Media industry still butt; bar-tab Venmo still deficient
Plus a craft brewery walkout, 'How to Hide an Empire' + POULTRY CARAFE!
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Just weeks after completing its acquisition of HuffPost, BuzzFeed laid off 47 of its reporters and producers and closed its Canadian site entirely. It was a media bloodbath in a style that’s become all too common over the course of the past decade, made that much worse by the ham-fisted and incompetent manner by which it was apparently carried out:
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti promised the move would “fast-track [HuffPost’s] path to profitability,” which is probably not much solace for the talented journalists who are now out on their asses. As is the funeral rite of American digital media workers, an editor at HuffPost put up the bat signal for bar-tab Venmo to help off her laid-off colleagues. I wrote about this practice for Fingers after getting laid off from the local paper here in Charleston last summer:
Someone who knows the newly unemployed well—usually a former coworker—puts word out on social media that they’re passing the digital hat for their pals. They list their Venmo handle, and lo: from across the country, other journalists and sympathetic readers pony up the money they can and send it in via the app. The bagman/woman/person then distributes it to the ones who need it most, how they need it most: drinks. (Used to be, we’d go to a bar and do this in person, but the pandemic has taken so much from us, and the sad, electric ritual of media layoff drinks is not exempt.)
Of course unemployed people—journalists or otherwise—do not need drinks most. That was just me being glib. They need money for food and rent, and ideally another job. VinePair was kind enough to ask me to expand on this point last year, and so I did, speaking with a bunch of media workers who had contributed to or benefited from bar-tab Venmos in the past. They all told me pretty much the same thing: it’s a nice gesture that in no way solves the endemic problems facing media workers.
“It feels like you’re trying to help your fellow peers get back on their feet at a time when there’s complete instability in the industry, and no guarantee that you’re gonna find another staff job in journalism,” writer Maya Kosoff put it at the time. “Kind of in lieu of there being like a better safety net.”
Is a better safety net even possible? The Journalist Furlough Fund, a slush-fund GoFundMe that Paige Cornwell, a Seattle Times reporter, launched last year at the outset of the pandemic, would seem to be, but when I spoke with Cornwell, she was clear that it was just a Band-aid on a bullet hole. “This isn’t a way to make up for [a laid-off journalist’s] loss… It’s for keeping someone from the edge.”
Of course, safety nets are most vital for people whose livelihoods are yanked like a cartoon rug out from beneath their feet. But what if yankers like Peretti (or, you know, the numerous private equity firms that specialize in dismantling the free press for breathtaking profits) were simply never able to get their hands on the rug in the first place? The world-class reporters at HuffPost didn’t need HuffPost to publish their journalism; they just needed a salary and a CMS. What if they could provide those things for themselves?
As I noted in my piece for VinePair, media workers are starting to experiment with answering that question. There are promising green shoots in worker-led, worker-owned media, like Discourse, Defector, and The Brick House Cooperative, which is named after the proverbial sturdy dwelling that saved the Three Little Pigs from being shredded to bacon strips by the wolf at the door. These projects are funded by the workers that own them, so there’s no fabulously wealthy boss in a $5M Los Angeles mansion positioned to “fast-track” said workers out of a job in pursuit of profit. Imagine that!
I’m hopeful for all those projects, and I’m hopeful the mass layoff at HuffPost will lay the foundation for more to come. (Of course, above all, I’d rather those workers still had their jobs and health insurance in a pandemic, but hey, baby steps!) That shit takes time to build, and in the immediate aftermath of a layoff, all media workers really have to offer one another is solace on Twitter and beer money on Venmo, and neither is enough to keep the wolf at the door away for long. So we—I’m lumping myself in there, because as an independent media worker, I debate the longterm viability of this profession pretty much daily—had better get to work.
On the future of collective action in the craft beer industry
Speaking of worker organization in an industry rocked by corporate consolidation: last Saturday all six of the workers at Platform Beer Co.’s taproom in Columbus, Ohio (plus a seventh, who had just days before been promoted to middle-management) walked off the job, leaving behind a locked door, a dark bar, and a handwritten sign: “The entire Platform Columbus crew has quit. The taproom is closed until further notice. Thank you!”
The workers accused Platform, which was acquired in 2019 by Anheuser-Busch InBev, of unsafe working conditions and unfair pay practices. In particular, they complained about black mold in a walk-in cooler, and managers who bragged about “shattering… goals,” while bartenders “work[ed] seven or eight hours to walk away with $12 in tips.” And in walking out, they took a direct action to try to hold their bosses accountable for what they saw as an “unethical and unrealistic” power dynamic at the brewery.
