EIL: Everything I've Learned

Maria Bustillos on Building an Unbreakable Media Company

March 01, 2021 Mark Armstrong Season 1 Episode 2
EIL: Everything I've Learned
Maria Bustillos on Building an Unbreakable Media Company
Show Notes Transcript

Maria Bustillos is a writer and journalist whose work I’ve been following for many years — I first read her essays in The Awl, and she’s gone on to write for many other publications including The New Yorker, CJR, and Longreads. In 2016 she took on another assignment: covering the trial of Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker.

Hogan’s victory, the revelation that the lawsuit was secretly funded by billionaire VC Peter Thiel, and the shuttering of Gawker sent Bustillos on a mission: Is it possible to create a billionaire-proof media company?

That’s what she’s aiming to build with The Brick House, a cooperative of nine publications including her own site, Popula.

Get updates from EIL: https://markarms.com/newsletter/
EIL on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/EIL

Support the show

Maria Bustillos: It is not possible to exaggerate the danger of losing a free press. That's why I get up every day, like a bat out of hell.



Mark Armstrong: Hi, everybody. This is Everything I've Learned a podcast about lessons, mistakes, and other turning points. I'm Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads. 

As always, you can support the show by going to patreon.com/eil


Today, I'm speaking with Maria Bustillos. She's a writer and a journalist whose work I first discovered at the beloved website The Awl nearly 10 years ago. Her writing is always thought provoking, and a few years back, she took on a reporting assignment that proved to be a defining moment for the work that she wanted to do going forward. It involved a pro wrestler, a gossip website, and a billionaire behind the scenes, secretly funding the whole thing.




The trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker was full of salacious details and accusations. Hogan ultimately won the case, and it was revealed soon after that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire VC, Peter Thiel, who had a longstanding grudge with the website. For Bustillos it raised serious questions about the future of journalism. If a billionaire can put a website out of business, is it possible to build a billionaire-proof media company? That's what she's aiming to do with the Brick House, a new media cooperative. Here's Maria.




Mark: So Maria, thank you for being here.


Maria: It's my pleasure Mark.


Mark: I've been following your work for over a decade now,


Maria: Oh my god


Mark: I know, know, but I want to go back to a specific moment in the middle of it all, which was that you were assigned to cover the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker trial. Can you tell me the story of how that happened? 


Maria: Well, I wrote to Brian Abrams, who was then the editor of Death and Taxes, and I actually begged him for this assignment because I wanted to be there. And I thought that I would be able to talk him into giving me more or less free reign to just tell what I was seeing, in a sort of an unstructured way. And so it emerged, right. It was like I was filing every day. It was like, I don't know a lot of pieces. And it was a really great experience being edited by him. 


Mark: Why did you want to be there? 


Maria: I I'm really glad I went, man. Remember that at that point, nobody had any idea that it was Peter Thiel kind of like holding the puppet strings. All we knew was that this lawsuit which by rights should have been dismissed, was proceeding. And, you know, by then, Gawker had had won, a couple of times in federal court. Nobody thought that this thing had any chance, and actually it's a grave miscarriage of justice and a travesty and whatnot.


And so, as somebody who was very interested in sort of First Amendment issues, generally, and speech rights and, press freedom, it was very clear to me that whatever it was, it was going to happen during this thing was going to be important, because somebody clearly was coming after these people, unjustly.


Mark: What was this trial about in the first place?


Maria: There was a sex tape. It was a security footage, like security camera. It was of Heather Clem, who was the wife of this guy who had been good friends with Hulk Hogan. And this tape, to this day, I don't think anybody knows who it was who delivered a copy of it to the Gawker offices in New York, but somebody delivered a copy of it. And the then editor of Gawker, AJ Daulerio saw this tape and decided to write an essay about it. And he included like one minute -- I think like maybe 90 seconds or something -- of this, like really grainy it's from a distance, you know, it's not like a staged tape. It's like this really weird, almost like a blackmail tape you would think, right? Like a concealed camera, it's from far away, but they're having sex. And and so he wrote this really kind of weirdly poetic essay about this thing that had come into his possession. Then Hulk Hogan decided to sue them for invasion of privacy. 


