Technically, Splinter wasn’t my homepage. In late January 2017, I changed my browser settings such that the home button took me to this page. The decision reflected the feckless, Resistance-brained attitude that I harbored for months into the current administration’s reign, until I realized that keeping track of every insidious piece of legislation passing through the halls of Congress, just like subscribing to and reading every story in the Washington Post, was a hopeless endeavor. If democracy dies, in whatever degree of luminescence, blame me.
Readers, I was beaten-down—like so many others, I still am—but I soon realized two things about staying informed in the Trump era: It was much easier when the prose was punchier, and when its authors didn’t pretend the badness had immaculately arisen the prior November and confined itself to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The problems were (and are) sweeping, endemic to America, to capitalism, to the Republican party and all but the most left-wing Democrats. These ideas existed elsewhere (see below), yet it became clear that a single place, launched from the ashes of the good website Gawker, was expressing them more accessibly, frequently, and hilariously than any other. And so, more and more, with a quick command-T keystroke to open a new tab, and a single “s” and “return,” I found myself on a site with a simple slogan: The Truth Hurts.
Last Thursday that site, Splinter, folded. Outside a select strain of media Twitter, the politics site’s shuttering a year before the next presidential election hardly seemed to register: The related WaPo article generated just three comments. Its death lays bare the realities of the media landscape in 2019: that a private equity firm can mismanage and ravage a profitable enterprise to fill its own pockets; that stories shaming the powerful get stifled by the same media channels the powerful control; that insanely talented writers are never not at risk of unemployment while private-label Darren Rovells make eight figures.
In its all-too-short lifetime, though, Splinter laid bare the realities and power structures of most everything else. Yes, its staff wrote about the president and his stupid tweets, because politics sites have to write about the president and his stupid tweets. But the writers and editors shifted their focus away from the parlor games that enrapture so many and onto the issues that affected the day-to-day wellbeing of the working class. Libby Watson covered the relative brokenness of the American healthcare system, and then turned around and slammed D.C. restaurants for lobbying to prevent their employees from being properly paid. Nick Martin and Paul Blest summarized the teacher strikes in North Carolina, and then Martin painstakingly detailed how things became so broken for labor (and pretty much everything else) in the state. Hamilton Nolan, a holdover from the Gawker era, churned out seemingly thrice-weekly blogs that made explicit the power of—and the need for—unions.
At its best, Splinter gave voices to the powerless in large numbers. It gave the underclasses an opportunity to expose working conditions at places like Home Depot and the MTA, but especially at the signature businesses of our time: Sweetgreen, Amazon, Postmates, Uber and Lyft. Much like twenty-first-century America, the best Splinter articles were exhausting torrents of inequality and despair. It’s no accident that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two Democratic presidential candidates who have made the most overt overtures to abolishing and reining in capitalism, respectively, were the only candidates to tweet their outrage over the site’s shuttering.
Unsurprisingly, given its origin story as the progeny of Gawker, Splinter cut through smarm in a manner few outlets could imagine. The site operated as an honest Upworthy, capable of destroying one’s faith in almost anything the modern economy had wrought. It’s fitting that one of its final stories, published on its last day of publication, lambasted one rich, famous person for defending—then criticizing, then defending her initial defense of—another. Punching up along the power gradient was an essential piece of Splinter’s DNA. As much as politicians and ghouls of finance disgusted the site’s writers, they seemed to save their strongest ire for the witting and unwitting enablers of the powerful: the Anderson Coopers, the Chris Cillizzas, the vast majority of the New York Times op-ed page. It’s always trite to say that something absent is needed “now more than ever,” but with the would-be interrogators becoming increasinglyingratiating, Splinter will be dearly missed.
There is no sober read of this reality that doesn’t end hopeless and bleak. Major media outlets lay off good writers on a seemingly weekly basis, and it’s becoming apparent that the cuts, consolidations, and closures aren’t a function of a failing business model for journalism: They are the business model. Cruelly, the people best equipped to make the public understand what venture capital is doing to modern media are those most at risk from what venture capital is doing to modern media.
The sole silver lining is that the shell game hasn’t yet reached its natural conclusion. As writers’ lives are upended by mindless corporate raiders, they have proved resilient, landing at other publications and making them better. Tom Scocca, former editor of both Gawker and Deadspin, now runs the politics desk at Slate; Martin and Watson both left Splinter earlier this year for The New Republic. Newer enterprises, be they websites like The Outline or genre-bending efforts like Chapo Trap House or Means TV, demonstrate the continued appetite for snarky excoriations of the democratic mainstream; standbys like Jacobin and Current Affairs still deliver the progressive goods, just at a slower rate. Sister sites under the G/O Media umbrella—most notably, the women’s issues-focused Jezebel and sports-centric Deadspin—perhaps come the closest to mimicking the late politics site’s acerbic tone, and they often explore the inevitable overlaps between their worlds and the economic and political scene. None of these sites has an explicit duty to fill Splinter’s shoes. But until an heir becomes apparent, they’re where I’ll take solace.
Still, the sad fact remains: Seven Splinter writers lost jobs last week, for no reason except to reduce a labor line item and to eventually fill the coffers of a few executives. They should be hired elsewhere, and quickly. The only explanation why they wouldn’t be is if the system is broken, if talent is ignored, truth undervalued, and inequity accepted. It’d be a helluva story, the juxtaposition of American greed with forever-dormant American values. If only there existed a place that might tell it.