Currently, Mic is in the process of laying off a majority of its staff in preparation of a fire sale to Bustle Media. It’s a bummer; a lot of people were doing really cool things at Mic and layoffs universally suck.
But do you know who will not be searching for a new job right before the holidays? Mic’s CEO Chris Altchek and co-founder Jake Horowitz, both of whom Recode reports will “stay on after the acquisition.”
An easy criticism of Mic has always been its arguably cynical attempts to adopt progressive language and identity politics to attract an audience. This was never really fair to the staff at Mic; a number of whom did really important and groundbreaking work creating journalism from and about perspectives generally ignored by the traditional media industry.
Who did the criticism absolutely apply to? Altchek and Horowitz.
Adrianne Jefferies wrote a really terrific article on Mic back in 2017, finding “Horowitz and Altchek seemed to embrace the idea of being an activist website without really understanding the issues.” Some examples from Jefferies reporting:
In another instance, a former staffer told me about how Horowitz, who served as editor in chief of the site until mid-2015 and is now editor at large, once interrupted a reporter pitching a video about a woman building rooftop gardens in New Orleans: “‘But, is she black? Is she black?’” the former staffer recalled Horowitz asking, “as if the story would be less impactful had the woman doing the work been white or Hispanic or Martian.” When the site was pushing into original comedy, Altchek told multiple staffers that he wanted to make “the next Chappelle Show, except it’s hosted by a trans woman of color.” Multiple former employees brought up the time Altchek introduced a video about the feminist #FreeTheNipple movement at a large staff gathering with a joke implying that the video still would have been excellent even if it hadn’t included boobs: “Titties aside,” he said, it was a great piece.
According to Jefferie’s story, this behavior extended into the site’s actual content, sometimes undermining the actual journalism produced by Mic.
Altchek’s biggest misstep, however, was a get-out-the-vote effort called #69TheVote, which launched in late 2016. The conceit was that, while 69 million baby boomers and 69 million millennials are eligible to vote, only the former actually do so. “Boomers have always been on top,” the voiceover in the announcement video says. “Sometimes it seems like they’re afraid to try new positions. But we’re ready to go down on history” — a voice interrupts — “ahem, in history” — “oh right….”
“It was something that made the entire editorial staff sigh and put their head in their hands,” said one former staffer who covered social justice issues. “I remember one staffer who covered voting rights issues, who was like, ‘we are still writing today about the disenfranchisement of large swaths of Americans, and our site is making sex jokes about voting?’ To me, that just demonstrates the hypocrisy that was sort of layered throughout the organization. We were run by people who did not believe the things that their staffers were hired to write about and their staffers truly believed in.”
Mic’s frantic expansion matched with even more frantic attempts to support that expansion can undoubtedly be attributed to poor decisions by Horowitz and Altchek, but this struggle is not unique to them. The media industry is volatile and a lot of other companies have made the same mistakes. However, both men deserve special criticism for co-opting progressive values to suit their careers, often at the expense of their staff and the journalism said staff produced. And now that the VC money and publishing deals ran out, Horowitz and Altchek will be keeping their jobs, something that cannot be said for the people at Mic who were actually producing work that embodied the site’s identity.
When bad business decisions catch up to media outlets, it’s not the CEOs and c-suite that suffer. It’s the journalists who give these outlets value.