And I mean, the thing is you know, from a First Amendment perspective, Gawker did not cause the tape to be made. They published a small excerpt of it. They actually really could not be held liable for -- I mean it wasn't, they who invaded Hulk Hogan's privacy, They published this thing. 


And so as far as the law is concerned  they really had no case. So the whole thing was just absolutely like this wild kind of like circus. It was fascinating and strange and terrible. And you could just sort of see the same kind of hypocrisy that we have seen from Trumpists. In the years since was so on display in this thing, you know, this like performative sort of outrage, at  free-thinking people are like they kept making a big deal of, Nick Denton's sex life and stuff. It was incredible, I mean the whole thing was mesmerizing in a bad way.


Mark: Who is Peter Thiel. And how does it get revealed that he is involved?


Maria: Peter Thiel is a billionaire who is one of the founders of PayPal and a very big sort of wheel in the sort of VC community of Silicon Valley. This sort of legendary investor and also a big Trump supporter who actually spoke at the nominating convention at the RNC when Donald Trump was nominated to take the nomination.


So he's like right wing, super duper rich The so-called Libertarian style of politics, like a famous for like saying that women should not have been given the vote. So Peter Thiel is gay and this was apparently well in Silicon Valley circles before Gawker ever said anything about it, but the sort of nominal reason for Peter Thiel's ongoing rage against Gawker, and the reason why he invested literally at least $10 million in seeing that Gawker was shut down, according to him, is that they had outed him. And, but everybody in Silicon Valley is like, Well, that's not true. Everybody knew this. And so why was it? Well, I mean, any reader of Valleywag, which was like the publication of Gawker that was constantly talking about Peter Thiel… They were so contemptuous and scornful of this man, they humiliated him again and again and again, they mocked him for his seasteading plans. They mocked him for his, like he had this Thiel Fellows program where he would pay promising young people, a hundred thousand dollars to like, not go to college.


Mark: Oh yeah.


Maria: Oh, boy. The thing about Gawker is they're extremely irreverent and could be quite cruel, and they made this guy look like an idiot like on a weekly basis. I made a list at some point, Here's all the things that Valleywag wrote, so it's this whole really like bogus thing and it's years and years of humiliation. And I mean, you know, a guy with an ego like that, you know, it was kind of not surprising that he would get mad. 


But what nobody knew is that he was like looking for people whom he might fund to sue Gawker. And in the event, I think there were like, I dunno, half a dozen or more lawsuits that he funded to try and mess with Gawker and Nick Denton and various like writers there and so on.


And this time, the Hogan thing, he just got lucky, in this reactionary judge, and in this really insane jury. So, he funded this lawsuit and all these other ones, one of them was the guy who claimed to invent email, as I recall. There were a whole lot of them and he actually admitted it about four weeks after the trial was over that he had been the funder of this thing, or they had caused it to happen. And he referred to it as like, "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done."


Mark: wow.


Maria: Yeah. Yeah. It was real bad.  The really upsetting thing about it to me was, in our industry, there were so few journalists out there defending our colleagues at Gawker. I'm still actually incensed about this. They took the part of the bad guys, like so many of the people in this industry, maybe less so now, you know, that calamity of '16 has happened and people are realizing what the both sides-ism really cost. But at the time, the desire to to appear even-handed to the right, I think is part of it. And part of it is just obedience to power that a lot of people in this industry just ready to like be told what to write and think, which is just infuriating to me. But like, I was watching people go after AJ Daulerio and you know, say, "well, he was offensive, Gawker was offensive." Well, I mean, all these journalists would take Gawker's scoops, stories that they broke at Gawker that, were kind of scandalous and frightening, like for example, the Bill Cosby story, right. 


Mark: Yeah, gossip is the springboard to more coming out.


