The Baffler Gets Buffeted by Masthead Turbulence

A string of departures including editor-in-chief Jonathon Sturgeon have left the little magazine rudderless, but publisher and benefactor Noah McCormack vows to carry on

Capping off a nearly year-long wave of high-level departures at The Baffler, editor-in-chief Jonathon Sturgeon stepped down at the end of last month. “I resigned on August 26 after a year of serious illness for me personally and in my family,” Sturgeon told The Fine Print. “My partner required an emergency organ transplant, my father became terminally ill, I had a difficult bout of Covid, and I suffered worsening complications from multiple sclerosis. After a year of being primary caretaker for my partner during her recovery, I am now preparing to have surgery on my spine, also because of multiple sclerosis. I voluntarily departed after taking time off to address these issues when I realized that my health would not allow me to continue.” The Baffler’s publisher Noah McCormack affirmed that Sturgeon’s health had been the cause of his departure and explained that senior editor Dave Denison wrote the editor’s note in the most recent issue, dated July 2022, because Sturgeon had been on leave.

The greater instability at The Baffler has origins beyond Sturgeon’s difficult personal life. Started in 1988 in the world of punk zines by Thomas Frank and Keith White, the first issue was printed in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the ’90s, the magazine became a Chicago fixture before its offices on the South Side burned down in the spring of 2001, leading to a near decade of sporadic publication, during which Frank found himself insisting that his magazine was still alive. At the end of that decade, Frank produced one last issue before handing over the reins in 2012 to John Summers, who, after striking a deal with the MIT Press, moved the magazine to Cambridge, Mass., and started producing three issues a year. The magazine hit its regular revival stride after McCormack stepped in as patron in 2015 and Chris Lehmann took over as editor-in-chief in 2016, producing a vibrant quarterly.

“I think for a long time, they had a really cohesive unit at The Baffler,” said David Rose, the former publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly who has worked with The Baffler as a consultant on and off since around the time the younger McCormack took over in 2015. “They had a really solid team,” he said, citing Lehmann, managing editor Emily Carroll, and executive director Valerie Cortés as its core. The last members of that team left the magazine over the last year, and there are some questions about what editorial direction it may move in under new leadership. The biggest and most crucial difference with The Baffler’s current editorial precarity is that, unlike the magazine’s previous phoenix-from-the-ashes life cycle moments, the money seems to be staying put. And as long as its benefactor sticks around, this is unlikely to be another end.

The current wave of departures, which has removed the last of the core that Rose outlined, began with Cortés, who left last September. She was followed out by bookkeeper Dolores Rothenberg. “When she quit, Noah reached out to me to ask me what he could do,” Rose said. “I was like, ‘You’ve just got to pay her some more fucking money, because you can afford it.’ And it’s an expensive proposition replacing those staff, as he’s now finding out.” He credited Cortés with maintaining the stability of the business while she was there. “If you’ve got a grownup on staff who knows about circulation and knows about the business of the magazine, then, pretty much, the editor can have free rein and be free to be creative and do what they want to do,” he said. “Oftentimes, managing editors is like watching a baby picking up a razor blade, about to eat it, and saying, ‘No, no, no. How about this nice banana? Wouldn’t that be a nice idea?’ You pull them back from their worst instincts.”

The present unrest at The Baffler goes back, at least, to 2019, when McCormack’s father Win, owner and nominal editor-in-chief of The New Republic, poached Baffler editor-in-chief Chris Lehmann to edit the magazine he purchased from Chris Hughes in 2016. (Disclosure: The Fine Print’s publisher and editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder was The New Republic’s editor-in-chief at the time of McCormack’s acquisition.) Lehmann was brought in as the third editor that McCormack had appointed within three years of owning The New Republic, and the impact was jarring for The Baffler. When Lehmann shifted over, he took some of the writers who had written for him at The Baffler with him, including Alex Pareene, Jason Linkins, and Adam Weinstein who joined the New Republic staff, as well as many Baffler contributors, among them Kate Wagner, Ed Burmila, and Kyle Paoletta, who got their first chance to write for the larger magazine. He also brought over The Baffler’s art director Lindsay Ballant. Most of those recruits departed after Lehmann was replaced by current New Republic editor Michael Tomasky in 2021, and last month, Lehmann was named the D.C. bureau chief for The Nation. But he hasn’t left the McCormack fold entirely: Asked to comment for this article, Lehmann, who is still on The Baffler masthead as an editor-at-large, declined, citing his inability to talk about personnel matters because of his role as a member of The Baffler’s board.

