Beyond a Shadow, Doubts Mount

Six months after its editor resigned in disgrace, The Believer’s masthead has thinned and its current owner UNLV says its future is under “review”

When news broke in April that The Believer’s editor in chief Joshua Wolf Shenk had resigned on March 24, casual observers may have assumed the magazine’s troubles were over. Shenk had gone on paid leave for nearly two months after exposing his genitals on a Zoom call in early February with about a dozen staff. The initial report in the Los Angeles Times was subsequently criticized in an open letter by current and former members of the magazine’s staff as failing to include important context about how Shenk created an inhospitable work environment, which included his being “well-known inside and outside the workplace as someone who made women uncomfortable” and presiding over “breathtaking pay inequity and tokenism.” But absent that context, perhaps, it felt like the system had worked. The bad man in charge was gone, so shouldn’t everything be better?

If anything, the blowup over the February incident and its aftermath only intensified a sense of insecurity among The Believer’s remaining staff. The enterprise had long had a rickety feeling as staff suspected that the donors who sustained their work didn’t fully understand what sorts of resources were required to run a high-quality publication. But after Shenk left, that was coupled, for some, with trepidation that the people in charge of their funding were starting to think that the magazine might not be worth the trouble. Planning for a long future with the magazine began to seem like an unwise bet.

Since the Shenk departure, a sizable chunk of The Believer’s senior editorial staff has left, though not necessarily out of solidarity with the disgraced editor. In August, art director and deputy publisher Kristen Radtke announced that she was hopping over to The Verge to become its art director. Meanwhile, deputy editor Niela Orr moved on to become a story producer for the live event series Pop-Up Magazine. Features editor Camille Bromley started as a Wired features editor last Monday. The digital masthead has not been updated to remove their names, and the magazine has not announced new hires to fill the emptied positions, leaving a skeleton crew, led by managing editor Daniel Gumbiner and publisher Kellen Braddock, to crank out issues. (Neither responded to requests for comment.) Their most recent is dated October/November 2021.

Despite Shenk’s absence, many of the flaws in the system he created remain. Black Mountain Institute, a program focused on writing housed at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, purchased The Believer in 2017 from McSweeney’s, which had originally launched the title in 2003. Frictions between the magazine’s employees and UNLV worsened following the Zoom incident, and in some ways have served to reinforce the problems under Shenk that were aired in the staff open letter. “Poor communication and intransparency were common complaints under Shenk,” wrote Bromley in an article for Defector in May. After Shenk was placed on paid leave, she wrote, UNLV “issued a silencing order from the Dean’s Office at the College of Liberal Arts directing employees not to talk to the press or make public statements.”

Asked about The Believer’s future, Karyn Hollingsworth, a spokesperson for UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts, did not answer specific questions but also did little to assuage fears for the magazine. “As the College of Liberal Arts begins to emerge from the financial impacts of the pandemic and also transitions leadership in Black Mountain Institute,” she wrote in a statement, “it’s necessary to review resource-intensive programs and initiatives within the institute to ensure its long-term sustainability and success.” She added, “Any formal updates to Black Mountain Institute initiatives, including The Believer, will be shared directly with our staff and stakeholders first.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that The Believer’s survival has been in question. It went on a two-year publishing hiatus starting in 2015 before McSweeney’s found it a new home. “In any era, it’s a challenge to make a paper magazine work, especially a literary and arts magazine like The Believer that, by design, takes few ads. In this digital moment, producing a paper-and-glue magazine is especially hard,” co-founder Vendela Vida explained to the Associated Press when McSweeney’s sold the magazine. “The Black Mountain Institute has resources that can sustain The Believer and help it thrive.”

Heidi Julavits, another founding editor, said at the time, “I feel like a parent helping her child pack her suitcase so that she can start her freshman year at her first-choice university.” Four years later, we’re waiting to see whether or not The Believer drops out.