Felix Salmon, "Fusion Money," and Floating Upward

What, why, and how he got paid what he did.

Last Friday, just after 2pm, the financial journalist Felix Salmon posted a blog titled “Why I’m Leaving Fusion.” It was a very short post indeed:

So, that is a provocative shruggie, is it not? At the very least it implies a cheeky “I don’t know (I know)” along with a dash of womp-womp (“not of my own volition!”). Salmon was most recently “working to develop and launch a new project that will explore the world of philanthropy, activism, social entrepreneurship, and spotlighting those working to try and make the world a better place,” on Fusion’s Rise Up “social impact” team, and before that, he had been a Senior Editor since the time he joined Fusion in 2014. For years, there has been rampant speculation among media types (loser dorks) about how much money the “hybrid television and digital media outlet” was paying to poach high-profile digital editors. But two weeks ago, the growing resentment within the Gizmodo Media Group newsroom toward Salmon and his significant salary—which because of a clerical error in 2016 had become an open secret in the newsroom—boiled over.

On January 17, in GMG’s media chat slack channel, Salmon revealed his money privilege in a way that didn’t sit well with some. “As someone who just installed a new kitchen in a rental at my own expense, I can say that decorating rentals is a good and sensible thing to do,” Salmon wrote. It seemed no one else in the room could relate—some took issue with the distinction between “decorating” and “renovating,” while others could not fathom having the money to do either. Salmon explained the sense in spending “3 months’ rent on making your permanent rental a much nicer place to live” thusly: “if you amortize 3 months’ rent over another 6 years, it works out at a pretty small monthly increase for a much nicer place.” Technically he is correct! Practically speaking, this is not the best thing to discuss in a room full of smart alecks who know they’re making a fraction of what you do:

Salmon dug into his economically sound but nonetheless tone-deaf point: “It’s cheaper than paying more rent to rent a nicer place. It’s much, much cheaper than buying. It’s still not cheap. But it does make financial sense, if what you want is, say, a dishwasher.” Tipped off to the exciting chat going on, several staffers joined in to make winking reference to their own financial status as self-pitying millennials who will never be able to afford houses because of avocados and baby boomers:

(n.b. Salmon LOVES talking about the the rent-vs.-buy calculation and rightly insisted buying is “vastly more expensive.”)

“I had a termite swarm this year, so termites caked my floor,” chimed in one person. Another uploaded a photo of a hole in their apartment ceiling. “Which is worse, a hole in the ceiling or a hole in the floor?” asked another. “My old place had a corner with rotting boards where anything smaller than a ping-pong ball would fall through.”

(At some point, Salmon left the chat, but the wonderment continued.)

The next day on Twitter, Salmon posted a tweet reassuring his followers he DOES NOT have enough money to buy a $10 million villa. Presumably he was implying he doesn’t have the twenty percent down payment (about $1.96 million), and any rumors of his wealth have been greatly exaggerated.

It is worth remembering that Salmon was not alone in the Fu$ion hiring $pree of 2014-15. Alexis Madrigal, Kevin Roose, Anna Holmes, Dodai Stewart, and Hillary Frey are a few of the big-name hires Fusion “[showered] with TV money, doling out salaries around the $300,000 and $500,000 range for marquee hires,” reported Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke in WWD. But Salmon was the last vestige of the high rollers once Fusion and Gizmodo Media Group were consolidated in 2016, triggering Fusion layoffs—the newer media brand ceding redundancies to the established and more widely read ex-Gawker brands.

Would there have been similar resentment toward any of the others had they remained and their salaries accidentally revealed, or was there something particular to Salmon that made him an obvious bugbear? It’s only half a moot point, since most of them had already departed for other ventures, either having not had their contracts renewed or perhaps having seen the post-text writing on the wall—that Fusion hadn’t quite found its footing. What became of a “genuine attempt to reach a new demographic by a new kind of media company”? What was Fusion in the end? And why, especially if no one could really answer without brand-mediated digital mediasphere jargonspeak, did Felix Salmon stay on?

