“Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural,” and “Ferguson, Missouri Looks Like A Rap Video”: So declared headlines on two consecutive days this past August from early adulthood-angst purveyor Thought Catalog, a Web site for and by millennials.
Both pieces racked up thousands of social media shares while being dissected and denounced by dozens of blogs and news outlets. But Thought Catalog, a powerhouse publisher that ranks among the 50 most visited Web sites in the United States, has disavowed any accountability for the pieces by claiming to be not quite a platform, not quite a publisher, but instead a “platisher” — an online publishing trend that blurs the lines between editorial product and free-for-all blogging site.
The “transphobia” piece, written by Vice co-founder and media provocateur Gavin McInnes, received enough backlash to cost McInnes his job at ad agency Rooster, which he co-founded. The day after that piece ran, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was becoming a national story, and Thought Catalog ran a take on the story by occasional contributor Anthony Rogers. When Gawker reported on the post, it used the headline: “Thought Catalog Is Now a White Supremacist Publication.”
The stories, Thought Catalog’s publisher and staff told The Washington Post, are the end products of an “anything goes” publishing policy, in which articles from outside contributors – like the authors of the two posts in question – are supposedly published without editorial oversight or judgment.
It’s a convenient argument to skirt responsibility, but not one that aligns with the site’s realities: Every story that Thought Catalog publishes from an outside contributor must go through an in-house producer who crafts and posts the stories online. Producers are trained only to screen for “illegal content and visual pornography.” In conversations with The Post, three employees at Thought Catalog said that many employees do pull blindly from the submissions inbox — which can number in the thousands per month — and hit publish. But others, the employees said, select stories that relate to a personal “aesthetic.” Some, one producer said, “seek out only very specific content within their interest group.” Yet there is no way to distinguish between what is endorsed and what isn’t, and Thought Catalog’s publisher denies that the publishing choices made by his producers even constitute editorial discretion.
That self-proclaimed void of oversight is how the site has published articles as harmless as “25 Things I’ve Learned In My 20s” — one of its many ultra-personal, first-person stories that have become major traffic cash cows for online publishers everywhere. But it has also resulted in a story blithely comparing Lance Armstrong’s steroid scandal to the fatal 2012 shooting at the Empire State Building; a story asking, “Is It OK To Make Fun Of Asians?”; and a story posing the question: “Which Black Teen Murderer Are You?” Each of those was either written by a Thought Catalog employee or selected to be published by a Thought Catalog employee, blindly or not. The site’s growth plan is one that attempts to remove the accountability of publishing while still reaping the traffic such stories bring in.
Thought Catalog’s publisher, Chris Lavergne, knows the stories are harmful to his site. And yet, his growth goal would bring even more of it.
“One bad egg has the tendency to ruin everyone else’s work,” he wrote in an e-mail to his staff days after those two stories were published.
Lavergne founded Thought Catalog in early 2010. A 26-year-old who speaks measuredly and with confidence, Lavergne was named to this year’s “30 under 30” list in Forbes, a publication in which he was profiled in 2012. He is publicly reserved and doesn’t frequently speak to media; he prefaced our conversation by calling Thought Catalog a “press-shy company.”
He conceived of the site as a 21-year-old Hampshire College dropout who was struggling to break into writing. After working a handful of jobs around New York in Web design and building sites for musicians and companies, he merged his interests and Thought Catalog was born. After he secured the site’s first advertising deal in early 2011, he quit his full-time job and hired two employees, Ryan O’Connell and Brandon Gorrell.
The site that emerged from Thought Catalog’s early days eventually became the self-described “value-neutral” home to a generation’s worth of anguish. What once was a cheeky-cool publisher of authors like prototypical alt-writer Tao Lin is now a behemoth of online publishing, pulling in nearly 27 million monthly unique visitors in the United States — more than Gawker.com, for comparison — according to traffic analytics tool Quantcast. It posts dozens of stories daily; one might be by an unknown teenager writing for the first time, one might be by “Prozac Nation” scribe Elizabeth Wurtzel.
Based in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the site has become the go-to destination for a certain type of writer and reader: post-collegiate or almost there, mostly un- or underemployed, with a healthy dose of ennui.
Its tagline — almost a built-in disclaimer — reads: “All thinking is relevant.”
“The interest in the beginning was that we didn’t have any of the conventional norms traditional publications had. If you just wanted to write an essay about whatever, you could publish with us,” Lavergne said. “Ryan [O’Connell] couldn’t get published anywhere, and he came on and became one of the biggest contributors on the site, and now he’s an incredibly powerful writer with a book deal. What we really saw was: we’re gonna be the place where anyone can go and publish, and we’re not gonna judge you.”
(O’Connell declined to comment for this story, saying only that “TC has always been intended to be a platform for different voices and opinions.”)
It’s a formula that seems to have worked. But a wider reach meant that the same clumsy, hyper-intimate essays from unedited college students could no longer skate by unnoticed. Likewise, the site’s occasional dips into current events were now subjected to the same scrutiny as any other major online publisher, resulting in brutal headlines across the Web attacking the site and its authors for a perceived – and very often, real – naiveté.
