Esther Bergdahl felt invigorated. How could she not? It was 2014, and she had just joined the millennial-centric news site PolicyMic, where something exciting always seemed to be happening. That January, Forbes included the company’s co-founders on its annual “30 Under 30” list. A few months later, the site announced it had secured $10 million in a funding round. That June, PolicyMic rebranded simply as Mic after buying the domain for $500,000, according to company sources. The company explained the switch at the time by saying the new name reflected its “expanded focus and bold vision.”
Sure, the money wasn’t great — Bergdahl estimated that her pay worked out to roughly $12 per hour. But by the time she joined, Mic had already established itself as an improbable upstart in the crowded digital media marketplace by hiring a cadre of bright, passionate young journalists and zeroing in on the types of stories millennials wanted to share: compact pieces with sharp headlines focused on undercovered issues.
“I was really proud to be a part of the mission and super excited about the work that we were doing and the people that we were able to reach and the voices we were able to uplift,” she said.
There were perks more reminiscent of a Silicon Valley startup than a traditional journalism shop. Bergdahl and others got Bose speakers in 2014. The next year, the company passed out custom-made Nikes with “Mic” and the employee’s initials on them. One of the co-founders hosted parties at the Manhattan apartment he shared with roommates, complete with a pool table — and sometimes a DJ and self-serve open bar, Bergdahl said. In an effort to promote transparency, the co-founders allowed employees to anonymously ask questions at meetings.
Backed by millions of dollars in venture capital, Mic developed into one of the more diverse newsrooms in media, shed light on important stories and served as a launching pad for several now-thriving journalists. The Observer, Forbes and Business Insider published glowing profiles of the new company and its leaders.
“When it was good, it felt, like, too good to be true,” said one former employee. “We all felt like we were making a difference. We were all having so much fun. Everybody was so young. We were all laughing. People would stay late just to hang out.”
Due in part to its earnestness, Mic also became the target of ridicule. Some stories about the company painted it as the archetypal digital media shop — a playground packed with entitled 20-somethings. A 2016 New York Times piece called “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?” described a collection of adult-sized children who rode around the office on hoverboards and inappropriately demanded apologies from their superiors. The story was catnip for millennial-bashers. Chris Altchek, Mic’s then-28-year-old co-founder and CEO, was “still working out how to manage many of the traits associated with his fellow millennials: a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination,” the Times explained. The piece’s central anecdote involved a Mic employee who lied about a funeral to get a week off work, only to go home and build a treehouse.
But ultimately, Mic’s problems were more economic than generational. The colorful anecdotes, custom Nikes and gorgeous office space on the 82nd floor of the One World Trade Center distracted from one critical fact: Mic never developed into a sustainable business.
The Times had missed the forest for the treehouse. Mic was the archetypal millennial-packed digital media workplace ― not because it coddled its young employees, but because it left so many of them yearning for stability. Like its cousins BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Vice, Mic at times relied on its young and diverse staff to churn out content, respond nimbly to every change in the Facebook algorithm and sometimes even mine their personal pain for clicks in the pursuit of blistering traffic growth.
Many of the more than three dozen former employees who spoke to HuffPost said they entered the company hungry and hopeful, only to feel twisted around by a publicly woke company that privately left them feeling exhausted, distrustful of leadership and desperate for financial security.
“When I think about things that grow that wildly and that successfully, I don’t think of a media company ― I think of cancer.”
Last November, the company was forced to face the hard truth: Its Facebook-fueled bet on a millennial news site had failed. At an all-hands meeting, Altchek told his newsroom that Facebook had canceled a video deal that had served as the company’s final lifeline. Facebook’s decision, he said, left Mic’s founders with no other option but to lay off the editorial staff and sell the company to Bustle Digital Group for a fraction of what it had once been valued at.
Although its end was particularly abrupt, the problems Mic faced were far from unique. The capital that flooded the media industry in the first half of the decade caused unexpected problems at many companies when the market cooled. Facebook and Google’s grip on the digital ad market stifled the entire industry’s prospects. Too many outlets convinced themselves for too long in the power of Facebook-dependent growth.
“Mic may ultimately be held up as a case study on this turbulent era in digital media,” said Ellie Krupnick, who worked as a lifestyle editorial director at the site. (Krupnick worked at HuffPost from 2011 to 2014 before leaving to join Mic.) “Hindsight is 20/20, but somehow all of the big forces we’ve seen impact digital newsrooms over the past five or so years, Mic seems to have found themselves swept up in just about all of them.”
If Mic’s downfall is a case study, the lesson is clear, Bergdahl argued.
