The First Time Matt Taibbi Named Something ‘Racket’
After years of dithering, the Substack star and Elon Musk collaborator chose a title for his subscription newsletter that was awfully familiar to the veterans of his aborted First Look Media venture
Anyone who’s ever had to choose a title for something knows that naming things is no fun. Take Matt Taibbi. While the former Rolling Stone reporter and latter-day Elon Musk collaborator was one of the earliest adopters of Substack and has become one of its best-paid personalities, it was not until last Tuesday, January 24, that he finally settled on a title for his Substack. When he first joined Substack in 2018, Taibbi’s site debuted with the unwieldy moniker The Rules of the Drug-Dealing Game, Told from the Inside. His plan was to serialize a book he was writing at the time (and published in 2021 under the pithier title The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing). By 2020, he changed his Substack to the more generic Reporting by Matt Taibbi and soon after, by early 2021, switched it to TK News by Matt Taibbi, a play on the standard abbreviation used to signify a blank to be filled in later. “At first, I thought it would be amusing just to leave TK as the title of this site,” he explained in his post about the change. “But calling people on the phone and saying, ‘Hi, I work for Placeholder magazine’ proved more than a little problematic on the reporting side.” So, after all those years of consideration, it was a surprise to see that he landed on a name, Racket, which was the title of an aborted First Look Media project he led during his seven months with the company in 2014.
The experience was incredibly frustrating for most of the staff Taibbi assembled, and in the near decade since the short-lived project was born and died, the name Racket has taken on new meaning. Elle Reeve, a senior writer on the site and now a CNN correspondent, summarized her experience on Twitter last year: “Matt Taibbi hired me in 2014 for his political satire website. Imploded immediately. Spent 6 weeks in a rubber room waiting to be fired by a billionaire. Staff used that time to become ~15% more famous with a protest blog, Racket Teen. And THAT really made my career. Thanks Matt.” One of the first posts on the Tumblr promised to reveal “What happened to Matt Taibbi?” It delivered via GIF: “We actually shot him in the office, so weird right?” The former staff kept the dream alive on a Racket Teen Twitter account, which last posted in 2018 (“Teens: Now More Than Ever”), and have never entirely given up on it. “A Racket Teen revival should be imminent always,” said one of them. “It should be the escape hatch if anybody ever loses their job.”
Taibbi, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, only made passing reference to his original Racket in his announcement, saying he chose the title “with the aim of making a magazine I was never able to years ago.” Picking a name back then was a struggle, too. “There was a lot of brainstorming about names,” recalled Eric Bates, who served as First Look’s executive editor. “Vex was in the mix for a while, as a play on Vox. Other top contenders were Oppo and Black Box.” Another person who was present early on recalled Pulpo among the possibilities. “Not sure if we actually voted or not,” Bates said, “but Racket emerged as the clear winner.” Once the Racket name was locked in, there were other matters to iron out. “The biggest issue was selecting a logo to support the brand,” said Matthew Chmiel, then First Look’s director of product for magazines. “There were many logos to pick from.” Another person involved in the branding recalled a lengthy meeting about what guitar chords should play at the end of the videos they planned to post on YouTube.
The team also discovered that securing a good internet domain would pose a problem. “There was someone squatting on it. Racket.com was not available, and I think a lot of things adjacent to Racket.com were also not available, so the plan was to launch on racketdotcom.com,” recalled a former staff member. “When I heard that, I felt sad. At least Matt doesn’t have to do that this time.”
However, the difficulty of securing a unique domain name in 2014 foreshadowed problems in 2023, as others have used the word for other publications. Particularly annoyed by Taibbi’s new Racket is a fellow Substacker, former Associated Press reporter Jonathan Katz, who has been calling his subscription newsletter The Racket since 2021 after originally launching it as The Long Version. As he wrote about hisname change, “The Racket takes its name from the speeches of Smedley Butler, the legendary Marine turned antiwar activist, who, not coincidentally, is the subject” of his book Gangsters of Capitalism.
Katz said he did some googling before he settled on the name. “I did what I think any responsible person would do, and I looked to see what else is out there named The Racket. I think that I may have seen that there was an arts magazine in Minneapolis that’s called Racket,” he said. “I was like, we’re doing totally different things. It’s a local arts magazine in a city that’s very far away from me. No one’s gonna confuse my Substack with that, or vice versa.” In his searches, Katz said he also stumbled on clips about First Look’s Racket attempt but figured the whole thing was so embarrassing that no one involved would try to revive the name. Now that Taibbi has revived the name, he’s pissed. “He fucking spent two years with ‘I’m going to come up with a name later’ as the name of his newsletter,” Katz said. “He then turns around and is like, ‘Well, I’m gonna use the name of the thing that I was trying to do ten years ago, where I completely shat my pants in front of the entire world. That will be the name of my new venture.’” And he feels big-footed, too. “If I had then plugged it into Google, and I had been like, ‘Oh, right, fuck! Matt Taibbi’s newsletter is called Racket,’ I wouldn’t use that name — not just because I would be afraid of a little competition, but because I would look like a schmuck.”
But of more immediate concern to Katz is that the URL he has been using, theracket.news, is very similar to the one that Taibbi now uses, racket.news. “When I reserved my domain name, I looked at other adjacent domain names to see if there were any cheap ones that I could pick up just to block that sort of thing, but it never occurred to me just to do racket.news,” he said. “Some fucking screed about how horse pastes should be used to cure CRT or an exclusive conversation with Alex Berenson about how Russia is the victim in the war in Ukraine is gonna go out there and then just say racket.news at the bottom. Then I’m gonna have to deal with a bunch of people coming to me and being like, ‘What’s wrong with you, dude?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry. That’s not me.’”
Not all proprietors of similarly named publications were equally concerned about Taibbi elbowing onto their turf. “I know the name Racket pre-dates us as an aborted experiment with First Look Media,” Caitlin Thompson, co-founder of the tennis magazine Racquet, told The Fine Print, “and this obviously uses the spelling more associated with corruption than the magnificent sport of tennis.”