Maria: Exactly. It's like the gossip makes the next person safe, a little bit safer. And then the following thing makes that person that much safer.


Mark: So to go back, you're covering this trial. I mean, is there a moment where you're thinking to yourself this is changing everything for independent journalism, independent publications.


Maria: It never occurred to me in a million years that they wouldn't be able to appeal. When I realized that they were actually going to take this publication apart, I was so stunned. power can actually really put dozens and dozens of journalists out of business and silence them.  


Maria: They've never been able to start it back up again. Nick Denton had to pay this enormous amount of money in the end. It was 30-odd million to Hulk Hogan and, pay all these legal fees and, it just really broke the back of the whole thing.


Maria: And there's been this sort of diaspora and all the really great writers at Gawker have gone in like every direction. The writers were scattered to the four winds. And so the centralized force that had been a powerful questioning uncompromising, they made some mistakes, for sure. But I mean did the New York Times not make mistakes? You know, there's this hugely important force that's just absent from North American media. It's just a vacuum where that once was. 


Mark: I think it was one of those media cases where I didn't initially think it would apply to me as a publisher. Oh, I would never publish a sex tape. But on the other hand, I could eventually publish journalism that would make a billionaire me.


Maria: That's the only thing that ever mattered. Mark.


Mark: Yeah. So how is, how is a publisher supposed to compete with that? 


Maria: Well, I'm trying. I did decide right then that I would dedicate my professional energy to preventing power from shutting people up as much as I could. 


Just being one journalist, try to find creative ways. I mean, I really kind of see myself more as an information activist than as a journalist and I always have since back then, because we live in a time where the internet has been weaponized against ordinary people and freedom of information is being strangled more and more. I mean, like you look what happened in, places like China or Iran, you know, if you live through Tahrir Square or whatever, and you saw this moment where people might be able to see some power and how viciously that was quelled and you know, how incredible, the stranglehold on information is in mainland China, is actually really terrifying to me. They don't have an internet and a lot of places where people cannot contact each other. They cannot organize with each other. You know, they'll shut down in Kashmir. They shut down the entire internet for weeks after they you know, took away their state sovereignty, the, the terrible things that have happened, that are to do with the control of information. And I have feared that things like that could easily happen in countries that have traditionally valued, press freedom, like the United States, you know, it seems to me like we came really close To losing that already at the end of the Trump administration. And so, I'm just gonna find every which way that I can to promote press freedom and protect individual journalists and protect their right to say exactly what they think is true with no interference.


Mark: The way you've done it from what I've seen is really, structurally, in terms of how companies are created and how they're hosted with the work you've done with blockchain. Tell me a little bit about those pieces.


Maria: Yeah. I became interested in Bitcoin, like really early on and editor of my, a man I have the utmost respect for Matt Buchanan became the editor of Elements, which was this little blog within thenewyorker.com. And when he went there, he said, do you want to write something?

I'm like, are you kidding? I would love it. He's like, what do you want to write about it? I'm like Bitcoin. And he's like, really? And I'm like, seriously, this thing's going to be a thing I'm telling you. It's like a thing, I'm serious. And so I wrote this thing about it because there's just been that to do in Cyprus. And that was really interesting to me. But in researching it, I realized the thing that's fascinating about blockchain technology is its potential to produce incorruptible records. Because if you distribute, if you have 20,000 different computers that are all recording the same thing all at once, it doesn't Peter Thiel cannot do anything about that.


Potentially if you put the same thing on 20,000 computers and you actually shut the internet off, it's still going to be on a bunch of them, whatever it is that is inconvenient, you know, to power. So I thought I love this thing. I mean, do something about this. And I'm ridiculously oversimplifying, but there, there is a huge potential in it for journalists and for press freedom and to secure speech rights all over the world. So I was really super interested in it and, you know, I was kind of looking into it and I like applied for a couple of grants and I was thinking.

Seriously, got to hook up with the right people to do this. And then out of the blue, I got this phone call from Josh Benson who had formerly been involved at observer. You know, He's like, we're building a blockchain based publishing platform. I'm like, Oh my God, sit down. I have to tell you exactly what we're going to do. 