“Journalistic institutions need to be institutions. They need to be able to grow in a healthy and steady way,” Bergdahl said. “When I think about things that grow that wildly and that successfully, I don’t think of a media company ― I think of cancer.”
When Altchek and Jake Horowitz launched a “beta version” of Mic in 2010, they were 23-year-olds with little work experience, let alone journalism know-how.
What they did have was the kind of story investors could believe in. Altchek and Horowitz met at the elite private school Horace Mann in the Bronx. After high school, the right-leaning Altchek and more liberal Horowitz headed off to Harvard and Stanford, respectively, but continued to enjoy what they later called “extremely healthy” debates born out of their politically divergent views. These intellectual face-offs served as the inspiration for Mic, which they hoped would “help our generation talk about the issues that really matter,” Horowitz once told the Observer. In early 2011, they each raised $75,000 with the help of friends and family and decided to go all in. Altchek quit his gig at Goldman Sachs and contributed his bonus to the cause.
Through a spokesperson, Altchek and Horowitz declined an interview request, as well as a request to answer a detailed list of questions sent to them for this story. A person familiar with Mic fielded some fact-checking questions. During the reporting process, which took several months, Bustle Digital Group, through its lawyers, threatened to sue HuffPost’s parent company if we published this story.
Altchek and Horowitz’s decision to launch Mic could hardly have been better timed. After all, the digital media industry was sizzling. Early in 2011, AOL had purchased HuffPost for $315 million, a number that raised some eyebrows at the time but looked small by 2013, when Vice was valued at more than $1 billion. The financial optimism was propped up by a booming digital ad market and a growing appetite for mobile content that helped bring together two odd bedfellows: journalists and venture capitalists. At the end of 2014, Wired noted that “the media sector [was] overflowing with capital—as of September 2014 it was the second-largest VC-funded area of the year, after software.”
Horowitz, the former editor of his high school paper, became Mic’s editor-in-chief. Altchek became CEO.
Like HuffPost and BuzzFeed before it, Mic’s earliest incarnation relied on unpaid “contributing bloggers” for much of its content. But the founders soon proved to have a knack for finding and empowering talented journalists who instinctively understood not only the issues young people cared about but also how to present those issues in easily digestible formats.
“In a way, it was an incubator for young talent,” said Elizabeth Plank, an early employee at the site who rose from intern to senior correspondent and had a video series called “Flip The Script.” “They took in a lot of people like me who probably A, would have never been hired in media, or B, would have been interns somewhere and gotten some old white guy coffee.”
Some Mic employees came to view Altchek and Horowitz as a pair of 20-somethings from privileged backgrounds who didn’t deserve to run a newsroom. Publicly, though, the co-founders played up their inexperience as an advantage: Where others may have been weighed down by old habits, Mic’s lack of established processes allowed the staff to adapt quickly and often.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Horowitz said in 2014. “So we took a startup, entrepreneurial approach, which was to try a bunch of different things and see what worked and what resonated.”
It didn’t take long before it became clear that what resonated at Mic was left-leaning “social justice clickbait,” a former senior editor said. In 2013, Mic launched an Identities vertical, which was “dedicated to examining the intersections of sexuality, gender, class and race in politics and culture for the millennial generation.” Just writing about a topic of interest to readers wasn’t enough, however. Mic posts had to be packaged in tight, engaging manners meant to maximize shares on Facebook. A listing for the Identities section in 2013 said Mic was looking for unpaid writers who would be open to “incorporating multimedia (video, GIFs, photos, memes, etc.)” in posts.
In meetings, Horowitz was known to ask “who’s sharing this?”; new employees received a 45-minute training focused on “Shareability.” When a headline construction shared well on Facebook, Mic relentlessly published stories that fit the blueprint. In 2015, the phrase “One Tweet” (i.e., “In One Tweet, This Man Took Down a Group of Incredibly Sexist Internet Trolls”) appeared in the headline of stories about “sexist internet trolls,” Ricky Gervais, “the racist hypocrisy of American police violence,” “Game of Thrones,” J.K. Rowling (more than once), Elizabeth Warren and “the racist double standard of the media’s shooting coverage.” The next year, the phrase “brutal truth” (i.e., “The Brutal Truth Every White Feminist Needs to Hear”) made its way into headlines about viral Instagram posts, masculinity, white gay men, white allies and prom.
In September 2014, Bergdahl was named copy chief and converted from freelance to full-time. By then, the company had more than 30 full-time employees and had moved to new offices on Hudson Street in Manhattan. The site had also firmly established itself as a millennial-first news destination. A chart shared with Recode that year showed 60% of its visitors that July were between the ages of 18 and 34 — more than Vice, BuzzFeed or Upworthy.