Contributors who began writing for Lehmann at The New Republic weren’t barred from working with The Baffler, but some were confused and saddened by the lack of communication from Sturgeon after Lehmann’s move. Wagner had had a digital column at The Baffler, but after she started writing for Lehmann’s New Republic, Sturgeon, who had been her editor, stopped replying to her emails. “It was weird that he didn’t answer my pitches. At the time, I just didn’t think much of it. I was like, ‘Okay, well, whatever.’ And because I was working with The New Republic, I had a column there, it wasn’t a big deal. I just assumed it had something to do with the editorial shift,” she said. “I was a little sad that I couldn’t keep writing, because my column just let me do whatever I wanted and that was the best column ever — they let me write about the Heaven’s Gate web page and stuff — but at the time, I was also just enjoying being a columnist in print at The New Republic, so there wasn’t any drama or anything.”

Even Lehmann’s dismissal at The New Republic had aftershocks at The Baffler. “When Chris left The New Republic, or was fired from The New Republic, that’s when I was like, I’m so done with the publishing industry,” Cortés explained. James White, who had been a developer-at-large on The Baffler masthead, was promoted to executive director after Cortés left. “That’s crazy for all kinds of reasons,” Rose said. “James is a tech guy. James was great at what he does, but James isn’t a circulation guy, and James isn’t a business manager. You cannot get rid of the person who does the circulation because they’re holding an awful lot more together than just the circulation. They’re the reason that there’s a connection between the editors and the audience. If the editors can’t discern that connection anymore, then what are they working for? They’re just writing for themselves and their own tiny little bubbles.”

Cortés was more generous. “That was a little bit difficult, I think, for him, taking on that leadership responsibility,” she said. “There were going to be some bumps, but I don’t think that it was anything that was going to be difficult for him to conquer.” McCormack defended his choice of replacement. “James White is very qualified as an executive director,” he said. “He has previously worked in a senior job at The Baffler and worked at a number of other publications and has proven himself well suited to the job.”

On March 11, Carroll, the managing editor, left the magazine. “She told me that after a decade at The Bafflershe was looking for new experiences,” McCormack said. Carroll did not respond to requests for comment, but former employees have posited that she may have been suffering from burnout. “She was pulling over-nighters all the time,” said one. “We were always basically just telling her that she needs to take a vacation,” said another. “She, of all people, I thought was under the most pressure. I very much tried while I was there to even the balance up for her, because I thought that she was taking on way too much, but it’s a tough job being managing editor,” Cortés said.

Part of the problem was just how small the team was, how few senior people were on staff, and how much work there was to go around, especially after the magazine bumped up its production schedule from quarterly to bi-monthly in 2018. Soon after Carroll’s departure, she was replaced by Bidi Choudhury, previously production director at the online literary magazine Triple Canopy. Asked about staff burnout, McCormack acknowledged it was a problem. “I think every company in the world is combating burnout at the moment. We’re doing our best to mitigate it and are always looking to do better,” he said. “We’ve given additional days off and closed the magazine for an extended period around the holidays. We’ve also encouraged people to use their vacation time.”

Finally, around the time of Sturgeon’s departure, associate editor Ratik Asokan resigned. “Ratik very much looked up to Jonathon,” recalled Cortés of when she worked with them. “Jonathon, in a way, was mentoring him, I think more so because Ratik looked up to him so much, but they would have great conversations in the office. I remember that was one of my favorite things.” Asokan would not discuss whether his departure was connected to the arc of that relationship but was generous enough to clarify the chronology. “I did not leave after Jonathon. I left before,” he told The Fine Print. “I have no comment on anything else.” Sturgeon affirmed that Asokan’s resignation preceded his, though McCormack noted that technically Asokan’s last day was September 8 and that he’s still doing contract work for the magazine.

