Ctrl + Alt + Delete: How 4 VICE Workers Quit to Start Their Own Site
404 Media is a tech publication focused on producing great journalism—without overpaying any executives in the process.
1:02 PM EDT on August 23, 2023
The water's warm in the world of independent media, and on Tuesday, four tech journalists dove in with the launch of their new, subscriber-funded publication 404 Media. Fresh off of years working together at VICE's tech vertical Motherboard, the co-founders are eager to get back to the basics of writing and reporting, unencumbered by a corporate giant that filed for bankruptcy in May and was acquired by an investment group in June.
In an interview, 404 Media cited Defector and Hell Gate (thanks!) among their inspirations for breaking off on their own. They plan to launch a podcast, along with publishing investigative reports, blogs, and longform features, all with a focus on hacking, cybersecurity, cybercrime, sex, AI, consumer rights, surveillance, privacy, and the democratization of the internet. I sat down for a quick conversation with the team (which is, full disclosure, made up entirely of my former co-workers) on the day they launched to talk about why they believe in subscriber-funded journalism, how leading VICE's union helped inspire them to launch their new venture, and what they're looking forward to now that they're their own bosses.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So, 404 Media, what's up? Can everybody introduce themselves?
Jason Koebler: I am a co-founder of 404 Media. I was the editor-in-chief of Motherboard for six years and a staff writer for four years before that. And I like to surf, also. That's my identity.
Sam Cole: I'm formerly a senior editor at Motherboard. I was there for almost six years—six years in November, which is kind of sad. I almost made it. I'm writing about online culture, sex, sexuality, AI—weird shit we find on the internet is the beat.
Emanual Maiberg: Before this, I was executive editor at Motherboard and had been there since late 2014 as a freelancer, and then full-time in 2015, or 2016. I'm going to be covering all kinds of stuff. My first story on the site is about the marketplace for AI porn of real people. Joe, why don't you go?
Joseph Cox: Sorry, I'm trying to tweet as well. I was a senior staff writer for Motherboard. I was at VICE on and off since 2013, when I was an intern. I'm ready to keep doing the sorts of work I was doing before. My latest story is about how hackers can now doxx nearly anybody in America for $15, so that's great.
Obviously, I know you all from working alongside you at VICE, but I did not know this was gonna happen, and I was super excited to see it. Can you tell me about the genesis of the idea and how long you all have been thinking about breaking off and starting your own publication?
Koebler: I thought about having my own website since I founded "Jason's Site" when I was like, 11 years old. And ever since then, I've just been writing words onto the internet and publishing them. I put everything that I had into Motherboard, but the company has been going through a bankruptcy. It's become a very difficult place to work. The future there is unclear. I've been there for 10 years, and I started thinking about what the next chapter of my life would be. I really want to just get back to the basics of reporting and writing, because I've been in such a managerial role for a long time. Then, I learned that Emanuel, Joseph, and Sam were in a kind of similar headspace, so we started looking into it.
Cox: It was nights, weekends, that sort of thing. The idea percolated for [a few months]. For me, it was when the executive salaries came out. I was like, OK, this is untenable. I'm out.
Maiberg: Katie, you're gonna have to disclose in your article that you and I were on the [VICE Union] bargaining committee for this last contract that was negotiated…
Don't tell me how to do my job.
Maiberg: [Laughs] OK, well, we have some common language, having gone through that process together. And when you're in bargaining and you're trying to get minimum salaries for everyone, and promotions, and new pay grades, and annual raises, and then seeing in black and white what executives are getting paid, and the bonuses that they're getting, was just a reality check about how to move forward and wanting to do something where I have more control about how we're spending money. That was the moment we really decided to do something.
What drew you all to the subscription model?
Koebler: I helped set up Waypoint Plus, which was a subscription product for Waypoint, VICE's video games site and podcast. That was very successful, and I was very heartened to see their community support them, and see the sort of freedom that it gave them. Not just editorially, but financially—there were a lot of restrictions, but it took some of the pressure off of hustling for sponsors and advertisements. What we do, "we" meaning the people on this call, is relatively specialized. We pride ourselves on going places on the internet that a lot of people don't go and surfacing really important stories very early. Over the years, we've built up a lot of goodwill among our sources, and on the internet as well. So, the idea of asking people to directly financially support that work has been in my mind for a few years.
Maiberg: We just want to be sustainable, and we don't want to get into some place where we're chasing investment and have to bring in returns. That's kind of the trouble that VICE got in, and we definitely learned a lesson there. We would rather take it slow and start small, and do it sustainably, rather than, you know, take $100 million from someone who wants to get $300 million the next year.
Koebler: No one offered us $100 million, though, to be clear. No, but Emanuel is exactly right—we didn't want to get on a treadmill. We feel very confident that our work is vital, and that we will do very important work that will be impactful, and that it's going to be fun, that people are going to want to read it, and that it is worth paying for. It's a different question as to whether people are actually going to pay for it. It's very presumptuous to assume that the business is going to succeed. We hope that it's going to succeed, and we hope that people are going to subscribe to us, and we definitely need them to, otherwise we're not going to be able to do it.