The co-founders portrayed their decision to focus on people their age as a mission-driven choice. “We want to be the voice of our generation,” Horowitz told Forbes in 2014. But there was also a clear business incentive. Stephen Colvin, then the executive-in-residence at Lerer Ventures, told the Observer in 2014 that Mic provided the “perfect platform for marketers” to target millennials, the “most difficult to reach consumer group in the world.”
Altchek proved to be a talented fundraiser. “Chris is incredibly smart and an incredibly great salesman,” said a longtime member of the brand team. The company raised $60 million over its eight years as an independent company, and The Wall Street Journal once quoted someone saying it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2014, Twitter reportedly offered to buy the company for approximately $90 million, but Altchek and Horowitz declined. By then, their aspirations had grown larger.
“The next $10 billion media company will be the one that wins over millennials,” Altchek said soon afterward. “We understand them intuitively because we are them.”
One former executive at the company explained that the $60 million the company took in necessitated lofty goals and a substantial return. Ideally, venture capitalists search for a “10x return” on their investments. In the media business, however, “it’s hard to get there in the time horizon that a venture capital business wants,” the former executive said.
But like many startups, Mic’s aspirations stood in contrast to its early finances. In 2014, the year Twitter offered to buy the company, Mic generated $1 million. The next year, it pulled in $3 million. A former employee familiar with the company’s sales deals described the business model as “unsustainable.” “We just never were making enough money,” the former employee said.
Absent a business model that would prove Mic a worthy gamble, the company focused on growth early on.
“We had to show audience growth,” said a separate former executive at the company. “As a company that was venture-backed, that was important.”
Altchek described “explosive audience growth” as “central” to Mic’s strategy in a 2016 company email. “That means aggressively pursuing new platforms and distribution opportunities. Almost always, that means doing so before business models have been fully developed. This is how we win,” he said.
But the goals Altchek set up could feel unattainable, according to the second former executive. “Even when it was very obvious that these goals were unreachable, Chris would not relent on those goals and the goals would keep growing,” the second former executive said.
“Chris is an aggressive leader,” said an adviser who worked closely with the company. “There’s a leadership style which says it’s better to shoot for 15 and hit 12 than shoot for 10 and hit 10. And there’s pluses and minuses to that. But I would definitely say that’s Chris’ style.” (Another person familiar with the company disputed the idea that Altchek’s goals were unrealistic.)
Some employees saw gaming Facebook as a necessary part of pushing undercovered, important stories into the national conversation and said Mic still gave them room to grow and experiment.
“Did I have to do silly things for clicks or quick hits and stuff like that? Yes,” said one former writer. “But anything that I wanted to do that I was passionate about ― if I could find a way to frame it as a story ― it was developed, encouraged. There was a path for it.”
But the degree to which analytics dominated the job made some of the young journalists uncomfortable. Bergdahl started to feel like “the rage was just a commodity,” she said. “Something that you engaged with to get clicks.”
Another former employee said it felt like “the analytics team ran the newsroom.” “A lot of us couldn’t write about things because it wouldn’t click well,” said a third, who added that it could feel like Mic cared “about these issues so long as we think other people will care about it or we can use a splashy headline on it.”
“I didn’t work for Facebook, and I didn’t want to work for Facebook,” said a fourth.
A fifth former employee said it became difficult for editors to juggle the large number of stories coming across their desks, especially considering the sensitivity they required: “If you’re writing that many stories all the time, most of them are not going to be good and some of them are going to be insensitive.”
“You had a lot of incredibly talented, passionate people who were placed into systems that worked against their natural talent and hard work,” Bergdahl said. “There were writers who would have to churn out four or five or six pieces a day, and they could be great writers, but they could also just be completely in despair by an afternoon because who has that kind of stamina?”
The pressure highlighted a key difference between digital journalism outfits and platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “Those businesses have products that have infinite scale once they work,” said one of the former executives. “That’s not exactly how content works, right? ... You have to come in and write the news every day.”
Some employees were accused of taking shortcuts: In early 2015, Mic fired Jared Keller, then the site’s director of news, after Gawker published 20 examples of stories containing passages he had plagiarized. Media reporters soon sniffed out that Chris Miles, the former managing editor of news, had been forced out months earlier over similar charges.
Multiple employees argued that the journalistic transgressions — while inexcusable — had to be understood within the context of Mic. “That position had a ton of pressure to meet traffic goals,” said a former senior employee. “That Jared Keller and Chris Miles were fired for plagiarism wasn’t a coincidence,” said another. “I don’t want to justify plagiarism … [but] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both ended up making the same mistake because of the crazy level of pressure that was placed on both of them.”
