When the University of Nevada at Las Vegas acquired The Believer in March 2017, a press release bragged that it was “one of the world’s leading journals of arts and culture” and listed the roster of top-shelf writers who had contributed to its pages, including Anne Carson and William T. Vollmann. One co-founder of The Believer called UNLV “a perfect home” for the widely respected publication.
Five years later, the university sold The Believer to Paradise Media, a mysterious company that’s registered in Puerto Rico. The last article that The Believer‘s editors published before the sale was an interview with the director David Lynch. After the transfer, the new owner promptly published an article on The Believer‘s website listing “25 Best Hook-Up Sites” for “pure no-strings-attached sex” (for the record, the article listed only 20 sites). Paradise Media, it seems, had a different editorial philosophy.
I’m disappointed with UNLV’s lack of judgment and cannot for the life of me understand why UNLV would damage its own reputation and sully my name, and my foundation, in this way.
Beverly Rogers, donor to UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute
The company appears to be a search-engine optimization firm that’s loosely associated with a sex-toy website. Why would UNLV hand over the reins of The Believer to such an outfit?
The short answer: money. Paradise Media, according to documents provided to The Chronicle by the university in response to a public-records request, paid $225,000 for the magazine. The purchase agreement gives the company the rights to the magazine’s name, website, archives, and customer lists, among other assets. UNLV announced last October that it was shutting down the magazine because it “consumed a significant portion” of the resources of the university’s Black Mountain Institute, a literary center whose mission is to “bring writers — and the literary imagination — into the heart of public life.” In a statement to The Chronicle, the university said that “while The Believer was a highly regarded vehicle for literary works, the college has a responsibility to direct resources to initiatives most central to the institute’s mission.”
The founders and former staff members of The Believer were not thrilled when they discovered that the literary nonfiction journal they created and ran for nearly two decades was now a vehicle for posting reviews of hook-up sites. In an open letter posted on Medium, they called it “strange territory” for the magazine. They also noted that McSweeney’s, the San Francisco-based nonprofit publishing company which was The Believer‘s original home, had been in talks with UNLV about reacquiring the magazine.
“Reps from UNLV were opaque in their dealings,” wrote the staff members, who include Heidi Julavits, Ed Parks, and Vendela Vida, the founders. They also said that the staff was not “given any notice or consultation about the sale of the magazine to Paradise Media.”
McSweeney’s did, in fact, make an offer to the university, though it was essentially for the university to donate The Believer back to McSweeney’s, according to a letter McSweeney’s sent to UNLV in January. According to the university, McSweeney’s “asked that the assets be granted to them for free and for UNLV to also cover the financial liability of any unfulfilled subscriptions at an overall net loss to the university.”
UNLV took the better financial offer made by the lesser-known entity.
I texted with Ian Moe, the chief executive of Paradise Media, about the purchase. Moe said he had been a “big fan” of The Believer when he was in college and, when he heard it was being shut down, he sent the university an email. “They said they would hear my offer and were open to selling it, and that’s it,” he wrote. “I explained my idea to add articles that answer specific questions for searchers (SEO content) to bring in enough revenue to have the magazine be like it was in its glory days.”
After the backlash over the hook-up article, a note (dated March 22, 2021, for some reason) was posted on the site titled “Plan for Bringing Back The Believer.” It included a list of “SEO informational content” that would be posted in the future on topics such as “mood ring color meanings,” “types of clouds,” and “biggest spider in the world.” That note was taken down on Thursday and replaced with a similar note, which said that Paradise Media was “canceling and deleting all commercial review articles.” (The hook-up article was removed from the site on Thursday evening).
Moe responded publicly to questions about the purchase of The Believer via a Twitter account for Sex Toy Collective, a website he founded that publishes reviews of vibrators and sex furniture. “I don’t have any other twitter, and it was probably a mistake to reach out via our sex toy website, but I just wanted everyone to know that this dating article wasn’t meant to be spam,” he wrote to The Chronicle. “It was just meant to make money using google (not readers) as a first step toward getting things back to print.”
Here’s a curious side-note: The author of the hook-up article is listed as Aaron Cutler, who wrote several articles years ago for The Believer, including an essay on the films of the Lithuanian American poet, Jonas Mekas. I spoke with Cutler via Zoom from his home in São Paulo, Brazil. He didn’t write the hook-up article, which is obvious after you peruse his past work. “As a free-lance writer, it’s an attack on my reputation,” he said. Cutler also guessed that his name was chosen because it begins with two As and therefore might be at the top of a list of Believer contributors.
Amid the controversy, the website for Paradise Media was taken down and replaced with a “coming soon” graphic.
Another person distressed about the sale is Beverly Rogers, chairman of the board at the Rogers Foundation, which has donated $30-million to UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. Her name is part of the institute’s official moniker. She says the sale of The Believer to Paradise Media was made without her knowledge. “I’m disappointed with UNLV’s lack of judgment and for the life of me cannot understand why UNLV would damage its own reputation and sully my name, and my foundation, in this way,” she said in a statement sent to The Chronicle.
Rogers wanted The Believer to go back under the McSweeney’s umbrella and said she was told that UNLV was doing its due diligence and would get back to her about a possible transfer. “I’m a champion of literature and the arts and probably one of the biggest cheerleaders UNLV has ever seen,” Rogers wrote. “I did not expect UNLV to disrespect me so blatantly.”