think is interesting. That was always a big strength, I feel.
PM: I obviously found out about Ed and his work from reading all of his fantastic thesis on Motherboard, and it’s great to see him continue what he’s been doing since then. Just as a final question on tech media, and then we’ll bring the conversation somewhere else. But there’s a lot of discussion lately, I guess, around how the tech media has covered people like Elon Musk, and these kind of large figures within the tech industry. So I guess, finally, belatedly maybe coming to the realization that the way that they covered them was probably not the best. I think of a piece by Casey Newton a couple of weeks ago, saying: Oh, it’s time to change how we cover Elon Musk. And it’s like: Only now, in 2023? What’s your reflection on how the media approaches these large figures, not just the tech publications, the Verge or whoever else, but also wider mainstream media as they have jumped in on this? Seeing this coverage of Elon Musk sends a tweet and all of a sudden, that’s a new story. What do you make of this approach to how they approach reporting on these important figures, and then also the effect that that has and how people think about them?
JK: I think that’s a really great question, and it’s kind of hard to say. For the reason that a lot of tech Silicon Valley VCs, etc. have turned on the woke mobs of the media, who are like: Well, they’re coming after us. They’re anti-tech. They’re anti-everything. I think that that happened because there was this very conscious decision — not like there was some evil meeting where everyone’s like: We got to change — but there was a tide shift where all these companies are doing workers abuses. And a lot of these big VCs are funding really scary things. And the guy who made Oculus is now making AI, drone, border stuff. And so, naturally, the coverage started getting more negative.
One thing that we talked about earlier, when you have played an access game for a really long time, it’s not that these people are necessarily your friends, but you have a friendly relationship of: Oh, like, I’m gonna give you a story. Let’s grab a drink next time you’re in Silicon Valley, blah, blah, blah. And then they’re best friends, and press start writing mean articles about them. And they’re blindsided by it, and they overreact. pmarca [Marc Andreessen on Twitter] has blocked almost every reporter, and is very mad at the press all the time. I think that if the coverage wasn’t more critical from the outset, this wouldn’t have come as such a shock to Silicon Valley, and there wouldn’t have been like: Oh, you guys hate us now. It would have been like: Oh, you’ve always covered us like you cover any other company, we need to either deal with you or figure out how we’re going to deal with you.
So quite literally, I think a lot of very powerful people are taking it personally. And that’s not a good position to be in because one, that opens you up to harassment, like we’ve seen Elon Musk tweet really mean things at specific reporters. And that’s not a fun situation to be in. It’s similar to trying to cover Trump or something, which I don’t proclaim to know how people should cover Trump. But it’s the same playbook where it’s like: Oh, let’s be fair to this guy. Like New York Times-y sort of middle of the road, like: We’re gonna write it a negative story and say, climate change is bad. But then we’re also going to go talk to a big oil executive or whatever.
So I think that right now, some tech publications — the biggest mainstream ones, I would say, the big generalist publications that have tech reporters — are still kind of going through this process where they’re not sure how to cover someone like Elon Musk, because he’s clearly important. But then he’s also like, full of shit most of the time. And then you end up with these middle of the road articles that say, like: Well, Elon says he’s going to Mars tomorrow. skeptics say he doesn’t have a rocket or whatever. It’s kind of like, you end up pissing everyone off, basically, is kind of my theory. But I don’t know, I don’t know what the solution is.
PM: Totally. We can’t tell the difference. Elon Musk says one thing and people who accurately assess the capabilities that are available right now say: Actually, that makes no sense. How can we know?
SC: Who could say?
PM: So I want to shift a bit because earlier you were talking about Vice. I feel like possibly one of the reasons that Motherboard had this more oppositional kind of energy to it was that it did exist under a Vice umbrella. And for a long time, I feel like people turned to Vice for a perspective on the world. And that included tech, Motherboard, that gave them a very different perspective and view on what was happening, than what they might get from other publications. But obviously, we know that for a while Vice was at the center where it got a lot of attention. It got a lot of business deals, but then in recent years, I think it’s fair to say things have been shifting. And, as you’ve been describing, the company has been having some difficulties, and that has also affected the staff and the people who work there. So I wonder what your reflections are on Vice and how it has evolved and and kind of what is going on there right now?