Shortly after the scandals, Mic hired NPR veteran Madhulika Sikka as executive editor. Horowitz stepped down as editor-in-chief the same year.
“Basically everybody banded together and said, ‘You need to hire someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing,’” said a former employee. Mic undertook an investigation and made a number of internal changes to avoid similar missteps in the future. Sikka left after less than a year at the company.
Despite the plagiarism, Mic’s aggressive pursuit of clicks worked — for a while. In 2015, the company received an additional $17 million in funding. Some months, it hit 20 million unique U.S. visitors, per ComScore.
“It was intoxicating to write wonky policy pieces about food stamps or taxes or backward drug policy and see them often get hundreds of thousands of views, sometimes millions,” Zeeshan Aleem, a former politics writer for the site, wrote later. (Aleem worked at HuffPost from 2013 to 2014 before leaving to join Mic.)
Mic came to stand out from much of its competition by not only hiring one of the more diverse editorial teams in digital media, but also elevating the voices and stories of people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
Some employees considered Altchek and Horowitz genuine allies.
“Mic was one of the first companies to take a chance on me,” said one former writer of color. “Even though I cried at work many times and I had to get my ass out of there ... they took a chance on me as a writer and I’m always really grateful for that.”
“It was by far the most diverse place I’ve ever worked ― and probably ever will,” said Rameez Tase, a former vice president of audience development and insights at Mic. “As a person of color, I was treated more than fairly.”
The diverse collection of voices within the newsroom allowed Mic to cover stories that affected minority and LGBTQ communities “extensively and authentically,” said the person familiar with the company, reflecting the feelings of some of those who spoke to HuffPost.
“[Horowitz] built one of the most diverse newsrooms in the city. And he empowered people to approach stories through an angle that was authentic to them. And never forced anybody to write in a way that would contradict their own values,” said a longtime Mic employee who worked closely with Horowitz.
Not everyone felt the same way. Bergdahl found herself uncomfortable with Mic’s reliance on employees of color during moments of national crisis, saying black writers were often expected to come up with a “soul-searching polemic.”
One employee of color backed up Bergdahl’s assertion. Another former employee of color said it was hard to avoid feeling as if Mic was “commodifying racial justice issues.” A third employee said people of color could feel “tokenized,” and a fourth said Mic’s commitment to social justice seemed “disingenuous” at times.
There were a couple of reasons some Mic employees were suspect of the sincerity of the company’s commitment to social justice. One was that the company’s editorial leadership was predominantly white. Another was that the right-leaning Altchek, who had been a White House intern during the George W. Bush administration, had somehow stumbled into creating “the wokest fucking new media site” on the internet, as one former employee put it.
A BDG spokesperson contended that the “senior most management” at Mic was 40% nonwhite and 80% female. But occasionally, leadership’s racial blind spots manifested themselves in uncomfortable ways anyway. Two former employees of color said they were encouraged to traffic in stories they considered to play off racial “tropes.”
Horowitz once interrupted a pitch for a story about a woman creating community gardens in New Orleans and asked, “But is she black?,” as The Outline first reported. Altchek told some employees he wanted to create “the next Chappelle Show, except it’s hosted by a trans woman of color,” according to The Outline.
Some employees pointed to a contrast in how leadership dealt with a series of national crises in 2015 as another example.
When protests broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray that April, the newsroom sprang into action, publishing stories like “The Side of Rioting the Media Never Talks About,” “11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore,” “10 Images of the Baltimore Riots You Won’t See on TV” and “What Young People on the Ground Think of the Uprising in Baltimore.” The stories were quintessentially Mic — entertainingly packaged with an underlying messages that mattered to the people within the newsroom. Readers loved them.
“The stuff that we were doing that week really, really, really broke through, especially with the generation and the audience that we were trying to reach,” said a former member of management.
Some members of the newsroom felt great pride that they may have played some role in shifting the conversation on the biggest story in the country by painting a complex and nuanced portrait of a community of color that was in pain, the same former manager said. “They were celebrating the fact that we broke through,” the manager said. “Not for the first time ever at Mic, but for the first time for positive, real reasons.”
Horowitz was among those members of the newsroom. One former employee of color remembered Horowitz particularly celebrating the work of one Mic employee as “top notch.”
But other former Mic staffers said the celebration of the site’s work on Gray’s death and its aftermath focused too much on the site’s traffic at a time when some of its employees were struggling.
A few months later, when two white television journalists were shot dead on air, leadership bought pizzas for the newsroom and said people could take time off if they needed it. Some of the site’s employees of color responded by writing an email noting that people of color had not been offered the same level of support after covering numerous police shootings of black people that year. “Where was that understanding for us?” one employee of color remembered thinking.