Mark: So, this is what led to the launch of civil, which was a blockchain based publishing platform.


Maria: I was so excited about it. The idea was to launch a crypto token, like an Ethereum based crypto token. You could use the incorruptibility of it to guarantee all kinds of journalistic things and also it's a sort of money, like tokens. So if a bunch of really cool journalists come in and denominate all their business in this token and it becomes more valuable and people use it for things like tipping and paying for subscriptions and it's journalism money then it will appreciate in value. And we are all working for each other's benefit and I just loved it. And so, you know, we started working on that. It fell victim to the crypto winter of 2018. I mean, Ethereum that it was based on, in like late 2017 I think went up to about $1,400 for one ETH and eventually fell in 2018 to $66.


So yeah, it was really, really severe. And the reason this happened was that the regulatory agencies, the SEC, the CFPB, FinCen, all started looking into crypto and thinking they'd better regulated at all,  and so it was like all these schemes that people had come up with to do all kinds of really interesting projects or suddenly illegal.


When we started, you could open a Coinbase account, with very little trouble, but by the end you had to be like uploading your passport and all this stuff. I mean, this is just one little thing.  It was just a regulatory, tangle of spaghetti and the whole thing fell apart.


And I mean, but it was amazing and great. And they gave us much money to start Popula. And that's what I did. I started  which launched, In the summer of, I think June 1st, I think 2018. And yeah, it was really fun. It was like, okay, this is the amount of money that we have. Like, what do you, can you do with this money?


And I thought, it wasn't really my intention to start a publication because I'm a complete beginner at it. I don't really know what I was doing, but I really believed in, in the Civil project. And I'm like, okay, I'll, I'll do this. And I thought, what can I add? That's like interesting and good. And I thought, well, the big problem with North American media is its insularity.


And how we think of the United States as the center of everything when it just isn't. And , that's kind of what populace for, to,  give voice, to like everybody we're all just together. We're all just people just talking about stuff that happens from all these different countries and all these different places and walks of life.


And it's just this really sort of egalitarian, it's like a digital agora kind of, I guess I would say.


Mark: Yeah, I love the site and I feel like it is, it, it feels like a natural extension of all of the great indie publications where I first discovered your work in the first place.


Maria: That's so nice.


Mark: I guess, based on your experience as a freelance writer, too, what did you want to create?


Maria:  Every single thing that we publish, I try to make sure has a personal dimension. It proceeds from a personal dimension and then sort of telescopes out into a broader interrogation of like politics or culture, sociology, like any number of things.


I think if we start from the sort of the human dimension and sort of appeal to each other, as people that it's fun and it's also the truth and it immediately kind of strips away all the artificiality of the pundit-based nonsense that exists elsewhere in mainstream media and like gives people a chance to, they come away, I hope like I do, when I read it with a sense of a world that is accurate and better and more beautiful. And so anyways, so we, we did that and then Civil messed up. And I was like, here, I've got this beautiful publication and I haven't given up on any of this.


And so well now what do we do? And so then I thought, Let's make a cooperative because that's what it was really supposed to be. It was really supposed to be a way for journalists to protect each other and have each other's backs.


What has happened all these publications that were taken down, invariably by. By owners. It's like through equity that publications and journalists are attacked and silenced and limited and muzzled. So we want to remove the sort of ownership  vulnerability that Achilles heel, like what do we do?


Right. So we spent a few months, studying. Cooperative agreements. And you know, there's a, there's a kind of a cool cooperative in Northern California called Arizmendi. It's a bakery that like they used,


Mark: It's one of my favorite pizza places ever. 


Maria: Oh my God. It's so good. I know, but even better than the food, which is insanely great is the cooperative.


So well, anyway, So we studied all these different things and I, I thought, okay, we can, do better than this, because even co-ops have been like overtaken by unfriendly entities,  And, and the way it works is this, that, , the cooperative itself  is governed by an operating agreement And the terms of the operating agreement are weird.