Way back in 2015, when everyone was still trying to wrap their heads around what Fusion even was, Salmon wrote a post that he could then conveniently send out to anyone who ever asked him to “pick his brain” over coffee about their budding nosedive into a career in journalism. Titled, “To all the young journalists asking for advice,” it made the point that journalism was no longer a place to make good money:

If all you care about is the great journalism, then, well, go out and find great stories to tell, and tell those stories in a compelling manner. You’ll always be able to find somewhere willing to publish them, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

First of all, no one ever went into journalism because it was going to be a lucrative vocation. With the exception of perhaps the eighties/nineties heyday of magazines (and of what I affectionately call Tina Brown Money™, which GOD BLESS), one must always question the motives of anyone who goes into the business of truth-telling for serious cash. (Then along came Isaac Lee in 2015 with his endearing pot of gold, which he defended to the New York Times—in 2018 it doesn’t seem all so defensible.) But as usual, Felix Salmon has a point—albeit an obvious one, which is that journalists used to be able to make a decent living and now they mostly can’t (which is precisely why the recent push for unionizing across various media companies is unquestionably a good thing). But it’s rich, isn’t it, coming from someone who has been very lucky to make an uncommonly good living at it—quite a slam of the door from a blogger making think-tank (or really, television) money.

So yes, bloggers typically don’t make a lot of money, but Salmon is not your average guy banging shit out on the Internet; he had very good timing and a good deal of boldness. After years of web 1.0 blogging on his own WordPress site, plus stints at NewsBridge (don’t ask) and Euromoney (ditto) as a specialist in Latin American markets, Salmon caught the attention of the flashy economist and housing-crisis Cassandra Nouriel Roubini in 2007 by asking him to lunch to discuss the flaws in Roubini’s book about financial crises. Roubini ended up hiring him as a blogger at a rate of $10,000 a month; the gig was short-lived, but it raised his profile. Salmon then jumped to Condé Nast Portfolio to blog for the magazine’s website, largely due to the notice of Wall Street editor Jesse Eisinger.

I first encountered Salmon in the Portfolio offices, on the few occasions he came in to meet with my boss, the editor-in-chief, Joanne Lipman. He was one of many big-deal hires that year in the media world, where Portfolio was one of the closest-watched magazine launches in modern memory. Gawker (and Nick Denton and Hamilton Nolan in particular) was obsessed with cataloging its failures and missteps. But by Denton and Nolan’s accounts, Salmon and media columnist Jeff Bercovici’s contributions to Portfolio were some of the best parts about it. (Indeed, one of the more fun-in-retrospect blogs was Salmon’s post on the ins and outs of Gawker’s payroll in the old pay-per-pageview days, in which he calculated Gawker staffers’ earnings using publicly available traffic data and Nick Denton’s transparent pay rates). But it was “not until the economy crashed in 2008,” wrote Noreen Malone wrote in a glowing 2012 profile of Salmon for The New Republic,

did Salmon’s vigorous, discursive, finger-pointing blog become a must-read. What set him apart from every other journalist eager to take on Wall Street was that, with his high-end taste and appreciation for the finer things, he easily could have been one of the finance guys he was ripping. In post-crash New York, Salmon managed the magic trick of damning the excesses of a bygone era while simultaneously provoking nostalgia for them.

Portfolio had its moments, and I guess I would link to them here if I could remember them, and if the archives were better preserved, but Salmon was very much in the right place at the right time covering the right financial disaster with the right attitude. Besides which, the main thing “Fort Polio” was best known for in the world of magazines was its huge bankroll—$100 million. As Hamilton Nolan wrote in his obit for the mag:

It’s highly likely we’ll never see another glossy magazine launch of its size again. It was the last gasp of the “Spare No Expense” model. The magazine hired the best business writers in the country, and paid them huge salaries (for relatively little output). It aimed to be the New Yorker of business, and the plan—as far as you could tell—was to bust its way into the territory of Fortune, Forbes, and Businessweek through sheer glossiness.