At the same time, if we took a big VC investment, we would then need to figure out how to bring in revenue right away. For the type of work we do, subscription makes the most sense, and it also allows us to be sustainable from day one. We're going to explore having ads at some point, but we don't need to do it from day one. We talked to the New York Times about this, too, but we're also thinking about developing our best stories into documentaries and into movies and stuff like that. That's something that we all did at VICE. On Friday, I'm going to publish an article about how to get into film photography, and it's gonna have affiliate links on it. That might bring in $5, I don't know. But our theory is that if we do all of these things, we can be sustainable, and we can scrape by as people, and then hopefully, we can make a livable wage and then hire people and pay them a livable wage as well.
Let's talk shop a little—how are you structuring the new publication?
Cole: It's definitely going to be journalist-owned, in that we're journalists and we own it, but we haven't even gotten to the stage where we're talking about hiring. Of course, we want to hire people someday, but we don't know what that looks like yet. We're being careful not to label it as worker-owned yet, because we don't know what it's gonna be. Like, right now, we own it. And we're the workers. But, you know, whether that's gonna be the model? Not sure.
In terms of editorial structure, we're all doing everything. Joseph is doing the podcast, I'm gonna be doing a newsletter, Jason's been trying to get us insurance and lawyers and SEO help and shit like that. But really, it's all of us doing everything, which you kind of have to.
Koebler: Having only four people makes that tenable. We're all 25 percent owners, and we don't have titles beyond "journalist" or "co-founder," but I think I'll mostly go with journalist, because that is first and foremost what we care about—that's our job. That said, it's been extremely exciting to figure out how stuff works, to go through the process of hiring a lawyer, incorporating, designing the website and getting logos done, getting a bank account, things like that.
We touched on this already, but Sam and Emanuel, how did being involved in the VICE Union impact your choice to pursue worker ownership?
Maiberg: Being in the union was one of the most significant parts of the job for me, when I was at VICE. I view [404 Media] as kind of an evolution of that. When we had a union, we had a lot of power—that is where we got power at the company. This is just a way for us to have even more control. It's the logical progression: not just bargaining with the company, but owning the company, seizing the means! There's definitely a through line there.
Cole: Yeah, being in the union was radicalizing in a way that nothing else is, when you're working at a company like VICE, or a big company in general, I think. The union is still putting out stories about how VICE still hasn't paid a bunch of severance to people that they're contractually owed—people are really having a hard time. It feels like the people who are making these decisions are just MIA a lot of the time. We want to change that model, and right now, we're beholden to our readers and each other. It feels like a good start—a better start than what's gone on.
What's the audience response been like so far?
Cole: It's been really good! It's been really fun today.
Koebler: I'm having fun.
Maiberg: For sure, but I have a headache.
Koebler: I've been very excited in the last few days leading up to launch. Loading the website, making sure stuff works. And we've had a lot of help along the way—shout out to Aaron Shapiro, who helped us design the site, which we think looks really good. Then you kind of hit the button, and it goes live. We were all on a Google Hangout this morning, five minutes before we pushed everything live.
We knew a New York Times story was coming out, and that's obviously huge. We did a photoshoot, that was the most surreal experience of any of our lives—we were all talking on Signal, like, "What the fuck do we wear to this thing?" Then, I'm in California. We literally published the stories while it's still dark here, and I'm by myself in my garage, waiting for the world to find out about this thing. It's very nerve-wracking when people actually get to see it, and we're overwhelmed by the support and all the very kind words.
Cox: I haven't tweeted for months, because I hate that shit nowadays. But here, there's some good news: "We're launching this new thing!" And people who I haven't interacted with in a long time, they've come out and they're like, "Holy shit, this is great. I just subscribed," or "I just subscribed on an annual plan, I'm really excited for you!" I'm blown away, really. There is an audience for our work—we knew that thanks to Motherboard. Now, we can serve them even better.
How are you feeling about the future now that you no longer work at a giant, questionably healthy media corporation?
Cole: There's different things looming over us now, like the failure of our entire company, but that feels more up to us and our readers—it's not up to some totally detached spreadsheet person looking at just numbers. It's incredibly distracting and soul-sucking to be at a company like that, where you're trying to figure out every day if you're gonna lose your job, and watching your colleagues lose their jobs, which is also crushing. It feels good to be inspired and creative and doing something new. It just feels like a fresh start.
Maiberg: This is a tough business, and that's why we need readers to subscribe and support us. We want Hell Gate readers specifically to subscribe and support us, because we know they're willing to support great journalism. But for me, like Jason, I was in a managerial position, and I know I will have to do a lot of business management here, because we've been doing it.
But something that happened at VICE, especially over the last two years, is that I had creative freedom, and we were able to do great work the entire time. People are doing great work there right now, and will continue to do so. But increasingly, I was doing my job, but there were these outside forces that were taking up more and more of my time, and distracting me from the kind of work that I want to do, whether it's actual writing or editing, or managing a team of writers and editors. I was handling company problems that I was not responsible for and had little control over.
Now, I'm sure there will be problems, but they're my responsibility, my fault, my wins, my losses. That's how we want to do things right now.
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