How to Survive The Prestige Recession
This month, Pitchfork announced that it was laying off most of its staff and folding into GQ. Shortly after, the LA Times announced they cut 25% of their staff with Insider and Forbes following after. These kind of media layoffs have been in full swing for years but Pitchfork brought out some takes.
One of my favorites frames came from Yancey Strickler who described Pitchfork’s downfall in the context of a “Prestige Recession.” Yancey, who used to write for Pitchfork, explained it’s decline as something that can just happen to publications. They catch lightning in a bottle, help cultivate a scene and then fade. Yancey further described this category of cultural criticism trending toward de-professionalization where the money, for a bunch of reasons, just isn’t there anymore.
I very much agree that we’re in a “Prestige Recession” and find this frame to be helpful in making sense of the internet and so many of the institutions connected to it in 2024. Where I disagree is the part about the current state of cultural criticism and it’s future. Music coverage and cultural criticism is thriving right now, it just looks very different than how it did before.
Let’s give a specific example as it relates to music.
I’ll caveat this by saying I’m not a massive music nerd but every now and then, I’ll find a new artist/genre and want to go down the rabbit hole. Which is what happened last year when I discovered an obscure artist from the Instagram story of a friend who saw him live that I instantly loved (shout out to Jeremy). My first instinct wasn’t to go to Pitchfork as I might have done in the early 2010s to learn more, it was to type his name into YouTube. And over the course of many searches, YouTube gave me so much that I wanted.
His music videos were the first thing I devoured and then I was onto live performances set up by other channels. Then a video essay that chronicled his rise from uploading songs to SoundCloud when he was 13 to where he is now. I got context, endless reaction videos, and then a review from the, “internet’s busiest music nerd” which i hated, but understood.
Many people have good theories on why Pitchfork fell apart, one is simply because it came online when the above competition wasn’t there. There’s no doubt that they are a unique publication that does something different than all those other orgs but they are also a publication. They failed to innovate on their own editorial product over two decades and then leaned into their prestige and self proclaimed authority. To the degree that, on the day their publication folded into GQ, Pitchfork’s Twitter bio was, “the most trusted voice in music.” A bit of copy that’s under a yellow checkmark which they pay Elon Musk $1,000 a month for.
We don’t know how deep we are into the prestige recession. We don’t know whether we’re in for another decade of this kind of turbulence or whether we’re about to turn a corner. The thing that keeps happening though is that, just when you think we’ve found the bottom, a new wave of layoffs hit. Or just when you thought there was no way we could get lower when it comes to the general trust in media, we find a new low.
So how do you survive the prestige recession?
One way is to embrace it. Accept that the graph above about trust in media is that way for a reason and ask yourself how we got here.
This applies to the media industry but it also applies to so many other institutions dealing with historic declines in trust; higher-ed, the health care industry, and each major political party in the US.
How did we get to the point where a private undergrad education costs ~350k? Or a political reality where nearly half of the country now calls themselves independent?
A prestige recession is downstream from a normal recession because you can coast for longer when you have prestige. A publishing company (like Condé Nast) can buy a pub, throw money at it hopes that it will eventually figure itself out, then cut it off with no warning. And when you have an endowment of 50 billion dollars like Harvard you are untethered to reality in a way that is hard to comprehend. Most people don’t question the prestige until something crazy happens and you see how deep the rot goes.
In the past few years we’ve seen some people defect from orgs with prestige and then go and do their own thing. Many launched Substacks which caught fire and turned into publications (shoutout to The FP, Platformer, Pirate Wires, Blocked and Reported, Defecter ). Others launched podcasts and YouTube channels (Lex Fridman, Channel 5, MKBHD, Conversations with Coleman, Honestly, New Models and so many others). We’ve even seen an attempt at a new university (University of Austin).
At every step of the way, I’ve watched many roll their eyes at these efforts. In order to gain their following, the orgs had to do many non-prestigious things, like beg their early supporters to give them $5 a month. Or get into the weeds in their comment section to resolve a dispute. The thing that all of the above orgs have in common is that they’ve all, painstakingly, built a direct line to an audience that is paying them every month. And because of that, they have more job security than anyone currently sitting at a desk at The New Yorker.
The institutions with the most prestige in the US did not start out that way. They started from a place of genuine need and built from there. And with this much institutional trust in the toilet, it’s hard to think of a more compelling time to do the hard thing once again. Let go of prestige. Return to first principals and find something people want. If recessions are good moments to build new companies, prestige recessions are good times to build new communities and institutions.
We’ve never needed them more.