Compounding Thought Catalog’s growing pains was a unique take on the site’s role as a publisher, or rather, its role not as a publisher, a philosophy that persists today and has become a central strategy of the site’s growth.
Instead of being an editorial outlet with a bureaucratic editing and decision-making system, Lavergne hopes to turn the site into an all-publishing “platisher,” a silly portmanteau of the words “platform” and “publisher” and a recent trend for some media outlets, including Gawker and BuzzFeed. (Lavergne frequently compares Thought Catalog to blogging site Medium, which is built on the idea of being a “platisher.”) Not quite a one-way publishing megaphone, a “platisher” serves as both an editorial product with a paid staff and a platform where anyone with an Internet connection can self-publish. In Thought Catalog’s case, you could simply e-mail in an article and a producer would post it on the site as soon as a few hours later, without any editing. It could run next to, say, a thoughtfully reported story from a full-time staffer. It’s Thought Catalog’s hallmark feature, and the one that leads to the site’s biggest catastrophes.
About a week after Thought Catalog ran the transphobia and Ferguson pieces, Lavergne called me from a blocked number while on businesses in Oklahoma City, where the company has an office. He sounded tired. His voice was strained, and sighs accompanied his comments about the monsoon of acidic commentary lobbed at the site. He initially put this conversation off because of the “brutal week” he had endured.
I asked him how the site’s writers, editors and producers had been dealing with it.
“Our staff is a tight knit group of people, they’re very caring and empathetic people,” he said. “And they know what we stand for. So it’s part and parcel for what we do. But definitely, psychologically it affects you.”
Critical press attention is nothing new for the site. Its role as a repository for inexperienced writers and unedited writing attracts it, and Lavergne said the cycle of scorn is “part of our platform.”
But with the publication of these two posts, a sense was spreading among many that perhaps the site had pushed its luck too far.
Gaby Dunn, a former editor and vocal defender of Thought Catalog, said McInnes’s and Rogers’s posts embodied a gradual shift in the tone of the site, from youthful bewilderment at growing up to a harsher, more malignant conceit.
“I would always defend it, and now it just makes it harder and harder to defend,” said Dunn, who now works at Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and Nickelodeon Creative Labs. “It’s like that sort of person you’re dating and always telling your friends, ‘No, it’s not that bad,’ but then they do something really terrible and you’re like, aghhhh. I don’t know what to do now.”
Dunn left the site last year after clashing with Lavergne, particularly over the site’s publication of articles about the LGBT community.
“Stuff like that was just starting to happen when I left,” she said. “I started getting nervous that it was bad for me to be there, because my name was associated with it. People would e-mail me and say, ‘I’m disappointed in you.’”
S.E. Smith, former TC contributor and now the deputy opinion editor at the Daily Dot, wrote a column about his request to take down his writing and received dozens of e-mails from fellow writers who also wanted their work removed. By the next day, at least 53 contributors had made similar requests to Thought Catalog, according to Jezebel.
“I was infuriated and horrified by the content of those pieces, but at the same time, it was kind of par for the course with Thought Catalog,” Smith said.
When I asked Lavergne about the group’s requests, he sounded almost defensive, like a mentor scorned by his pupils.
“It was sort of strange to have people that we had personal connections with rebel against us because of what Gavin said,” Lavergne said. “That was particularly harmful. It hurt the staff. It was pretty crappy.”
But for Thought Catalog’s current staff, the scope of the two articles’ damage to the site’s reputation felt less landmark, more casual. When you work at a site that routinely invites the Internet’s scorn, you brace yourself and move on, explained Rachel Hodin, a producer there. She echoed Lavergne’s sentiment and language to describe the mood in the office in the wake of perhaps the site’s most public disasters.
“We’re a tight-knit group and know the difference between the perception of Thought Catalog and the reality of Thought Catalog,” Hodin said over e-mail. “Those articles didn’t even break 100,000 pageviews; so there was a lot of noise surrounding them, but in terms of audience and day-to-day business it was really just a blip on our radar.” (The Post and Quantcast were unable to verify this pageview count.)
Christopher Hudspeth, a staff writer and occasional producer there, said it’s normal to expect that stories such as these to be published when there is no editorial oversight.
“You’re liable to face a lot of backlash and consequences when you allow for anything to happen, and that sucks, but at the same time it allows for us to discover all sorts of amazing new talent,” he said over e-mail. Still, Hudspeth said that when he finds “something comical or relatable to a lot of people in the submission box I will publish it.” In a follow-up e-mail, Hudspeth said he doesn’t think this represents editorial discretion, and that “there is a team of people assigned to just publish everything that comes their way, robotically.”
And Wes Janisen, a 26-year-old freelance writer in San Francisco who has published an ebook and nearly 40 articles on Thought Catalog, said this is all to be expected from the site.