JK: I want to hear what Sam thinks here. But I had, not a front row seat to this, but like a fifth row seat, second row. Pretty close, I’ve seen a lot there and the first thing I want to say is the journalists who work at Vice are fantastic. They are simply the best. They care about the right things. They’re tenacious, they’re fearless, they’re fantastic. I don’t have a bad word to say about any of the journalists there. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of bad things to say about any specific executives or people there either. I do think that Vice was, and still is, an important voice out there. I’m glad it existed and it gave us the space to do what we did, and I think it’s going to continue to do that. The thing that was always clear to me, but also hindsight is 20-20 type things, and I also couldn’t have stopped it was when Vice filed for bankruptcy, they have to file a narrative of how this happened. It was a 100 page document that explained like, how did we get here?
PM: And tell us, just for listeners, about when would these documents have come out?
JK: So that was in May, when Vice filed for bankruptcy in May. I live in Los Angeles now, and Vice’s headquarters is in Williamsburg. I was going to New York to visit people, meet with my team and stuff, and I walked into the building and the bankruptcy dropped, like the moment I got there. So I was like: Okay, going to be an interesting day. In any case, the narrative of this bankruptcy and how it happened, it’s a tech story, I think. It’s one of venture capital and private equity and a company increasing loans and funding at really high valuations, that may have made sense in one economic climate. They probably never made sense, but they weren’t uncommon for what was going on at the time. And sort of slowly losing control of the company because they kept having to take on more and more investment to make ends meet. Then eventually you look up and you owe all of these VCs, and private equity firms, and Disney, A&E, The History Channel.
All these big companies, you owe them a lot of money at really high interest rates. And they’re like: Give us our money back and do these layoffs, change your strategy. There’s sort of this influence coming from a level that is not even in the building, I don’t even know if it’s in the boardroom,. It’s probably above the boardroom where Disney is like: Where the fuck is my money. Mickey Mouse shows up and is like: I want my money back. And then we’re like: We don’t have the money. And then so you go borrow more money to give money back to Mickey Mouse. Then to get that money, you have to go to like a payday loans place. So you’re getting it at a higher interest rate. Then the terms of that are like: If you don’t pay us our money back, we’re seizing control of the company.
So that’s what happened. We sort of saw this happening in slow motion over time. Where if I took $500 million to launch a TV network, the TV network did a lot of good stuff, but TV not super popular these days, as many people know. And so then it’s like: Well, let’s try something else. And then you need funding to sort of like start that, and then you owe other people money. I think the latest numbers I saw was Vice brought in like $700 million in revenue in 2022, so last year, and that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of revenue coming in. And yet, it’s still lost a ton of money. And the reason I lost so much money is because it was paying all this interest, it’s paying all these office loans in like 50 countries.
It’s just a complicated and a big company. It’s a shame, it’s a tragedy. And it’s really sad because there’s so much good work that has happened there, and it’s none of the journalists fault. And to a large extent, it’s not even the fault of these executives who have been making a lot of money. It’s the fault of like, a million decisions over the course over 20 years that eventually came due. And it’s like: Fuck you, give us our money back. We can’t, okay, we’re bankrupt. Okay, don’t know what to do now. That’s my perspective on it. And that’s all public in this very long document that was interesting to me, as an employee, but probably not that interesting to the masses.
PM: I think what you’re describing there with a company that is doing good work, that has some sort of a business model, as you say, brought in $700 billion in revenue. But because of just the way that the financing worked, and because of the business deals, and because of involvement with private equity, and all this stuff, it just doesn’t work out, because the amount of money you’re expected to make in this sort of a business environment just does not line up with the realities of how the business works. I feel like we’ve seen a number of companies be absorbed by, or kind of die, because of those conditions, even though they might have actually had a working business model. I think some retailers who have gone under in recent years, not because they didn’t make money, just because the deals they made made no sense. But Sam, I’ll pass it to you for your thoughts.