For VinePair, I wrote a column on what this direct action meant for labor organizing in the craft beer industry, in the pandemic and beyond. Consider that in the past year we’ve seen brewery workers:
Come up one vote short on a hard-fought union drive at Surly Brewing Co.’s Beer Hall;
Quickly win union recognition at Fair State Brewing Cooperative;
Hasten the resignation of key executives at Boulevard Brewing Co. in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal;
and celebrate the one-year anniversary of their ratified union contract at Anchor Brewing Co.
In that context, the walkout in Columbus—which brought about the weeklong shutdown of all Platform’s locations, even as it put seven workers out of jobs—looks less like “an isolated incident featuring a handful of frustrated workers, or an important point plotted on the up-and-right trajectory of labor organization in the craft brewing industry.” Or at least, that’s the argument I unpacked in my column. Read it here.
The Fingers Mini Review: How To Hide An Empire
It’s very trendy these days to talk about how the United States is an ailing imperial power, burdened abroad by unwinnable conflicts of our own making; crippled at home by a sclerotic government run by grifters, perverts and racists; and fixated on the privatization of natural resource extraction and the socialization of its costs, often amongst the indigenous and non-white people we displaced to do it. (I should know: I do it often!)
But the fact of the matter is America has been doing this shit for a long time. To wit: How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr, a new-ish, history-ish tome filled with histories of the far-flung reaches of what the author calls “the greater United States”—The Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and so forth.
Across 300 or so very-readable pages, Immerwahr weaves together tales across two centuries of American conquest both on “the mainland” and abroad, starting with Daniel Boone and American colonists’ troubled/troubling 18th-century expansion westward, and carrying through to “Baselandia” and the “war of the points,” which are both terms he uses to describe the global physical and virtual networks by which America projects and protects its interests around the world today. (Immerwahr also addresses, to some extent, those interests, and who profits by them. (You will be shocked—SHOCKED, I say—to learn that rank-and-file American citizens typically do not!)
Along the way, he tracks major developments scientific (synthetic rubbers & fertilizers, satellite communications), militaristic (drones, CIA dark sites), and economic (Japan’s post-war devastation & dominance, the rise of global trade) in sensible, smart prose, indulging in occasional asides to animate subject matter that in other hands might wind up stodgy or downright impenetrable.
How to Hide an Empire is compelling, illuminating, and at times deeply funny. You’ll come away with a more substantive understanding for why, exactly, the American experiment is failing so spectacularly before our very eyes today. 7.9/10, Fingers recommends.
Poultry carafe? POULTRY CARAFE!
Some people say that America’s brand of insatiable capitalism and conspicuous consumerism has gone too far, but I ask you: how could an economic system be flawed if it’s able to produce… THIS?!
Bask in the elegant aura of the POULTRY CARAFE. It is truly a sight to behold, and Friends of Fingers, behold it you must. If you want to actually hold it, though, that’ll cost you about $860. To be fair, the craftsmanship is remarkable. Less fair: the chicken feet glasses are sold separately.
The bottom shelf
Check your promotions tab. I’ve recently heard from several Friends of Fingers (they know who they are) wondering why they haven’t been receiving dispatches from HQ. Upon further review, I’ve discovered that the issue is usually that they’re getting diverted to the Gmail “Promotions” tab. Egad! I wrote a note explaining how to (hopefully) remedy it.
Good Beer Hunting’s intrepid byliner Kate Bernot dropped a big piece last week about the Untappd app’s maybe-not-net positive effects on the craft beer industry, and another big piece (with co-author Holly Regan) tracking down brewery donations (or lack thereof) from the Black Is Beautiful collaboration beer from this past summer. You mean to tell me that that a digital review platform could potentially be flattening nuance, and that some businesses didn’t follow through on their philanthropic promises once people stopped paying attention?! No, no, none of this sounds right!
Congratulations to Diageo! The beverage behemoth is the presumably proud new owner of Far West Spirits, the company behind Ranch Water, a hard-seltzer take on the tequila-oriented West Texas beverage by the same name. Ranch water is actually sort of a Kleenex situation—it’s a brand name but also an emergent beverage category that spans both hard seltzer and RTD cocktails, as GBH’s Bernot explains in this other piece (my god can she be stopped?!) Say it with me: everything is… ranch water… now?
I survived a few rounds of layoffs at Federated Media a few years back and every round got worse and worse in how they announced and handled the situation. The final way was exactly how HuffPo did it yesterday. A lot of folks from FM ended up at HuffPo. The one who came up with that brilliant approach was clearly among them.
To any other company that has to lay people off: DON'T USE THIS APPROACH!!!! I had people at my desk crying, the office was a wreck. People avoided checking their email and managers had to go find them. It was awful and I can't imagine it was any better in the current climate where people, many of whom were probably alone at home, are sitting around waiting for the clock to strike 1. smh