The independent digital publishing scene is going to get a bit smaller this summer, because, as of July 1, the Toast is shutting down. Launched in 2013, the eclectic blog — which found a devoted and enthusiastic but ultimately too-small readership for its smart, funny essays and riffs — has reached the conclusion that it can no longer sustain itself without selling more ads or including much broader coverage in order to play Google and Facebook’s algorithmic game.
In a dialogue, the site’s leaders, Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe, explained that they had decided to end the site on their own terms.
MALLORY: And we looked at our different options – running a lot more ads/generating a ton more content that’s pegged to The Cycle of News, trying to sell (which, in order to do, we’d probably have to go back and do that first thing), hiring replacements who were willing to take on our pretty intense workloads (which, you still don’t take a salary! Where were we going to find that extra salary?), and none of them seemed very good. Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever. Which we found unappealing!
The Toast’s demise is the latest indication of a shrinking middle ground in online publishing. Generally, for online publishers to make enough money off of standard display ads, they need to reach and maintain an audience at a scale that’s generally impractical for small organizations that lack venture-capital funding. For many independent sites, like those that recently moved to Medium, the only solution is to partner yourself with a company that has resources you don’t (in the announcement, Cliffe disclosed that Medium had offered the Toast an “excellent” deal, which it declined). You either become a major player or you attach yourself to one like a remora to a shark.
Independent publishing isn’t, of course, dead: At the other end of the content spectrum are fully independent writers and creators publishing online for free, on Facebook or Medium or Vine or wherever. But they’re only rarely getting paid for it. The idea that an online content creator (fun vocabulary in this biz) can create and sustain a small business is dying out.