SC: I have a different perspective on it, but it’s not a disagreeing perspective it’s the other side of the coin. Jason and Emanuel, were very good at shielding the people doing the writing and the reporting from the craziness of the finances. They were looking at things that we never saw because they didn’t want that to affect the work. And it probably would have affected that work. It would have freaked people out and made us more careful and try to be safe and things like that. It’s very hard when you’re worried about your company folding and where’s the money coming from? It’s like: Mom and dad don’t want you to know, everything is fine — was kind of the vibe. And I think that was really good, that was exactly the right call. So my perspective is more from being in the union — being on the Labor Committee, the leadership committee on the union — for about a year or so be a little less, and then in the Union the whole time.
That was hard work, and also the most fulfilling work, probably the work that kept me going some days. Having people to — not just like commiserate with because that’s always there’s no shortage of that in journalism — but people to say: Okay, can we change something, even just something small within this company? Can we get like, a bike rack on the roof, so people can not get their bike stolen? Which happened. It’s very minor wins kind of keep you going a lot of the times at these places. And it was also it was the really big ones, like the contract that they won in — I’m going to fuck up the year and Emanuel is going to kill me — in like 2016, or 2017 was the contract that would have affected me when I first got hired. It changed my life, the raise that I got from the union contract, and the raise so many people got from that, lifted them up so that they could keep going in journalism.
It was a very direct thing that happened, and that the union did. So there was that side of it. Then also it exposes you to a lot of — I don’t want to say total indifference — but a lot of it was indifference coming from the company side of things .It was like: We want to help you, but we’re in HR; we’re the lawyers. We work for the company, and we’re going to negotiate and make this go the way that we want to go, and you’re going to have to fight us for it. And it was that kind of perspective towards the end. It was like: Okay, now that we see some of these huge bonuses, we see where the company is spending the money. We see it’s a very complicated company that is spending all kinds of money in all kinds of ways that aren’t the work. And we’re begging for severance payouts that people are contractually owed. And it’s like: What’s going on? Something is really gone off the rails. I mean, that’s work that the union is still doing. I helped start the GoFundMe that was for people whose severances were delayed. That was a huge response, people really love Vice’s journalists, I will say that. They wanted to see them get the money that they were owed.
So there was a huge response to the GoFundMe, and that’s reopened now, so people can go donate more to that. The money is still not coming through, and I think that’s public knowledge, but the stuff that’s going on at Vice is happening at a level, like Jason said, it’s above even the board’s control. We don’t know who to talk to in the union, it’s like the Wizard of Oz. We don’t know who’s behind the curtain anymore. Who’s responsible? You just want someone to shake, and it’s like that person, we don’t know where they are. The union still doing that work, and they’re still advocating for our colleagues, current and former, and that is really grinding, really hard work. But it’s so so important. For a lot of my tenure at Vice, that was my perspective, was from more of the bottom up, like: Who do we get on the phone to even just get us like a small win, would be really good. The contract had huge wins in it, but just the day to day stuff was felt really good. To be able to say: Hey, give us this, this minor thing, give us better internet, give us cell phones, like that kind of stuff, so.
PM: I think that makes a ton of sense, and to hear what that meant for the workers as this company is going through all that, I think is super important. Because our direct connection as people who are reading Motherboard, or reading Vice generally, was not the Shane Smith’s of the world, or these other big executives. But were the journalists who were doing the fantastic work that we were reading. The people like the both of you, or Joseph, or Emanuel, or Ed, or all these other folks who you’ve been talking about. Who are doing this great work, who we got to know, from seeing their stories on Motherboard. These are the people that we ultimately cared about, and felt a connection to and respected for the work that they were doing.
You’ve been talking about Vice there, but I want to expand that to the media more broadly because, as you mentioned, this is a difficult time for media in general. I feel like there was this moment where, “new media,” was expanding. This media that was online, it had all this attention, all this funding. And I feel like in the past couple of years, but especially in the past, six months to a year, there seems to be a real shaking out and, I don’t know, reassessment of all of that. Or kind of the new financial situation is finally bringing a lot of things to a head, that seemed to have been problems for a while. So what are your reflections on the state of the media right now as we see all these layoffs and we see these media companies experiencing so much difficulty?