The email was well-received, and some colleagues said they were sorry the employees of color had been made to feel that way — evidence of a culture that at its best encouraged employees to raise their concerns openly and honestly, multiple employees said. Altchek and Horowitz also seemed to take the criticism to heart.
“To have that horizontal structure in the company, where people could present this thoughtful letter and have him [Altchek] listen to it and say that he appreciated it, I think was actually an example of the potential Mic had for good,” said one former employee.
In August 2015, the month the journalists were shot dead on air, Mic snagged the highest-profile interview in its history: Horowitz sat down with then-President Barack Obama. The interview felt like a culmination of something. Later that month, Business Insider published a celebratory piece titled, “How two millennials built a $100 million startup in 4 years and landed an interview with the president.”
“I think we’re still in the very early stages of the digital media revolution,” one of Mic’s board members, former AOL CEO Jon Miller, told the publication.
But the month of the Obama interview, Mic reached only 18 million “readers” — the site’s second-lowest-performing month that year and 10 million readers shy of its goal, then-VP of Growth Adam Jaffe told staff in an email a few weeks later.
“While our interview with Obama was exciting, we got distracted and lost focus of what we need to do each day to hit our goals,” Jaffe wrote. “We can’t lose sight of what we need to do every day — sourcing compelling stories, executing on them for shares, and packaging them perfectly — to hit our goals.”
Soon, leadership came to realize that the August traffic dip was not the result of a distracted workforce, according to one of the former executives. Instead, they realized a tweak to the Facebook algorithm had dramatically limited the reach of media outlets’ posts. Many of the site’s competitors faced the same issue, but Mic got hit especially hard because of its particular dependence on Facebook, the former executive said.
“It was like this all-hands-on-deck, holy-fucking-shit, what-are-we-going-to-do kind of thing,” said one employee who was there at the time.
In the near-term, Mic reacted by dropping much of the work that didn’t promise easy traffic, Aleem, the politics writer, wrote later. “Mic decided to start throwing everything that wasn’t guaranteed to generate virality under the bus,” Aleem wrote. “I recall being told that an article with the words ‘health care’ in the headlines was too stuffy, and implicitly that covering the topic was more or less pointless.”
Other employees spoke similarly of the switch. Nicolas DiDomizio, who worked as a staff writer at Mic in 2015 and 2016, later wrote that the “directive to spark outrage and/or foster empowerment at every turn intensified” while he was there. A third former employee originally tasked with writing features was told there would no longer be time for anything other than short “trending” stories, the former employee said. (The person familiar with the company denied this.)
“I recall being told that an article with the words ‘health care’ in the headlines was too stuffy, and implicitly that covering the topic was more or less pointless.”
The constant content churn eventually got to many of Mic’s employees, especially when combined with the long hours and low pay.
“I was getting paid, like, $48,000, and they wanted me to treat this job like it was my life,” said one of them.
In November 2015, Joel Pavelski, then Mic’s director of programming, published a piece on Medium in which he admitted that he had made up a funeral to get a week off work, then went home and built a treehouse. The blog surprised his co-workers and bosses, and Pavelski told HuffPost he had some regrets about what he did. But at the time, he was struggling with what he now describes as a “mental health crisis,” due in part to the upcoming anniversary of his brother’s death, a recent split with a long-term partner and other family problems. At Mic, however, he felt as if he couldn’t be honest about the effect all of that was having on him.
“I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, completely indoctrinated into the idea that success in a competitive startup culture required it,” Pavelski told me over email. “I was unable to admit that I was burned out at 27 on a strategy of pivoting to nowhere.”
The daily crunch eventually got to Bergdahl, too. Even though she worked from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and sometimes on weekends, she felt it was “suspect” if she left too early or went to the doctor or on a vacation, she said.
“I once got told that I needed to have a founder’s attitude and put in founder’s hours,” Bergdahl said. “I was certainly not being paid a founder’s salary.”
Employees had other frustrations with the financial side of startup life. When Mic passed out the custom-made Nikes in 2015, the company had already raised more than $30 million but had yet to set up a 401(k) system, multiple employees said.
“I was just like, ‘This is so dumb. I don’t need a pair of Nikes. I need a 401(k),’” said one of them. “They just seemed like they were wasting money left and right.”
When the company eventually set up a 401(k) at the end of 2015, according to the person familiar with the company, it did not match contributions. The adviser who worked for the company said it was “fairly standard” in startups that a “401(k) match is not a high priority for employees.”