Salmon confirmed over the phone last Friday that he signed a contract with Portfolio for $100,000, a number that would later metastasize once Reuters showed interest in hiring him. After a bit back and forth, Salmon managed to get competing raises and offers from both parties, ultimately choosing to leave Portfolio a month before it folded rather spectacularly in April of 2009. He continued to blog at Reuters, where he eventually became part of a team dedicated (along with millions of dollars and presumably several salary bumps) to developing a digital news product in the form of a “consumer-facing website” called Reuters Next. (The details of the venture had always been extremely murky.) During the end-of-blogging news crisis of web 2.0, someone with Salmon’s pedigree and enthusiasm for wild west of digital media was just the right fit for that sort of blurry project. Plus, one imagines after ten plus years of daily finance blogging, you get tired of it—time for broader horizons.

Fast forward to April of 2014, half a year after Reuters Next was shuttered, when Salmon announced that he was hired away from Reuters by Fusion—another blurry digital media product. (Salmon claims, and I believe, not to remember exactly what he was making over various years at the former.) He did this via Medium post, titled, “Why I’m Joining Fusion,” wherein he famously claimed, “the core of what I do at Fusion will be post-text.” A few weeks later, Salmon wrote a very smart and very much textual post for Vox (why not Fusion dot TV??) arguing for greater transparency around salaries. “Very few people like to talk about how much money they make,” he writes, “especially not people who earn a lot of money.” Tell me about it! My man only wears custom-made shirts! No, literally, please tell me.

This is a screenshot from that Vox piece!

Hamilton Nolan lightly taunted Salmon in response:

Felix Salmon makes the eminently reasonable case that salaries should not be kept secret, but he fails to disclose his own salary. A mere oversight, no doubt. Felix Salmon, please leave your salary in the comment section below.

How unintentionally, karmically prescient of Nolan, who would two years hence be working in a newsroom with Salmon, and made aware of the number. After Gawker was laid to rest in August of 2016 by Peter Thiel and his buffoonish front man, Terry Bollea-as-Hulk Hogan, Univision, the parent company of Fusion, bought Gawker in a fire sale for $135 million. The acquisition was completed in September, and the new company was renamed Gizmodo Media Group. By November, as Univision got down to brass tacks on how to merge and reorganize the two editorial entities, Fusion’s editorial staff voted to unionize (Gawker had voted to unionize in June of 2015). Days later, in a slashing of Univision’s workforce, Fusion bore the brunt of the layoffs, largely on the marketing and branded content units, while 15 editors were offered buyouts. As a part of the merger, Fusion and The Root were slated to join GMG effective January 1, 2017, joining their union contract.

Shortly after this period, according to several staffers, everyone in the newly conceived GMG received an individualized email from human resources, with their 3% cost-of-living-wage increase in the form of a letter attachment. One staffer was accidentally sent the entire spreadsheet from which the letters were presumably auto-populated. The individual reported the incident to HR, but the damage had been done. Rumors swirled about the outsized paycheck Salmon was pulling in while the rest of the staffers, many of whom outproduce him in both number of posts and traffic for their sites, grew to resent him.

This is another screenshot from that Vox piece!

According to people who saw the document in 2016, Felix Salmon was making $400,000, which with his 3% raise would put him at $412,000 as of March 2017. It’s highly unlikely that any other union employee was getting even close to half of that—aside from GMG site leads, almost no one in editorial is cracking six figures. Even the higher paid of (what remained of) the Fusion editorial staffers likely peaked in the “mid-1oos” according to another person familiar with the numbers. It’s more than most senior-level editors at the glossiest of legacy publications are making. But is it wrong per se? In a vacuum, no.

On some trivial level, it does feel unfair, but life is unfair and salaries are the result of complex, punctuated, and often gendered tauto-historological arithmetic. (Ideally the more we drain the mystery out of Where Salaries Come From And Why, both acceptance as well as true fairness increase.) But there are no pay caps in GMG’s union, only minimums, and by Salmon’s own (sound!) logic, it should be common and acceptable to have managers who regularly earn less than their reports.