JK: It’s really sad. I don’t really know what to say other than journalism is very important, and there’s so many talented people who have lost their jobs. There’s so many talented journalists who are on under employed or are freelancing and have to work on the side, and it’s bad. I can’t even begin to assess why it’s happening. I can, but it would take a very long time. But I think it’s this thing where a lot of them are ad supported, the ad supported model fell out the floor with Google and Facebook. But then also, we’re now seeing the ad market further erode because of higher interest rates. A lot of these companies were able to keep themselves afloat because of such low interest rates, and are able to borrow money to make ends meet and that’s not tenable anymore.
We are maybe going to get there, but I do want to talk about 404 Media and why we’re doing it this way. Because I think it’s very related. We’ve been talking a lot about Vice and Motherboard and the sins of Vice, and I could talk about it all day, I like it. But I think for us, we want to talk about Vice and Motherboard this week, because a lot of people care about it. But we definitely want to have our own identity, prove that this new thing is worth paying attention to, is worth reading, is worth subscribing to etc. And I think from a business perspective. We started looking at how many people were reading Motherboard every month and it’s millions and millions and millions of people. And that’s good for Vice, and we made what I would consider to be like good money there. Like I didn’t feel underpaid. I think that the Union did a very good job at making sure that our staff made good money.
I think everyone deserves more, but it was like, okay. And then you start being like: Okay, how many of these millions of people need to actually subscribe for me to be able to pay my rent. And then for us to be able to hire someone? And it’s not that many, it’s a few thousand, essentially, and then if you can get more than a few thousand, then you can start to hire other journalists and we can start to grow. We want to be very sustainable and very responsible, and not overextend ourselves, and not put us in a position where we hired someone, and then there’s not money for that person. And we have to lay them off. It’s like that is the reason why 404 Media is for people and not more. Because when you start adding people, the numbers start getting very scary in terms of how many subscribers you need in order to make ends meet.
All that said, Vice earned $700 million last year — we don’t need $700 million. We need not even one million dollars. And so if we can convert a small percentage of the people that we know care about this work into paying subscribers, and then supplement it with ads, or if we do really good work, sell that as a documentary or something like that. We suddenly are in total control of our company and we’re able to make an honest living. I think that’s what we want to do. We’re very confident about the journalism side of things because we’ve been doing it for a long time. We’re confident that people will read articles and be like: This is good shit. But what we’re figuring out is: Can we get enough people to give us $10 a month and have that, not only sustain us, but then be able to hire more talented people to do more great work and sort of make that into a small business.? And for me, that’s the fun of it. I always want to challenge myself and learn new skills and stuff.
So figuring out how accounting at a company works, and figuring out which costs are actually necessary, like that sort of thing has been really fun. And then the last thing on that point is, a lot of these companies — Vice extremely, but also included — is their overhead is astronomical. There’s all these offices in prime Williamsburg, prime Venice. These buildings are of worth millions and millions of dollars. They’re pretty much empty because people have been working remote for a long time. Vice paid all these consultants. There’s just all of this overhead that is not needed.
Vice has a custom CMS that is not good. They’re underpaid, certainly, but there’s programmers who have to keep that up, and so on and so forth. So we’re using Ghost, which is an open source CMS that is costing us $80 a month to have this site up. And that will scale if we get more subscribers, but it’s extremely reasonable, and off-the-shelf. It just works. And that’s just to say that the cost of actually spinning something up has come down to the point where we each put in $1,000, and we didn’t spend all of it. To do all of the things needed to just get a business and a website up off the ground. And that’s really cool. I know that there’s a lot of other people have done things like that, but I’m hopeful that this lower barrier to entry will make it so that you don’t have this built in crazy overhead costs needed just to publish blog on the internet, you know?
SC: It’s all part of what you just asked. It’s like what is going on in the landscape right now. What you’re seeing, the most exciting thing you’re seeing, is these independent media companies born out of frustration with the old way. I think we’re a big part of that, too. And we are following in the footsteps of a lot of these folks, we’re not doing the same exact thing as anyone out there and they’re not doing the same thing as us. But there is this need, and this hunger for something to work, people are rooting for these things to work. And that means they’re giving their money for these things to work. And that’s not a small thing. How many paywalls do I click by a day of giant media corporations and getting around them? But I’m paying for several independent media companies to stay up to date on what they’re doing.