Salary ranges at Mic also felt inconsistent to some of the people who worked there. One former employee said she was told editors were capped at $70,000 before she started, only to discover soon after her hiring that a fellow editor was hired at $75,000. After a female employee discovered she was managing a man of the same age and experience level who was making $30,000 more than her, she approached a member of senior leadership, who told her it was simply a “red herring” and not to worry too much about it. (“In this one case, the female employee was managing someone who had a very specialized role, hence the salary disparity,” the person familiar with the company said.)
Sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, employees created an anonymous spreadsheet to figure out how much their colleagues were making. Three former employees said they deduced from it that men made more than women who had comparable experience.
Management later did its own analysis, which showed women had made more than men in 2017, according to the person familiar with the company. When asked about earlier years, a Bustle Digital Group spokesperson said, “There is no reason to believe the trend would have reversed itself, but the HR records from those years at Mic are no longer available.”
More confounding was the lack of a dedicated human resources department, an issue employees brought up to the co-founders repeatedly, sources said. With such a young staff, Mic was “the perfect environment for a lot of inappropriate behavior,” said one former employee.
“There were no fucking rules,” said another. “It was just an HR mess.”
Bergdahl started to use companywide meetings to ask when Mic would be getting a proper human resources department. After one such gathering, she tried to fill the void. At a 2015 meeting, an Anglo-Pakistani employee asked why Mic had a more flexible time-off policy for Yom Kippur than the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Bergdahl remembered Altchek responding by implying it was not the responsibility of the company to keep track of every holiday and that the employee should speak with her manager. (Altchek’s recollection of the conversation is different. “I told her, ‘Great point, being inclusive and respectful of all religious affiliations is incredibly important to Mic,’” he said later.)
Bergdahl was bothered enough by the interaction that she privately told Altchek his answer had come across as insensitive. She suggested he apologize.
Bergdahl heard that Altchek did end up apologizing. But he also talked to the Times about the incident.
“I was a little taken aback by the tone, but I told her I would address it and make sure the person who asked the question wasn’t offended by the answer,” Altchek told the publication, without naming Bergdahl.
Mic finally hired an HR director in March 2016, by which time Mic’s staff had grown to 160. That month, the Times story ran as well ― hoverboards, treehouses and all. Altchek told higher-ups that snarky anecdotes aside, the piece had served its purpose on the business side, a former high-level employee said.
By then, Bergdahl had been let go. She said she was told her position “no longer fit into the growth model.”
But the growth model had stopped working. In the last month of 2016, the year the company moved into the One World Trade Center offices, Mic drew only 10.5 million unique visitors, down from 21.5 million the previous December. By December 2017, the number dropped to 6.1 million.
The person familiar with the company argued that the traffic drop was part of a strategic decision to focus “on more reporting and video work and less around viral stories.” The adviser to the company backed this up, saying investors “very much supported” the decision “to go premium” and focus more on “quality” rather than “crank-it-out journalism.”
Over the next few years, Mic published award-winning work on subjects including transgender rights and the opioid epidemic. Horowitz and Mic staffer Kendall Ciesemier’s aggressive reporting on Alice Johnson garnered the attention of Kim Kardashian, who successfully lobbied President Donald Trump to grant her clemency. Just this February, the American Society of Magazine Editors nominated the site’s ambitious “Black Monuments Project” for an Ellie award in the Digital Innovation category.
But as it was winning those awards, Mic also began a series of twists and turns in the search for a new, more successful formula. As Facebook traffic waned, Mic embarked on an all-out war for SEO domination and tried to recreate the success BuzzFeed had with a watermelon and some rubber bands on Facebook Live.
“That is what innovation looks like” in an early-stage startup, the adviser argued. “It’s a series of correcting mistakes. You make lots of little mistakes. But those companies that succeed are the ones that adapt and tweak in response to those early missteps.”
To employees, “it felt like whiplash all the time,” said one former employee. “Every three months there was a new strategy,” said another. “We chased everything because we liked the idea of the optics of it all,” said a third. “The reality was because you’re chasing seven different things, you never really get good at any of them.”
Mic’s internal workings were chaos by then, too. “Editorial guidelines changed constantly and incoherently; people were randomly fired and disappeared; the anonymous questions for management practice was scrapped,” Aleem wrote.
The transparency in management that Mic had once preached also started to dissipate. “I was in the room in a lot of situations where they would say one thing within the leadership team and then they would go out and say a completely different thing to the staff,” a former high-level employee said.
“It was a game of adapt or die,” said another former employee. “There was a running joke that you would find out somebody was gone when their Slack handle was no longer active.”
“I was just like, ‘This is so dumb. I don’t need a pair of Nikes. I need a 401(k).’ They just seemed like they were wasting money left and right.”
