The Believer Was a Victim of Mismanagement and Neglect

Despite that, they put out some amazing work

The Believer
Nicholas Russell

On Tuesday, the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada-Las Vegas announced the imminent closure of The Believer magazine in the spring of 2022, citing a “strategic realignment within the college and BMI as it emerges from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Believer moved to Vegas in 2017 from McSweeney’s in San Francisco, where it was founded in 2003. Under the supervision of Joshua Wolf Shenk, who acted as both the editor-in-chief of the magazine and the executive director of BMI, The Believer set out to proudly orient itself in its new desert home. This mission was touted by Shenk with great fanfare and esoteric, lofty language, but it was actually carried out by the variety of editors, organizers, grad students, and interns who did the work of consistently putting out something unique and beautiful.

Many people who continue to work at the magazine, or used to, people I count as friends, have called bullshit on BMI’s line of reasoning for shuttering The Believer. Jennifer Keene, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UNLV, framed it as a financial decision, “a necessary one,” but it’s difficult not to notice these necessary financial decisions came right on the heels of a very public and embarrassing scandal involving Shenk. If you missed the scandal, because the insular world of lit publishing is often not something normal people know about, Shenk resigned from both positions in May following an “incident” in which Shenk somehow exposed himself during a staff Zoom meeting.

The details of how and why this happened have been batted around by Shenk and his representatives for months, but the overarching sentiment amongst his employees was that this kind of behavior, accidental or not, was par for the course. Former Believer editor Camille Bromley wrote in a piece for Defector, “No one was surprised that the person who had done this was Josh. Probably no one could have predicted that he would deliver exactly this scenario, but to make such thoughtless choices? To show such casual, oblivious, and harmful disrespect for his employees? Yeah, that was Josh.”

Shenk was brought on as a kind of visionary, a creative who would come in with new ambitions and big ideas. Often, such a person is forgiven for their eccentric behavior, which is passed off as idiosyncratic evidence of a big brain. I met him for the first time in 2017 at a bookstore to talk about the Believer Festival. He shook my hand, noticed a friend of his who was also in the room, went to talk to them for an hour, then came back as if nothing had happened. Being easily distracted is irritating in a low-stakes situation, but it portended widespread managerial neglect at BMI. Pay and labor disparities, lack of communication between BMI and The Believer, plus “a chronic lack of care and concern for the comfort, boundaries, and safety of the staff,” as described in an open letter anonymously published by current and former staff, created an uncomfortable and inequitable work environment.

The flurry of media coverage surrounding Shenk’s indecent exposure incident, which occurred back in February, gave employees at BMI and The Believer some hope that there would be room for productive negotiations and suggestions about how to avoid anything like it from happening again. But Shenk’s departure inaugurated massive internal hemorrhaging. Several staff members quit and higher-ups at BMI were less than receptive to constructive criticism about how they might better run things. Now, The Believer is set to expire, with two more print issues planned. Immediate outpourings of support from readers, as well as former and current contributors, interns, and employees were shared following the news. Chief among these was the desire for someone, anyone (with money, obviously), to swoop in and buy the magazine to save it.

It’s a popular idea, these days, that all it takes is a kindly benefactor to set things right. Unfortunately, it is and will always be futile to rely on the benevolence of the wealthy, even wealthy institutions for that matter, to act in the best interest of the arts or the general public. While the official record supplied by BMI and UNLV paints a picture of an unfortunate, but ultimately pragmatic decision to “focus on its core mission,” the reality is less noble. Callous mismanagement and a lack of care overshadowed the good work being done at the magazine. Frankly, what BMI hopes to achieve without The Believer as its crowning glory is beyond me. Despite the turmoil, abuse, and rampant neglect they face, its employees turned out one of the most unique and striking magazines around, a place that felt refreshingly disconnected from Twitter discourse and focused on broader stories.

I had that first meeting with Shenk just after I had moved back to Las Vegas from film school in New York with the vague idea that I’d try writing instead. I went on to intern for the magazine the following year. Before my internship, I contributed lists to a few issues. These were incidental components to each issue that were found throughout the magazine, made up of highly specific collections of observations like Movies Where People Hide the Car Keys in the Visor or Keanu Reeves Movies Where He Plays a Guy Named John. That summer, my fellow interns and I were charged with helping spruce up the archives for a major website redesign. I had no idea what The Believer was before it moved to Vegas. Not many people who lived or were raised here had. Looking through the extensive back catalog, I found a rich, varied, pleasantly strange assemblage of cultural criticism, interviews, comics, reportage, and art, all packaged in a colorful, non-glossy, square volume.

Of course, the sentiment then was the same as it is now: New York is where you get published, is where all the important business is done. It’s where, if you’re a writer, you fight it out amongst hundreds of other freelancers trying to get a byline. That isn’t necessarily false, which gestures less toward a moral right or wrong than a kind of industry monopoly. But one of the strong selling points of The Believer was its emphasis on writing that wasn’t about or in New York. Established names would be published alongside newcomers, with art culled from around the world. The literary festival would serve as a live conduit and celebration of this omnivorous ambition, taking place across and at the edge of the city. Events and outlets like these were necessary then and they continue to be necessary now. But, as this week has proved, maintaining or replacing such necessities never seems to be a top priority.

Another mistake people make when talking about literary publications is thinking that they are common, easy to create, and easy to maintain. But places like The Believer are rare and exceedingly precious in a dwindling print landscape. Dedicated, high-quality spaces for writing and discussion about music, film, and art are not easy to find, especially online. And, in this case, not even the stewards of the magazine can be counted on to fight for its continued existence.

Many writers, including myself, would not be where they are without The Believer. It saddens and angers me to write about the magazine in the past tense. Unless there are more labor successes in the publishing industry, where writers and workers committed to putting out good work are protected and fairly compensated, this will keep happening. For now, The Believer’s archives are freely available, with two more issues to come, and the current staff, who have had to put up with media scrutiny and internal strife, deserve better places to work.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.