In today’s Darwinian media environment, newspapers, magazines and online publications seem to be biting the dust every week—a depressing new normal.
But the sudden death of Pacific Standard—a decade-old Santa Barbara-based online magazine covering environmental science, social justice, economics policy, official corruption and other substantive issues—has hit the journalism community especially hard.
“Generally the loss of smart independent publications makes me cynical and deeply tired,” New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Minkel tweeted in reaction to Wednesday’s announcement of the shutdown, “but I gotta say, the Pacific Standard news just makes me fucking angry.”
Investigative reporter A.C. Shilton, who wrote for Pacific Standard about an increase in rape, sex trafficking and domestic violence in the boom towns along North Dakota’s Keystone XL pipeline, captured the sentiments of many with her lament: “This is heartbreaking. I've looked to Pacific Standard so many times for examples of great, clear-eyed reporting and elegant (but never over-the-top) writing. What a loss.”
With all of 16 full-time journalists on staff, some two dozen writers and photographers on contract and thousands of freelancers over the years, Pacific Standard was small, to be sure, but regularly punched above its weight, winning many journalism prizes over its 10-year life as a kind of West Coast answer to The Atlantic.
The magazine, which transitioned last year from print-and-online to online only, received two prestigious National Magazine Awards (in the public interest category in 2015 and for feature photography in 2017), and boasted an enviable if select readership of 1.3 million monthly unique visitors in the coveted 25-34 median age demographic.
“It was growing into being a major force of good journalism in America,” said founding editor John Mecklin, who left in 2011 and these days runs the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “From its founding, it was dedicated to real stories, deeply reported with quality, while trying to address real problems, not the specific crap that flows day to day on the Internet, and when appropriate to suggest ways to solve these problems, and report it in a stylish and fun way. And it was largely successful.”
The current editor in chief, Nicholas Jackson, tweeted that Pacific Standard has “published 20,929 articles, working with a diverse army of 2,729 freelance writers and reporters (that’s about 31 million words), and commissioned thousands of illustrations and photographs.”
“I’m feeling all of the emotions about this terrible news,” he added. “Anger and frustration, certainly—we were repeatedly and enthusiastically told we were over-performing and -delivering up until the very end, and that we had a long-term commitment—shock, sadness and disappointment.”
The axe fell without warning on the widely respected and frequently honored publication launched in 2008, under a different title—Miller-McCune magazine—by philanthropist Sara Miller McCune, the controlling owner of the highly profitable international academic publishing behemoth, SAGE Publications Inc., a 1,700-employee company which boasts annual revenues in the $300 million-$400 million range.
A June 2010 Los Angeles Times article celebrated Miller McCune, then 69, as “one woman [who] looks into this bleak media sea and sees an opportunity, if not to make money, to fill a void with serious, solutions-oriented journalism.”
“It’s all very well and good to be publishing the academic literature,” Miller McCune was quoted in the story, “but if it isn’t penetrating into the minds of policymakers, the corporate leaders, the people who count … then you are not doing the whole job.”
Jackson, 32, who joined Pacific Standard as digital director in 2013 and has served as editor in chief for the past four years, told The Daily Beast the magazine’s patron was closely interested in it initially, scrutinizing every issue before it went to press and meeting with him every month.
But, he said, she had retreated from active involvement in the past couple of years, relinquishing her seat on the board of her Social Justice Foundation, which has financially supported Pacific Standard to the tune of more than $3 million a year with charitable donations from SAGE Publishing.
In recent days, Jackson said, Miller McCune has not responded to his attempts to speak to her about the shutdown.“She hasn’t returned my emails,” he said.
“Sara’s traveling at the moment and will not be able to speak about this,” said a member of Miller McCune’s staff when reached at her Montecito, California, estate. She was said to be in London, and has yet to react publicly to the death of Pacific Standard.
Jackson, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that he was “shocked” when he learned of his magazine’s doom on Monday.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said, and characterized the abrupt decision as “unethical” and possibly “illegal.”
“I would encourage my staff to consider what sort of legal options might be available to them,” Jackson said.
He noted that the four-member board of Sara Miller McCune’s non-profit Social Justice Foundation—all SAGE executives, including president and CEO Blaise Simqu, only recently approved his 10-year “Vision Plan” to beef up the magazine’s investigative reporting mission, among other ambitious expansions, and encouraged him to hire more fulltime journalists.
Indeed, this year alone, Pacific Standard welcomed eight new fulltime staffers, some of whom left their jobs at other media outlets such as Mother Jones and the Chicago Reporter to relocate to Santa Barbara. The new director of marketing and development, Jessica Hamilton, started work at Pacific Standard only three weeks ago.