There is no theoretical reason to begrudge Salmon a number so large, but it is fair to question as a practical matter whether the value he added to the company was worth the high wages he offset. (Not for nothing, it’s also fair to question whether people making above a certain pay grade should be subject to 3% cost-of-living wage increases—could that money be distributed better? Should annual raises be scaled by pay bracket? One of my very first exposures to this concept was when I learned that a senior-level Condé Nast staffer would be bumped from $650,000 to $675,000—the difference being my exact salary. Ah, the cost of living!) Not long after the salary brouhaha, Salmon was shifted over to the social impact team, called Rise Up, where he was slated to work on some kind of project that would “leverage content.” As a result of the title change, he was moved out of the newsroom, and conveniently no longer in the union. But the damage had been done—everyone knew what he earned and begged why.

I’m not an economist, but I think Salmon’s own words are a pretty good explanation of why he was ultimately let go from Fusion Media Group:

Labor has almost no leverage over capital any more, which helps explain the rash of “Uber for X” startups: they’re nearly all based on the idea that there is a bottomless pool out there of people with smartphones willing to do just about anything (drive a car, go shopping, do laundry, clean an apartment) for $15 an hour. If a company loses one of those workers, it’s no big deal, it just replaces that person with someone else who’s just as good and just as cheap. Now just apply that model to journalists.

That, and Univision is out fundraising for some cash to play media takeover with by selling a stake in FMG. Gizmodo Media Group budgets were flat this year, while everyone else was subject to cuts—and if consultants are coming in, Salmon’s stability and defendability within the company becomes a little more top of mind.

Two months after his advice for young idiots post, Salmon wrote another Betteridge’s Law of a post: “Is there any such thing as a career in digital journalism?”—once again with the mild tone deafness, since the answer for him was, well, yes, and the answer for you was, sorry, no. Jacob Silverman sears in The Baffler:

His answer was the same as Choire Sicha’s: no, not really. And he very well may be right. But Salmon left out an important detail: his salary is rumored to be $250,000. So my answer to his question is this: not as long as digital journalism employs people like Felix Salmon.

For that amount of money, you could hire five smart thirty-year-old writers, especially if you’re not drafting through the traditional Ivy League patronage system. You could pay a bunch of writers to actually write.

Indeed, one of the many openly aired complaints about Salmon was that he wasn’t producing a whole heck of a lot, editorially speaking. (It should be noted that Salmon is one of the hosts of Slate’s Money podcast where he once played himself into donating $20,000 of his own well-afforded money to Doctors Without Borders.) And it’s a goddamn shame, because he usually is quite right and good on many topics (well, ALMOST)! So was Felix Salmon really worth twice as much as anyone else in the company? (I realize that’s not exactly how salaries work, but it eventually effectively sort of is, where bottom lines are concerned.)

At certain levels, salaries stop being about output (hours, page views, widgets) and they become about some kind of ineffable value. And in the case of Salmon, it’s been hard to pin down what he’s been doing for years because rather than producing content blog widgets, he found a way to make himself relevant with management. He basically stopped blogging in 2012, and has been a media content strategist since then. So what was he doing in a newsroom in the first place? And what was his impact on the rest of the staff and their morale, especially after the dishwasher media chat?

Felix Salmon shouldn’t be shamed for making the salary that he did, but if he is to pull down the big bucks, everyone from the lowliest intern to the highest-level executive should be able to make a reasonable defense for why that is. It would appear that last Friday, Fusion Media Group could not longer do so. I had a long, lively conversation with Salmon about all the ins and outs of his career and how much money he’s made, and I think he understands that he was let go in part due to some of the very same logic he espouses in much of his writing on salary transparency and “digital journalism,” whatever the fuck that is. Salmon is bold, contrarian, smart, and a true thorn in the side of modern media—a true writer, ever in want of a good editor. It does not escape my notice that he would be the perfect person to write a piece about the thornier aspects of pay disparity, perhaps in the form of a first-person essay. This is your chance, Felix: let’s talk about money!