In the wake of the departures, web editor Jess Bergman was promoted to senior editor, and associate editor Zach Webb was (fittingly) appointed web editor. Even as work on the latest issue has barrelled ahead and the magazine has continued to add new articles to its site, The Baffler has remained headless. “We’re about to launch a search for a new editor-in-chief,” McCormack said. “Other hiring will follow.”

While the magazine’s finances have stabilized since McCormack stepped in as publisher, there have also been significant failed sidelines that diverted funds that could have been spent more directly on editorial work. Perhaps the largest of these was project Argo, which began in 2017. “The idea behind Argo was to leverage our publishing experience to build a suite of software that would make our own production process more efficient and then generate revenue for The Baffler by selling the software to other publications,” McCormack explained. “It was a way for small magazines to cut an awful lot of costs by aggregating data and putting it under their own control. It would have meant that they didn’t need to contract out circulation management or fulfillment, or a lot of those core functions that drain the money away from small magazines,” said Rose, who worked on the predictive elements. “As a long term investment, it made sense, but only if they were gonna fucking use it.”

McCormack enlisted Postlight, a software company co-founded by Paul Ford, to build Argo. (“I can’t/don’t comment on current or former clients,” Ford told The Fine Print, adding, “Baffler folks were great to work with, and I’m sorry to hear about any turmoil in their world.”) “There were very serious people working on this project. This wasn’t a janky bullshit project,” Rose said. “It wasn’t that expensive. You think of the cost of pet projects, this is a drop in the ocean. When you look at how the revenue was projected to come back on it, this was a profitable looking model.” McCormack put that expenditure into perspective. “The project accounted for about 7 percent of our annual spending over the course of three years,” he said.

According to Rose, the project failed because it never gained the support of the editorial staff, who were supposed to beta test it before it was marketed to other publications. “It was sabotaged in a way by the editors who were involved in all those meetings, and then, when it came time for the testing period, it was just like, ‘No, we don’t want to use this.’ Like, ‘Well, guys, you were in all the meetings. Why are you now objecting to this? This is kind of crazy,’” he said. “Other magazines typically spend around about $100,000 to $200,000 a year on circulation management, so this is a tool that they would have been able to sell for $30,000. It makes other magazine lives a lot better, because it’s cheaper for the magazine to manage circulation and it draws in significant revenue for The Baffler. So it made an awful lot of sense, but I just don’t think the editors ever bought into that. It’s a small intellectual magazine, their minds aren’t really on revenue generation or business expansion, especially not once Sturgeon came in.”

McCormack disputed that account. “I killed the project before the prototype even made it to the editorial staff,” he said. “We ended the project in the summer of 2020 when it became clear that completing the project would require more resources than we were willing to allocate to it.” According to both McCormack and Sturgeon, canceling the project resulted in, as Sturgeon put it, “freeing up additional funds for editorial.” Cortés had been a big supporter of Argo and was upset to see it fall apart. “That was a very sad day for me,” she said, “but also, we had spent a lot of time and money on it.”

There were other issues during Sturgeon’s time as editor-in-chief. A former staffer said that he struggled to stick to deadlines and would delay making decisions in ways that affected the magazine’s production schedule. And his occasionally problematic relationship with writers could go beyond the ghosting Wagner said she experienced. In July 2020, Baffler contributor Lauren Oyler tweeted a since-deleted thread about text messages she’d received from Sturgeon. “A year ago I received these texts from my editor at the Baffler,” she wrote. “We were ‘friends,’ though of course I’ve never had a friend say these sorts of things to me.” In the messages, Sturgeon impugned Oyler’s motives behind a piece for The New Yorker. “That New Yorker piece was strained as hell,” he wrote. “You diplomats can work on your careers.” Oyler wrote that she forwarded the messages to another editor at The Baffler and management. “I explained why they were upsetting and expressed my dismay that the editor of an independent magazine was so much more paternalistic and, frankly, misogynistic, than anything I’d experienced at corporate publications,” she wrote. “They said he didn’t mean it and that he respected me very much. Fine. I didn’t reply to the texts and I didn’t push it. Nevertheless, I’ve been very sad, even now, that I can no longer write for The Baffler. I loved writing for them.” McCormack confirmed he addressed the texts with Sturgeon. “I think in Jonathon’s defense, he thought that they were closer friends that he could kind of josh with her,” said Cortés.