And. Cool. If you want to join, and someday I hope you will Mark, the Brick House, you apply and then we'd like, say yeah, or whatever. And then you have to pay for a share of the cooperative and it costs $1. So we capitalize this company with $9 and then. I know, and all you can do with it, according to the terms of the operating agreement that you have to sign before you join, you can only do one thing with it ever: sell it back to the company for $1. It cannot appreciate in value. You cannot sell it outside. You cannot sell it to one of the other members. You can't own more than one share. All you get, is the right to participate and share in whatever proceeds. So there's literally, we have done every possible thing that you can possibly do to eliminate equity.


Mark: And that is the, in your mind, sort of the key thing that would make a publisher, a target in the first place, right?


Maria: It's the key attack vector. I mean like that's how Peter Thiel went after Gawker. The equity of the company was concentrated in one man's personal wealth. So, if you could attack that, you can get rid of the company.


Mark: And in terms of the, the value of those shares, that's important too, right?


Maria: It's more in my mind, a question of control, right? If you have, for example, control of a board of directors by virtue of, you know, whatever kind of class of shares, like if you own a percentage, that's kind of how American business is structured.


So if you don't have an equity structure that is manipulable that way, if you just like bunch of journalists like us, right. I mean, I guess it would be possible, you'd have to go and control each one of the separate publications in the cooperative, which is why we need like hundreds of people to join the Brick House, then that will be harder.


Mark: Got it. So, so the larger it gets, the larger, the cooperative gets, the stronger.


Maria: yes.


Mark: And explained, So the name of the cooperative is Brick House.


Maria: Yeah, Tom Scocca and I were talking about what to call it. I'm like, I have to think of a name like now, because we have to file these papers. And so I'm like, I just, I wanted to be like it can't be blown down. And that was when we figured it out.


Mark: And it's structured as an Ohio cooperative. Why a cooperative and not, say, a nonprofit?


Maria: Nonprofits are at the mercy of, they also are liable. If you have a board of directors, it's like an outside board of directors. It's not the people who are running it, who are involved in it. Like the cooperative structure. Makes the journalists themselves responsible. They're the owners. They decide on everything, they're working on it together and they own it. And so it's uncomplicated and it's, it's honestly like reflects what we want it to look like.


Mark: Yeah, and I mean, Defector, there are a number of other new media companies that are kind of embracing this shared ownership model, but not in the exact same way, right?


Maria: No, Defector, who I love, they're very dear friends of mine, we published some of the best stuff I published last year was from Defector writers -- freaking amazing. Anyway, I love all of them and they've been supporters and they're really great. Deadspin was a huge company,  they had millions and millions of people coming and reading it all the time, they didn't need to build the thing. They needed to find a new home for an existing thing. And so it was just a,


Mark: Yeah.


Maria: And you know, their trip was not like, you know, screaming information activism maniac, obsessive, you know, they're like, we need a home for these millions of readers to come and read these, you know, so it's very different, but I love it. I'm a subscriber and very avid supporter of all of them. And I think they're some of the greatest talents in this industry and they're great, but yeah, it's just a real different kInd of mission.


Mark: Well, this is why I love chatting with you because I feel like you have such a strong vision and moral clarity about where things need to go in the future. I've thought a lot about  the business side of it, like memberships and subscriptions, and not as much about how you, build something that lasts. I think it's indicative of the fact that some of the links that we were talking about are now on the internet archive, in the Wayback Machine versus hosted anywhere


Maria: Horrifying to me. But I mean, This was, this was deliberate, you know, like power does not want to be challenged. capital doesn't want to be challenged power. Doesn't want to be challenged. And so. When you as a journalist, want to ask the inconvenient questions? I mean, There was this really amazing story just last week you've been watching I'm sure that ridiculous story of Amazon's attempts to prevent unionization in Alabama.  the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the soon to be ex CEO of Amazon, he's like stepping down to make clocks or something.


