It was another bad week for comics coverage at what was once the industry’s most prominent newssite, the Eisner Award winning Comic Book Resources (CBR). As reported by Popverse earlier this week, editor-in-chief Adam Swiderski was laid off. It soon emerged on social media that several other editors had been let go, including much respected senior new editor Stephen Gerding, who had been with the site for more than 17 years, as well as senior features editor Christopher Baggett.
In a subsequent story Popverse reported that an internal statement on Valnet’s slack explained the layoffs as follows:
“CBR will be undergoing major structural changes related to turning the corner on both culture and performance,” with those changes meaning that “as a result certain roles no longer exist, and we are focusing on individuals who can create a more positive culture going forward.”
Managing editor Jon Arvedon will take over running the site, as stated by Valnet content director George Edelman. Canada-based Valnet is the parent company of CBR, as well as Screen Rant, Collider, MovieWeb, Game Rant and several other gaming and pop culture sites.
In 2016, Valnet purchased CBR from Jonah Weiland, who owned the site and is also one of the founding fathers of comics web journalism. CBR gradually became a more generic “content farm” turning out less and less comics content and more and more listicles and inane click-baity articles.
While comics news sites sort of are competitors, we all realize we’re on the same tiny floatee in a rapidly evaporating kiddie pool so there’s a pretty collegial atmosphere. We talk. I’d been hearing that Valnet was paying less and less and asking for more and more work from writers for a while, and this week’s layoffs and “culture change” brought many folks out of the woodwork on Twitter, including the Beat’s former managing editor, Samantha Puc, who tweeted:
I haven’t spoken publicly about this because I didn’t want to burn bridges, but Valnet is a monster. In 2019, I was “promoted” from one editor to position to another at CBR and given an accompanying pay increase, but six months later when upper mgmt talked about raises, anyone who had accepted a “promotion” (including me) wasn’t eligible because “we got raises when we took on new positions.” As a FT section editor expected to be available 24/7, I made $2k a month. When I asked for more money, I was fired. My “click bonuses” for articles that performed well were also about half of what I should have received. When I asked why, they told me, “bot traffic doesn’t count.”
Their entire system chews people up and spits them out for pennies all under the guise of “building portfolios.” When I was there, everyone was a freelance contractor, which the company cited as a “perk” because “everyone could make their own hours.” In actuality it allowed Valnet to deny benefits to employees working more than FT hours and to sever contracts whenever they wanted. Anyone who attempted to push back or ask for more was either pushed out or outright let go.
The statement that CBR was looking to “create a more positive culture,” as you might expect, drew a lot of comment. The Beat spoke with several people close to the CBR situation, and a picture emerged that this “positive culture” might not be so positive.
We’re told that those removed were actually standing up for writers, with Swiderski, Gerding and Baggett pushing back against more changes along the lines of what Puc reported. Writers were being asked to do more work while shrinking the Pay Per View rates. The situation was described to me by one person as “working writers to the bone.”
The situation is so dire that in addition to the three editors, I’m told two HR people were laid off, who also objected to the demands that management was making on writers, who, as a reminder, are contractors, not employees. That HR people risked their jobs – and lost them – to stand up for the rights of contract workers is a situation I’ve not heard of before, and quite the indictment of Valnet’s working conditions.
As awful as Valnet can allegedly be, in a way I understand anyone involved in creating online content for profit hitting the panic button. I don’t have the time to go into how shitty it is to be creating content on the web these days, but advertising is way down, even more so than usual with a recession or something looming. Marketing budgets are always the first thing to be cut in these times, and although advertising will bounce back (it always does, the competition for eyeballs is eternal) it’s a pretty rough time for all right now.
The other looming threat is, of course, AI, which can take over the scut work of human drones (rewriting press releases, making explainers, etc) in a frightfully efficient (but unverified) manner. Google is currently messing with its own search and possibly pivoting to AI, something that could kill sites like the one you’re reading right now with a ruthlessness Thanos would find cold-blooded.
My first thought about these Valnet changes was that the new culture might mean a pivot to AI, but insiders I talked to thought this was not directly the case – as in AI won’t take over writing the articles just yet. Google is still officially against that kind of thing. However AI might provide other kinds of optimization and “idea generation” – which sounds even worse and more generic than PR rewriting but these are the days of our lives.
At any rate, as I pointed out on Twitter, this isn’t the end of comics journalism, because CBR wasn’t doing much of it. We still have ICv2, Popverse, ShelfDust, Rob Salkowitz, Graphic Policy, Women Write About Comics, Broken Frontier, AIPT, and, of course, the Beat. (And probably a half dozen other worthy sites I’ll remember as soon as I hit publish. Plug your faves in the comments!)
Or, y’know, we could just pivot to video/Tik Tok, because they make a ton more money
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I was going to add some other ones here but to be honest, they are modest, and it might be more embarrassing to post. Look, I get it, no one wants to pay to read about comics!
I’ve said this many times, but this is what I do, and I’ll be here doing something like this until I’m too feeble minded to type or I can’t pay the hosting bill.
In the meantime, hire