Oyler decided to make the texts public when she saw Sturgeon replying combatively to a tweet by fellow Baffler contributor B. D. McClay. “Quit being mean to girls online,” she responded to those tweets. “Didn’t seem especially mean to me, like provable content asking a boy to cheat on his girlfriend mean, as long as we are talking girls and boys,” Sturgeon wrote Oyler in a DM, soon following up with, “Can you stop harassing me? … We have records of you opening our emails hundreds of times a day.” When she tweeted out the exchange, Oyler wrote, “I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about with either comment! Truly weird. I certainly don’t open their emails hundreds of times a day, and I certainly have never provided ‘provable content’ as he has here.”

“I feel the threatening attitude has gone too far. Frankly I resent that so many of my friends and colleagues feel they must tiptoe around their totally acceptable views while he gets to act like this with apparent impunity. He has done [this] to more than one woman I know,” Oyler wrote in the thread. “It’s a real shame that one of the few independent left magazines is run by such a manipulative megalomaniac.” Through her literary agent, Oyler declined to comment beyond what she’d said in the thread.

McClay remembered her exchange with Sturgeon as a minor incident. “Afterward [Sturgeon] sent me an apology DM and I sent him something saying things were fine but I did think he’d been unprofessional to Lauren,” she told The Fine Print. “It didn’t affect my relationship with the magazine (he wasn’t the editor I worked with in any case).”

At the time, Sturgeon responded with his own series of tweets. “You’ve lost the plot. The story is exactly the opposite of the way you describe. I’m happy to provide all the evidence necessary to prove it,” he wrote in one chain. “Lauren needs to perpetually have an enemy, and for some reason I’m next on the list.” Speaking to The Fine Print, he acknowledged missteps in his communications with writers and staff. “The interactions with staff and contributors that you’ve cited occurred at times when I was not at my best. The stress of dealing with my illness, compounded with the physical pain, led to behavior I regret,” he said. “I am sorry to those who bore the brunt of it.”

The fate of The Baffler is dependent, as it has been since 2015, on the inclinations of Noah McCormack. “The Baffler is going to survive. Obviously, it will survive,” Rose said. “It’s not going anywhere for as long as McCormack wants to keep funding it.” Some recent events point to his commitment not having wavered through the turbulence. When the lease on the old office in New York expired this year, the magazine signed a new five-year lease on an office three blocks away. And McCormack’s representation of the magazine’s circulation indicates that readers are, mostly, sticking with it too. “It has declined a little over the last couple of months but as recently as July, circulation was at an all time high,” he noted. “Subscriptions fluctuate.”

Rose has had more than his fair share of encounters with millionaires wading through magazine publishing. “Every fucking magazine owner wants to get out of being involved with their magazine. It’s a truly horrible business. It’s like when a millionaire buys a yacht, I imagine that seems like a great idea. Then it’s like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got all this fucking upkeep now, I’ve gotta hire a crew.’ It’s the same thing: You’re a millionaire, you’ve got too much money, you’re either gonna buy a sports car, a football team, a yacht, or a fucking magazine and make your friends think you’re an intellectual. But once you’re in it, it’s horrible. So typically, they don’t go anywhere near it. They have a staff: ‘Okay, report to me every now and again with the readership figures and I’ll be happy.’ Then they go to an airport in Lebanon and find out the magazines isn’t on all the stands, and then they’ll get involved. There’ll be a phone call, ‘I was at the airport and I didn’t see our magazine on sale. What are you doing wrong?’ That’s typically the relationship that you want with the owner,” he said. “But the McCormacks are much more hands-on, and I think being much more hands-on, Noah is aware of how bad it can get. He knows that it’s not that bad yet. These are turnover issues. The Baffler is a lot bigger than the sum of its parts.”

“I believe The Baffler is one of the most important left leaning publications in the English-speaking world, and I deeply value the unique mission of the organization,” McCormack said when asked what drives him to keep investing in the publication despite the turmoil. He also noted that Issue 65 will be on newsstands next week.