The Toast Is Dead, Long Live Indie Publishing

After three years of confident monks, Ayn Rand’s fan fiction, and raw personal essays, The Toast announced recently that its submissions inbox will be shuttered for good on July 1.

In their announcement, co-founders Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe cited challenges looming for every digital publisher—namely, ad blockers and the cash flow issues they create—but with remarkable candor and clarity, they ultimately revealed that The Toast is closing because they simply don’t want to do it any more.

Like The Toast, Literally, Darling is turning three this year. Our time in this confounding wild west that is the internet has been a feat of strength. From the Turkish hackers who once took down our servers to the reality that each of us juggles the site with a full time commitment to school or work, pulling together a slate of articles each week, month after month, can be tough. And as Literally, Darling grows, our readership expands and matures, making it more challenging to present ideas that feel fresh.

This isn’t to bemoan the process—in fact, it’s the things that aren’t easy that help us grow. It’s just to say that from the perspective of a site of the same age, it’s hard not to view The Toast’s closing as a chilling reminder that internet publishing is an utterly risky venture. And more simply, it’s sad to see something good come to an end, because it makes you consider all the other things you love that also, someday, might not carry on.

Even though Ortberg and Cliffe state in no uncertain terms that ad blockers weren’t the only reason for the site’s closure, it’s worth explaining why ad blockers matter. For the uninitiated, enabling an ad blocker is the media equivalent of shutting a house plant in a closet. Unseen and untouched by light, the plant will wither and die, no matter how vibrant it once was. Similarly, if you use an ad blocker, you’re effectively shutting the door on advertisements that allow money to trickle into a site’s coffers. Advertisers won’t pay for ads that no one sees, and the withering of advertising revenue is a threat that merits just as much discussion at small sites like The Toast and mammoths like The New York Times.

The other, more surprising tidbit that emerged from The Toast’s announcement concerns moderating comments. Sites are increasingly moving away from open comment sections; The Toast’s comments are carefully moderated to preserve meaningful discussion that doesn’t malign the author or other commenters. (Cliffe often shames rude rejected comments on her Twitter feed.) Some sites, including Vice’s Motherboard, Bloomberg, and The Daily Beast have done away with comment sections altogether. Since its launch in August 2012, Medium has become a powerful publishing platform that has attracted high caliber sites like The Awl, but as a deeply social platform Medium does not give editors the option of moderating comments.

“Most of [the alternatives] would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever. Which we found unappealing!” Ortberg wrote, referring to the possibilities of new management or a Medium deal. The risk of allowing misogynistic commenters to accuse each other of literally being Hitler was simply not worth it.

But alongside these fairly predictable explanations, Ortberg and Cliffe also presented a justification that was as simple as it was novel: They simply did not want to run the site any more. By bluntly claiming the right to say that they simply don’t want to run the site any more—despite its editorial success and the strength of its community of readers and writers—Ortberg and Cliffe present their feelings as a legitimate bottom line. In a world that has historically disparaged women’s feelings as evidence of inferior mental capacity or hysteria, this is a remarkable, important statement.

Here at LD, we post a lot of quotes about the hustle. I suspect many of our readers are like us: Trying to find a way in the world while also preserving time and space to create things. But what all of us occasionally forget is that being busy and stretched thin should never be the only credentials we live by. The hustle has to serve some larger purpose, whether it’s setting you up for a next step or just involving things that bring your joy. The Toast is a gorgeous example of the way success doesn’t have to be dependent on permanence; we can measure ourselves by the community we find and the pleasure of making things, and finding that pace unsustainable does not undermine its worth.

The internet is an ephemeral space. Sites come and go, and the most outrageous article will be washed away as quickly as the most moving one. Although those shifting currents cause us to lose things constantly, their transient nature also frees us by continuously creating new opportunities to begin again. If we take anything from The Toast’s closing, it should be that we are charting our own courses. Listen to how you’re feeling every once in a while. Do the things you spend your time on make you happy and fulfilled? Or are they just becoming a burden? If the latter is true, move on. No other justification is needed.

Photo by JD Hancock

Michelle

Michelle

Michelle hails from Delgadia, which is wherever she happens to be at the moment. When she was six years old, her parents were too busy to read Harry Potter to her all day, so she started reading them herself and never looked back. Film, television, and literature all compete for her love and attention, but the truth is that any form of storytelling captivates her, particularly if that story is "The X Files." She is currently writing a thesis on broken families in postmodern literature. You can find her telling stories online, in print, and over the airwaves.
Michelle
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