Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


May 7, 2009

Out On His ASSME

Aaron Gell, the founder of the American Society for Shitcanned Media Elites, dishes on the sorry state of magazines.

Adam Rosen

As far as genre goes, the demise of American publishing story has easily acquired its own set of defining traits. For one, repetition. How often must we be reminded of the perils that lie ahead for the Republic, the ink producers in Skokie, the impractically educated recent grad? Quite a bit, actually. Valid or not, print (and ex-print) people like to write. As the saying goes, idle New York media types are the Devil's playthings—particularly if you're one to believe in the Devil.

No one understands this better than Aaron Gell, head chronicler at the chronicle of media demise-gawking, the American Society for Shitcanned Media Elites, or ASSME. An enduring New York media elite—he's worked variously as writer and editor to a kiosk of national glossies, some still around, some not—Gell, 41, was laid off from Radar in October, where he was executive editor of the cutting politics and pop culture magazine for two and a half years. The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), the magazine industry's top trade organization, was no longer asking for favors, presumably, if they were asking Gell for anything at all. And so, ASSME was born.

Aaron Gell. Photo by Erin Giunta
"My real accomplishment has been avoiding J-school."

Aaron Gell. Photo by Erin Giunta

Paradoxically, Gell quickly found a job after establishing his jesting—though not entirely unserious—support group for laid-off and alcohol-infused New York media authorities. He's currently the editor at Hemispheres, United Airlines' magazine, though he vows never to "voluntarily relinquish the many benefits and privileges" that come with the ASSME Presidency. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Gell talks to Gelf about the viability of non-profit journalism, his hopes for ASSME, and why publishing blogs in print is a terrible idea. Come hear Aaron Gell and editors from other recently defunct magazines at Gelf's Media Circus event on Thursday, May 14, at the JLA gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

Gelf Magazine: Well, you've avoided law school. Was it a narrow miss?

Aaron Gell: Never say never. I think I've been pretty lucky so far. But my real accomplishment has been avoiding J-school.

Gelf Magazine: What came first, the name or the acronym?

Aaron Gell: Ah, the eternal question. Who knows?

Gelf Magazine: Has ASSME just been a place for commiseration, or has it tackled stuff like group health insurance?

Aaron Gell: We've got a long way to go before we can get into that sort of thing. At this point, the goal is really to foster a sense of community, to harness some of the energy that's floating around out there and to make the point that the tools of media creation are really ubiquitous now and maybe we don't really need some of the institutions that employed us in order to do the work we like to do. If we can figure out how to get people compensated for that work through some new financial model, or even participate in inventing that next step, that would be a big accomplishment. We'd be heroes.

Gelf Magazine: So you're staying pretty active, despite having full-time responsibilities. No President Emeritus for you?

Aaron Gell: Our contributors are taking on a lot of the responsibilities. We've got John Gorenfeld doing a lot of our web stuff, Sheila McClear helping coordinate contributors, Drew Grant firing off endless volleys of brilliant posts, and Shawna Seldon handling the event planning. But as far as me voluntarily relinquishing the many benefits and privileges of the ASSME presidency? Never.

Gelf Magazine: What's a teetotaling elite to do?

Aaron Gell: Well, we do like to have parties, but drinking isn't a requirement. We've also got an ice cream social planned, and the real push at this point is the group blog, which is always open to new members.

Gelf Magazine: For whatever reason, it seems you've garnered quite a bit of media attention.

Aaron Gell: It's true. I was kind of shocked by it at first, but it's probably not that surprising that media people write about other media people. I'm really just glad there's still anyone left to write about us!

Gelf Magazine: How is "elite" status determined?

Aaron Gell: I think it's really a state of mind. The phrase "media elites" is obviously a putdown, basically invented by politicians, who are obviously more elite than any journalist, trying to ingratiate themselves with the commoners. One article I read recently traced it to Dan Quayle going after Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock, and labeling her part of a "cultural elite." It's a cruel epithet that we willingly embrace. Actually, maybe we should print up cards so we can be "card-carrying members" of the shitcanned media elite.