“Of course it’s something I would not like to see, but I didn’t feel like they did anything wrong by publishing” the two stories, Janisen said, adding that he would continue to work with Thought Catalog. “I am well aware of what their platform is, ‘all thinking is relevant.’ I may not necessarily agree with it, but when I send them an article I know it’s an open platform and it could be published next to something I disagree with. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, and maybe some people aren’t.”
More than a dozen other current employees contacted for this story either declined to comment or didn’t respond. The site’s co-publisher, Gorrell, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The writer of the Ferguson article is 28-year-old Anthony Rogers of St. Louis. He called the article “satire,” and he said he was prompted to write it because he thought Ferguson is a “trashcan” and the reaction to Brown’s death was “a joke.”
“I just wasn’t seeing how the world was taking it seriously,” said Rogers, who has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and 36,000 followers on Twitter. “I just wasn’t getting it. Like, Ferguson?” He later added that he didn’t understand the critical response to his article: “This generation just like has no brain or something.”
Lavergne described Rogers as “just some kid who was in the system and was published,” but Rogers disputes that characterization.
Rogers said he pitched his article to a Thought Catalog producer, who gave him the go-ahead to write it. Rogers submitted it to the same producer, he said, who then found a photo for it and published it.
This contradicts what Lavergne had told Harvard’s journalism blog NiemanLab in August, when he told a reporter there that the Ferguson article “was not screened by a producer.” Operationally this would be impossible, as every story must, at minimum, be published by a producer, who adds photos and appropriate technical publishing details, as Rogers said a producer did for his Ferguson story. Lavergne also told me during our conversation that a producer had seen and published the story, and that that producer’s primary job is that “he just puts online whatever comes up.” When asked about the contradiction Lavergne insisted none existed, and that a producer accepting a submission and publishing it does not constitute “screening.”
Still, according to e-mails obtained by The Post that Lavergne sent to the author of the Nieman story, some producers were explicitly hired for their “editorial discretion.”
“The point is a variety of layers of editorial discretion and complete openness,” Lavergne wrote in an e-mail.
The Post reached out to the producer Rogers named as having posted the article, but the producer did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lavergne contested in general terms Rogers’s account of how the story came to be, but did not specifically deny that it was pitched and approved.
McInnes, who declined to comment because he is “still figuring out my employment,” was brought on last year as a paid contributor to balance out the “incredibly, incredibly liberal” slant of the site, Lavergne said. His transphobia piece had gone through a Thought Catalog producer to be published, and wasn’t flagged because Lavergne said he doesn’t want to pass editorial judgment.
Still, McInnes will be “on leave for a little bit,” Lavergne said.
The contradiction between the site’s mission of openness and the facts of its selective publishing isn’t one that seems likely to be reconciled soon, and some alums aren’t convinced it was ever even a mission.
“It’s just not true,” said Dunn, referring to Thought Catalog’s claim to be an open platform. “There was an aesthetic they were trying to build when I was there.” Some stories are “not right for their audience, so that’s editorial judgment.”
Still, changes have come about because of August’s two debacles, some of which are aimed at truly removing any judgment – or, at least, perception thereof – from the site’s content.
In a memo to his staff forwarded to The Post, Lavergne outlined four new policies.
First, Thought Catalog introduced a new flagging system rushed into service that lets readers flag content they think is offensive. Enough flags, and Lavergne is notified and he can choose whether to block the article, the memo said. The feature will eventually be expanded so readers can “blockout” offensive articles with other content.
Next, comparing his site to Medium, Lavergne said the Thought Catalog will launch a “badge system” to differentiate writers the site “endorses” and everyone else. He also promised to “invest in top-notch talent.”
But most importantly, Lavergne said the site will build the technology to take producers out of its publishing equation, allowing anyone to publish directly to the site without having to go through staff, in the way anyone can publish content instantly on Medium.
Whether that experiment will ultimately succeed is impossible to tell. But as the site’s current iteration continues to grow into its role as a “platisher,” Thought Catalog’s original mission may continue to become more diluted, some said.
“I always thought Thought Catalog was traditionally one of the funniest kind of ‘bad reads’ Web sites on the Internet, just in terms of putting out hilariously bad sort of young person writing, which is something that a lot of us have written in our lives,” said Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, the de facto chronicler of Thought Catalog’s most woeful stories since 2011, when he archly said it was “redefining the art of blog post writing for a new and vibrant generation.”
“It’s actually a little unfortunate, because I think it has sort of gotten away from being that funny, harmless, bad writing hate-read place, and now it’s expanded into a sort of actually malevolent hate-read place. […] It doesn’t really have a focus anymore.”
Nolan will concede, however, that the site’s brand of confessionals and saccharine, shareable content appeals to a wide audience.
“How deep is the public appetite for shallow, Internet garbage?” Nolan said. “So far in the history of the Internet, the public appetite for that is huge.”
Likewise, the draw of Thought Catalog for those inexperienced millennial writers can be simply overpowering: Dunn, despite her falling out with Lavergne and the site, encouraged her 22-year-old sister to write for it. She now has two posts to her name.
This post has been updated to correct the name of S.E. Smith.