As Pacific Standard has done for the past several years, the magazine also took on four paid journalism fellows, including one living in the United States on a visa from Brazil, who started their fellowships July 1 and are now facing the prospect of losing financial support (and in the Brazilian’s case, her permission to legally stay in the country).
“I’m still processing this, but for now just want to say I’m so proud of all the work we’ve done at @ PacificStand, and today is devastating,” one of the laid-off journalists, fact-checker and researcher Sophie Murguia, tweeted. “It’s been a huge honor to be a part of this team for the past five months.”
In the bitterest of ironies, senior Pacific Standard reporter J. Brian Charles started on July 8 at the new investigations desk—and will now be jobless. His previous employer was Governing magazine, which announced its own shutdown on the same day that Pacific Standard’s fate was made public.
“I feel like the Angel of Death, actually,” Charles told The Daily Beast with gallows humor. “I used to work for DFM”—a newspaper chain owned by the Alden Capital hedge fund, notorious for the “vulture capitalist” practice of acquiring local papers at a bargain-basement price and then plundering their assets—“so I know what it’s like to watch a newsroom empty out.”
Charles, who said he had no plans to move to Santa Barbara and was doing his work remotely, gave up his apartment in Washington, D.C., and had arranged to move to upstate New York to be close to his school-age daughter. But now those plans are up in the air, and Charles was looking for a job on Thursday.
“I find it upsetting that the staff was not given more lead time,” founding editor John Mecklin said. “It’s just not a good way to treat people.”
However, SAGE global marketing exec Clive Parry, president of the foundation board that oversees Pacific Standard, defended their action in an email to The Daily Beast: “[W]e moved fast to notify the staff once we had done sufficient work to understand our options around severance packages and our other legal and financial obligations, including to Pacific Standard contributors and other freelancers.”
Parry added: “We did not at all expect to be in this situation even a month ago and before that were committed to the direction Nick was taking the magazine and pleased with the rapid progress he and his team had made. We understand and deeply regret the shock of this announcement to our staff and its impact on them. If we had been able to give notice or warning earlier, we of course would have done so.”
Editor in Chief Jackson said he had been spending the past four days haggling with Parry, the foundation’s board president, in an effort to secure more generous payments than what he called the “paltry severance packages” on offer.
“There’s been sort of an internal battle going on,” Jackson said, adding that he kept the bad news to himself until Wednesday morning when Parry showed up at Pacific Standard’s offices to formally announce the shutdown effective Aug. 16.
Parry emailed: “We have been reviewing our projections for the money remaining in the Foundation following the initial meeting with staff and, as a result, I informed Nick Jackson last night that we can fund regular salaries for an additional pay period, to August 30th. This will give all staff an additional 2 weeks’ pay in addition to their severance packages.”
Jackson, meanwhile, said he has been attempting to see if any well-endowed nonprofits might be induced to replace SAGE Publishing as Pacific Standard’s financial backers.
Several people have suggested trying Oprah Winfrey, who owns a lavish estate nearby, or even billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer.
“I’m reaching out to some folks I know at the Emerson Collective and elsewhere that might potentially be interested,” Jackson said. “It’s a long shot, but I think it’s worth at least a little bit of energy.” The Emerson Collective, which owns The Atlantic, is headed up by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Parry, for his part, emailed The Daily Beast: “We would very much like to find a new home for Pacific Standard and are keen to explore all viable options.”
Jackson, 32, said the Social Justice Foundation is also closing its doors, and that the office space currently occupied by the foundation and the magazine has already been leased to a new tenant effective Sept. 15.
Parry, however, emailed: “Another tenant in the building occupied by Pacific Standard had previously expressed interest in expanding into our space, and we are working now on a lease assignment but that has not yet been signed.”
As for the abrupt nature of the shutdown, Parry stressed: “The Board only learned in the later part of July that it would receive no more contributions as SAGE needs to focus investment on its core business of academic and professional publishing. The Board then needed to move fast to ensure that sufficient funds remained to manage an orderly shutdown of the Foundation and to fund a reasonable severance package.”
Parry continued: “We did earlier in July start seriously considering the lease assignment offer as a way of reducing operating costs but the intention then, had it been assigned, would have been to move the Foundation main office to Thousand Oaks in California where SAGE could have made space available and Pacific Standard would have continued publishing otherwise unimpacted.”
A statement from the soon-to-shutter Social Justice Foundation asserted: “SAGE is unable to continue to offer the very considerable financial support that the magazine requires to be viable while also investing in the core businesses of SAGE Publishing and, as a result, the Board of the Foundation had no alternative but to take this decision.”