Gelf Magazine: Is it strange to be the leader of a group whose entire existence is based on one precondition you no longer meet? How do you even relate to the average ASSME member out there?

Aaron Gell: Well, there really is no precondition for membership. And membership is actually just a matter of joining our mailing list or our Facebook group. We have many more employed members than unemployed. I think in this moment, we're all sort of in the same boat, whether we're laid off, freelancing, hustling, permalancing, or actually employed. The industry itself is crumbling around us. Whether we happen to be drawing a paycheck is basically a matter of circumstance and luck. We all know our jobs are in jeopardy. So as I say, ASSME is a state of mind, and we don't discriminate against the gainfully employed.

Gelf Magazine: Have you heard of The Printed Blog? Is this idea crazy…enough to work?

Aaron Gell: If by "work" you mean make money by aggregating other people's creative efforts, refusing to compensate them, and selling ads around their material, then sure! Anytime you can figure out how to exploit someone's labor, you've got a decent business proposition. But I find it pretty disreputable. It's like all those news aggregators, and sites like that, which are basically the tapeworms of the new media age. That said, is made up of unpaid contributors. I'm hoping they're feeling compensated in other ways than financially for now, but I'm starting to look at selling ads on the site, and if we actually generate some income, I think it's only fair that our most dedicated contributors get a piece of the action.

Gelf Magazine: Do you include Gawker in this camp?

Aaron Gell: Not at all. I think Gawker does much more than aggregate news. You read Gawker for the writers' take on things, which is often really smart. And [Nick] Denton just hired John Cook, a really talented investigative journalist whom I worked with at Radar, to go out and dig up stories. I can quibble with individual posts but overall I think Gawker's doing it right.
I also think Drudge, despite being an aggregator, is great model for how that can be done fairly. He doesn't offer much beyond his own editorial judgment, but he sends readers to the original source of an article if they want to know what it's about (except when he sends them to Breitbart first). I think that serves the readers as well as the media outlets he's linking. What I object to about newser and occasionally HuffPo is the attempt to give you just enough borrowed material that you never need to bother to go check out the original. It's amazing to me that they get away with that. But I get why they do it. I often remind our contributors that when they're citing an article, to quote as little as possible and let the reader go see the original piece for him or herself. But it's become a habit among bloggers and we need to rethink it if we want there to be any decent reporting out there to link to.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think media will actually bounce back after the recession winds down?

Aaron Gell: I would guess it will be very different. I think the internet is basically going to wipe out all the old business models. Even for magazines and newspapers that ride out this recession, the change in how people get information is really staggering, and it will obviously accelerate. I have no idea what will happen, but I do feel like once we all get over the initial shock we'll realize it's a great time to be in the media field, not financially of course but just for the range of opportunities to do independent stuff and build something original.

Gelf Magazine: How viable is the non-profit model of journalism?

Aaron Gell: Completely viable. Look at NPR and PBS. They produce some of the best journalism anywhere, and there are plenty of great nonprofit magazines and journals out there. If I can find a lawyer to help out with the paperwork, I'd love to make ASSME a nonprofit. Simply trying to pile up money seems a bit out of fashion right now. I think it's much more interesting to build an organization that has some kind of social value, even if it's ultimately somewhat frivolous. To the extent that money can help do that it's great, but beyond that point it can really warp your values and make you cynical. There were a lot of terrible magazines out there chasing ad money, and it's not that surprising that readers disappeared the minute they found an alternative.

Gelf Magazine: If a magazine folds that you find entirely frivolous or dull, you're not smirking, even a little bit?

Aaron Gell: Totally. Are you kidding? I hate so many magazines! I seriously wish I could say I'll miss them more. I find myself all the time reading publications we all know and thinking, This is it? This is your argument for existing? For instance Esquire. I picture that magazine as some schmuck in No Country for Old Men, with a gun to his head, and the marketplace is Javier Bardem who's got the thing cocked and is saying, basically, "Give me one good reason I shouldn't blow you away." And the magazine says, "Well, we got George Clooney to tell you what it means to be a man, now." Boom, right?

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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