In an email to staff in May 2016, Altchek noted that the “narrative on digital news companies has turned” and that it appeared to industry analysts that “digital media companies are doomed.”
“The competition is real and the stakes are high,” Altchek wrote to his staff. “And the market for raising money is not as strong as the past two years.”
The industry had dramatically changed since Bergdahl’s first day at Mic just two years before. Once-optimistic investors had started to sour on the media industry as a place where they could earn a significant return. The number of venture capital deals in the “consumer-focused media space” dropped from an “all-time high” of 945 to 541 between 2014 and 2016, according to Pitchbook, a private and public equity data provider.
“It was noticeable that the market was softening at that time,” said the adviser who worked with the company. “Investors were not seeing a path to [digital media companies] continuing to scale at that rate. And so they were getting nervous about their valuations. And then separately, that’s also when the industry was really starting to realize that the Google-Facebook dynamic was sucking the oxygen out of the room for independent publishers and for journalism business models in general.”
But Altchek held on to the one thing Mic still had on its side. “We reach the the [sic] most coveted audience one [sic] on the entire internet – affluent millennials,” he wrote in the May email.
Amid industry tumult and investor anxiety, Mic started to make more money, logging its three highest-revenue months in a row in the middle of 2016, according to a company email. Between 2016 to 2018, Mic pulled in more than $10 million in revenue each year. But costs rose, too, and the company was never able to turn an annual profit. The longtime member of the brand team said by that time, “there wasn’t really a clear way to drive the revenue that you needed to drive to have a sustainable business.”
“Mic was sort of always going uphill, and it just got harder. And the incline just got steeper and steeper,” the brand team member said.
“The walls were starting to close in,” said the high-level employee familiar with the company’s finances.
The deteriorating conditions affected staff morale. A new banner reading “Are you meeting the mission?” rubbed some employees the wrong way. When asked about the issue at one all-hands meeting, then-publisher Cory Haik responded by saying low morale was normal in newsrooms, according to multiple sources. (Haik did not respond to an emailed request for comment.) In October, Altchek let everyone know that anything less than maximum effort would not be tolerated.
“Recently, I have noticed some team members working as if Mic were just another 9-6 job, not giving it their all everyday [sic],” Altchek wrote to his staff that month. “I’ve challenged every leader to fix any instances immediately. I’ve asked every leader at Mic to set really ambitious goals going into [Objectives and Key Results] and not accept anything less than total effort from their teams everyday.”
After years of promoting socially conscious viewpoints, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 only further discouraged the newsroom. The night of Trump’s victory, Altchek and Horowitz addressed the team’s “collective pain” in an email.
“We have spent every waking moment of the past five years working toward the mission of informing, inspiring and empowering our generation to change the world,” they wrote. “And in the moment when our generation became the biggest voting bloc in American history, our voices fell silent.”
“That hurts,” they added. “We’ve asked so many friends to drop everything and join us. We’ve made promises to our community of millions of peers. We’ve obsessed over harnessing the power of ideas supercharged through our global networks. And yet tonight, in the face of the most damning threat to our future, we’ve hit rock bottom.”
On the first day of 2017, Altchek and Haik emailed the newsroom to lay out the stakes.
“Last year, the news industry was shaken at it’s [sic] core,” they wrote. “Winning in 2017 means growing fanatic audiences for our channels through great daily storytelling, sticky products, longform video and talented faces that speak truth to power.”
Mic secured more than $25 million in additional funding in 2017 after Altchek set up the ambitious goal of pulling in $20 million in revenue for the year, according to a well-placed company source. But morale continued to drop precipitously ― so much so that Altchek and Haik invited editors of color to a breakfast in Tribeca in July 2017 to ask why black employees in particular continued to leave, according to an employee who was there at the time.
That August, Mic laid off 25 staffers in a pivot to video, which was internally referred to as a “pivot to quality,” one former employee said. Outside Mic, the move was widely ridiculed. But some at the top of the organization saw the switch as a necessity. People were watching more video on their phones, and advertisers seemed increasingly interested in paying for advertisements against videos, not words.
“The non-pivot-to-video, the stay-the-course [strategy] would have probably been pretty stupid too,” said one of the former executives.
Amid the bleak financial climate, Altchek continued to project confidence to his staff.
“I have never been more optimistic about Mic’s future and potential. Having recently completed our Series C financing, Mic is in the strongest financial position in the company’s history,” he wrote in an August 2017 memo announcing the layoffs.
But by November, Altchek was trying to offload a reservation he had made at Tribeca 360 in Manhattan to host Mic’s holiday party for more than 250 people, according to an email reviewed by HuffPost. After not reaching their financial goals for the year, Mic’s leadership “decided that hosting an expensive holiday party was not the right thing to do,” according to the person familiar with the company.