I think people were really hungry for like optimism in this industry, for something to make it. And it’s that kind of direct accountability to people that the people doing the work want to hav again. We want to have a community of readers that we interact with more often. And we want to only be responsible for what they want to read. We’re gonna put out things that people tell us are important to them. It’s a very direct line in that way. And getting rid of a lot of that overhead, trimming all of that down to just: Let’s do some cool blogs. Like, put out some cool foyer reporting, show some cool documents that the government didn’t want you to see, I think is a huge part of that. I think that’s why we’re here basically, is the state of everything right now.
JK: Joseph is keeping us very honest. There’s been a few software things where it’s like: Do we really need to spend $60 on this thing that will enable us to record a podcast and do social videos and all this other stuff? And he’s like: I don’t know, man. And I’m like: We need it Joseph. I think we need it. Because despite everything I’ve said, I’m like: Oh, like, maybe I should get a new computer. Then I’m like: Uhh, I’ll wait. I’ll wait to see if things work.
PM: Definitely understand that impulse. Everyone likes a new computer every now and then. But I think it’s great to hear what you’re saying. And when you talked about the overhead that these large companies like Vice has, just brought to mind. And obviously, we’re talking about a very different scale and whatnot. But when you think about Uber and Hubert Horan, the critic of Uber has written about this, how it presented itself as this more efficient model, but actually has this massive overhead, these expensive programmers. All these massive headquarters, whereass your little taxi operation has this fleet of vehicles that it manages, that it can insure together, it’s much more of an efficient operation than this massive conglomerate that’s trying to be globally relevant.
And so to have you describe what you’re doing at 404, and how it works, and how you’re hoping readers are going to support you, I think a good way to end off this conversation is really to ask about your focus. In the the essay that you wrote kind of introducing 404 to the world, you wrote about how you’re focused on ground-up reporting, and what that’s going to mean for the way that you approach these stories that you’re doing. So can you talk to us a bit about that approach that you’re taking to journalism, and the kinds of topics that you want to be digging into?
JK: I think that this is something that we’ve each mastered over the last few years, and it’s ever-shifting, But it’s really about embedding in communities that we find either on the internet or in real life that we feel are important, and that have something to say, and then staying there. This is just to say: We don’t want to parachute into a world write about it once and then disappear. I think that’s how you tell a story that is both inaccurate and upset the community that you’re writing about. It’s similar to travel journalism, where you don’t want to parachute into a country, spend three days there, and then write a huge essay about all of the problems with Cambodia or whatever. That used to be a type of journalism that was very common, and has fallen out of style, though it still exists. So we want to be that but for the internet. I will let Sam talk about what she covers. I think it’s a perfect example with porn and sex work in AI and that that sort of thing. So maybe Sam, talk about your approach to reporting.
SC: I can use the stories that we’ve been publishing this week as an example. So this week, Emanuel published on launch day a very in depth investigation into generative AI community, website, system — whatever you want to call it — that dives into not only how the stuff is made and how it works, but like what it means to people in the actual human adult industry? So you have these people tinkering with AI porn and making, basically, deep fakes of people in real life and celebrities and real people. And then you have actual adult performers saying: This is crazy scary. It’s not okay, my images were scraped from Reddit. I’m in a database now that I didn’t know about until you emailed me about it, that sort of thing.
Then after that, I published a story about how people are making really wild horror porn, basically. And a lot of it is very weird and twisted and disturbing, but some of it is actually very interesting and intriguing. And talking to sociologists and porn scholars, and actually talking to a pornographer who’s been in the game for 30 years, and who has seen all of these changes. Basically about what this means. We also are in the Discord where it’s happening, and we’re talking to the people who are making it. We’re saying: Hey, why are you doing this? Like, what about this is interesting to you? Have you thought about the implications of what you’re doing? And getting their perspectives on this. The embedding part of it happens in the communities where you’re like: I actually want to talk to the people making this. I’m not just gonna like do a drive-by on their weird AI porn hobby. I’m going to actually say: Hey, interesting pastime you got there. Tell me more about it. Why is it intriguing to you to make this? Are you ever a little worried about where this is going? And getting their answers, I think is really interesting.