In the Washington Post, they refuse to denounce Amazon. There was this paragraph that was so unbelievable. They were like, you know, finding reasons why Amazon employees shouldn't be unionizing. And I mean, the Washington Post is a great paper. I'm a subscriber. I enjoy it.

There's a lot of really good journalists, brilliant people who work there, but the fact is they cannot speak out against their owner. They cannot do it. And so if we don't take steps, as journalists and people who care about press freedom and speech rights, if we don't take steps to counter that tendency and make sure that that there are places where people can say what they think is true, we will wind up like China. We will wind up where you cannot say anything against the state, we will wind up where you cannot say anything against powerful interests of any kind. You can't speak out against corporations. We will wind up like that. I mean, people who thought that, you know, it was an exaggeration to say that the Trumpists were going to resort to violence at the end of this thing were proved wrong.


It is not possible to exaggerate the danger of losing a free press. So that's why I get up every day, like a bat out of hell. And like, it's gotta be stopped. Yeah.


Mark: You've written for so many publications over the years, and I'm curious what your approach has been in terms of writing for other publications and how you go about finding the stories that you want to pursue.


Maria: Embarrassingly, it's a very chaotic process. Over the years, I've developed relationships with a lot of different editors. And sometimes I hear from people and sometimes I like find something  that is super-duper compelling and I have to write about it. And then I'll just think. What editor will actually let me get away with this. And that happened a lot at Longreads actually, your old gig, I remember so clearly thinking, okay, where will they allow me? And that was the answer, you know, so many times, like when I wrote about my daughter's diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, you know, and I had a very specific approach in mind and it was going to be a really long piece and I wanted it to be edited really sensitively -- and you know, y'all did this amazing, beautiful job with it. And the same thing when I wrote about attending class with George Saunders, which is just this thing, it was just a lark, I don't know, it was just really fun. And so I had this idea for a piece and I asked him, can I come to your class? And I thought, you are such an idiot. Why are you writing to George Saunders to ask to come to his class?


And he wrote back and said, yes. Yeah. And so, a lot of my process is, what is the craziest thing you could possibly think of, and then just try it. I would say probably the biggest piece of my whole career was the interview I did with Anthony Bourdain. It just so happened that, he gave me the last, really long interview that he did, you know, a few months before he took his own life. And, it was a very bizarre scene, but the reason that I was able to arrange for that conversation to take places that he had liked a piece that I had written about him at Eater, or like I just read all his books and wrote a piece about like, he had revealed his character quite a bit to my mind. You know, If you read them all at once, it's almost like an autobiography.


And so I wrote this piece, I had been commissioned by Matt Buchanan, who by then had wound up at Eater. He's like, will you read all of Anthony Bourdain's books? I'm like, yeah. Bordain had, had liked this piece. He sent this really nice email to me that it was just heartbreaking and, and kind, and so when we were going to launch Popula and I wanted to say, okay, who is like the champion person of egalitarianism and I thought, Oh, that would be amazing. Of course he will never do it. You know, it's ridiculous.


So I, so I wrote. I found a publicist or assistant and wrote, and said, I know this is impossible, you know? And he's like, sure. You have to be in New York next week. I'm like, okay. So, that was the thing, right? It was just this risk taking thing, but I don't even really think of it like that. It's not a careerist thing to like fall in love with someone's work and really pay attention and say everything good that you can say to readers about your experiences. Like that's just the job.


Mark: People who want to subscribe should go to thebrick.house. Right?


Maria: Yeah. And click the subscribe button conveniently located in the upper right corner.


Mark: Perfect. Excellent. This was such a great conversation and I'm so excited for what the Brick House is doing. So thank you again for coming on.


Maria: Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed every moment. Thank you, Mark.  




Thanks again to Maria, you can read more of her work at thebrick.house and popula.com. And thanks again for listening to Everything I've Learned. If you'd like to support the show, you can share it with a friend, write a review on Apple podcasts, or go to patreon.com/eil. I'll see you next time.