Mic hosted the party at the office instead, a source said. A senior-level staffer said the site ended up bringing in only around $14 million that year, far short of Altchek’s $20 million goal. It was becoming increasingly clear that Mic was not alone in its struggles either. That December, Ziff Davis purchased Mashable at a “fire sale” price of $50 million, one-fifth of what it had been valued one year before.
As the fate of their jobs became increasingly uncertain, many employees fled. Those who stayed did what they could to protect themselves by announcing their intention to unionize in February 2018. (The company voluntarily recognized the union but a contract was never ratified.)
Around the same time, executives created Mic Productions, a five-person unit focused on developing video projects for streaming services and television, and began developing “Mic Dispatch,” which it called a “correspondent-led, twice-weekly newsmagazine program” for Facebook Watch.
It was the final pivot. That fall, Facebook decided to effectively cancel “Mic Dispatch,” forcing Mic to gut its staff and sell itself to Bustle for $5 million. Bryan Goldberg, Bustle Digital Group’s CEO, later said “Mic had a day of cash left in the bank” at the time.
“Facebook caught us by surprise at a really bad time,” a choked-up Altchek told his staff in November. “The cancellation, combined with the headwinds our industry is facing, has made it no longer possible for us to operate as an independent media company.”
“It was horrible. It was devastating,” said one employee who was there until the end. “We were just a bunch of young, smart people who were probably always flexing a little bit above our weight class. And that was really exciting to be a part of. We were the underdogs for sure. I think we always felt that. I mean, I felt that.”
“But I don’t think I felt angry,” she added. “I mostly felt sad because I loved my job.”
The crisis facing digital media shows no signs of ending. Last year, well over 50% of every dollar spent on digital ads in the U.S. went to Google and Facebook, and one of the strongest gainers on the so-called “duopoly” is Amazon, according to research company eMarketer. That leaves media companies like BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Vice fighting for scraps.
This winter, all three of those outlets laid off significant chunks of their staff — 9.5% at HuffPost, 10% at Vice and 15% at BuzzFeed. In April, a private equity group acquired Gizmodo Media Group, reportedly for less than half of what it had been valued at a few years before. Twenty-five employees were promptly let go.
Searching for ways to survive, the CEO of BuzzFeed has floated the idea of merging with other internet publishers to better take on Facebook and Google. Two recently laid-off journalists, ex-HuffPoster Laura Bassett and ex-BuzzFeeder John Stanton, even launched an advocacy group to bring attention to the “existential threat” the tech giants present to the industry.
Mic, to the extent it exists today, is a shell of its former self. Under Goldberg’s ownership, the site’s masthead now leads to an error page, and there’s a skeletal editorial staff. It is just one of many once-promising brands now owned by Goldberg ― a growing list that also includes Elite Daily, Gawker and The Outline, which itself published an extensive piece on Mic’s workplace culture in 2017.
In an emailed statement to HuffPost, Goldberg emphasized that his plan to rebuild Mic is already underway. “BDG will make a big investment in the relaunch of Mic, and we are currently hiring a large editorial team to support the path forward,” he said. “BDG is focused on the future, and the future is bright for Mic and for our industry.”
Goldberg’s optimistic view is not widely shared among the Mic staffers he laid off, many of whom have yet to find full-time jobs. It was always a stretch to argue that Mic coddled its employees. Now that they’re out of jobs — with their industry’s bubble burst and their 4-year-old custom Nikes tattered — it’s clear their story is less about the privileges of working in digital journalism and more about its precarity: a warning about believing the optimistic pronouncements and predictions of quick-talking executives bearing gifts.
Today, some former Mic employees have moved on from journalism altogether, to branded content and nonprofit work. Others have found new gigs in the shrinking industry. Krupnick is the managing editor of Eater; Pavelski is the director of audience development at GQ; Plank hosts a Facebook Watch show for Vox, and Tase is the vice president of growth at Axios. Bergdahl is now a freelance editor, fact-checker and reporter who lives in Brooklyn and is working on a novel.
Mic’s former office space in One World Trade Center now sits unoccupied, awaiting a new leaseholder. But a few months ago, the 82nd floor served as the backdrop for “Fyre Fraud,” a documentary that Mic co-produced about Billy McFarland’s spectacularly failed and fraudulent millennial-focused music festival in the Bahamas. Speaking directly to the camera, Horowitz, who had done significant original reporting on the festival’s fallout, tried to explain how McFarland had been able to fool so many people for so long.
“As it turns out,” Horowitz said, “it doesn’t take much to trick a New York City media reporter into writing a story about how great your company is.”