It’s continuing on a legacy that we’ve been doing for a really long time. We were the first people to cover deep fakes, of course, and then we were among the first to actually treat, in a really more mainstream way, sites like Pornhub, as important as like Facebook, or Google. Treating it like a tech company, because it is a tech company. Treating the industry like the multibillion dollar revenue generating industry that it is and talking to the people who are actually facing the challenges within that not just the PR person at Pornhub who’s sending me cute graphs about what people are googling during the Super Bowl, which is what a lot of the reporting looked like before we started actually doing some different stuff. So, I think that’s an example of just what that’s going to look like into the future too.
JK: We’re not going to be just a porn site to be clear.
SC: No, we’re not. Unfortunately [laughs].
JK: Unfortunately. I can speak for myself: I have a lot of different interests and I love like going down rabbit holes, etc. But I think right-to-repair is a good one for me to talk about, I’ve been covering the right-to-repair movement for a really long time. It’s this idea that if you buy something, you should be able to fix it and companies should not be able to monopolize repair and prevent people. Like putting artificial blocks to people repairing the things that they bought. And this is a very popular idea among consumers. There was a bill in Massachusetts a few years ago about car right-to-repair and it passed something like 75% to 25%. Quite literally, when I say like ground-up reporting, it’s like I’m talking to repair people who are opening up iPhones and being like: There’s a defect in here. They’re looking at it under a microscope. I’m talking to those people.
You kind of like write about that issue, and then publish an article about it. And then consumers say: Oh, I didn’t know why my touchscreen suddenly stopped working. Turns out, I have this issue and when I took it to the Apple store, they said: My warranty was void, and it wasn’t a problem. And you start writing those stories over and over again. One of my first articles was about this thing called condensation death in AirPods Max, which are $550 over the ear headphones. And basically, it’s a mixture of sweat an humidity and condensation, where if you wear your AirPods Max for too long, water gets in them, and it kills the headphones. And this is something that if you go on Reddit, or the Apple forums or talk to repair people, they’re like: Yes, this is a huge problem. I have had seven pairs of AirPods Max every time I take it back to Apple, they’re like: There’s nothing wrong here.
You see enough of that, and you start writing about it. I was able to find a court case where Apple admits that this is a problem, but says that users should simply not wear their AirPods Max outside, they’re just like: People should know that they shouldn’t walk strenuously while wearing these headphones. It’s basically starting with this little rabbit hole where it’s like: Oh, here’s a post on Reddit with 200 comments and all these people saying that they have a problem, and talking to those people, figuring out what’s going on and then laddering up from there. That’s not to say that we find all our stories on Reddit and Discord or whatever, but it’s diving into these communities, figuring out what they care about or what they’re freaking out about, and then taking it seriously reporting out and publishing it. One thing we’ve definitely learned Is that if a niche community that we found is all talking about the same thing, at the same time, for an extended period of time, it’s probably a big fucking deal.
If they find it important enough to be spending their time posting about it or tweeting about it or talking about it or writing their senators about or whatever, it’s probably worth covering. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing it on hacking and cybersecurity, cybercrime, porn, AI. I’m going to be doing right-to-repair. I’m doing a ton of FOIA work, which I really love doing — just filing requests with state and local governments, you can find out a lot about surveillance companies that are trying to get contracts with a small local town. And when they try to get that contract, they’re going to send a 40 page PDF that’s like: Look at our all of our capabilities, we can monitor the entire internet all day, every day and alert you if anyone says anything about your town. It’s stuff like that, that we’re able to pretty consistently do, because we’ve figured out how these power structures work and how government works and how communities work. I don’t know, we’re excited to do it as much as we possibly can.
PM: And I’m excited to read it. I think that that’s a great way to end off our conversation to give people an idea of what 404 is going to do. If you’ve liked Motherboard before, you should definitely go check out 404 and consider supporting it. If you didn’t know that Motherboard before. Well, now you can go read that, and you can also go read 404 and check out the great work that’s happening there. I’m really excited to see what you’re going to be doing at 404. I wish you all the best of luck with it. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about it.
JK: Thank you so much. It’s 404media.co, not dot-com. We couldn’t afford the dot-com [all laugh]. The ‘m’ was like $100,000!
PM: Leave off the ‘m.’ I will put a link to it in the show notes so people can go check it out along with some of the recent stories that you’ve been doing since it launched that we mentioned in the episode. So, thanks again.
SC: Cool. Thank you.
JK: Thank you so much.