An unusual article appeared in April on the website of The Believer, a literary magazine known for publishing writers like Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith.
“25 Best Hookup Sites for Flings, New Trysts, and Casual Dating,” the headline read.
“Sometimes you don’t want a commitment or the hassle of going on dates — you just want pure no-strings-attached sex,” the article began. “We can help with that!”
This was an unexpected twist for The Believer, a respected publication with a small but devoted following and an outsize influence in the literary world. The magazine had been sold by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to Paradise Media, a digital marketing company that hoped to make money on the site by increasing traffic and attracting online ads.
The literary internet exploded. Many writers and fans of the publication denounced the sale as “a travesty” and “appalling.”
Now, after a week of frantic headlines about the sale, Paradise Media has become an unlikely hero to the literary institution. On Monday, it announced the sale of The Believer back to its original owner, the nonprofit publisher McSweeney’s, at what McSweeney’s described as a “meaningful” loss.
“They can do a much better job than us,” said Ian Moe, 30, who is the chief executive of Paradise Media and splits his time between Minneapolis and Puerto Rico. “It was an easy decision once we got everything in order.”
Since it was founded in 2003, the bimonthly publication attracted big names like Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers and David Mitchell, but also championed debut novelists and helped launch the careers of young book critics and essayists. Published by McSweeney’s, which is also a book publisher, the magazine was several times a finalist for National Magazine Awards. But its circulation was relatively small — in recent years, it hovered around 6,000 — and like many small literary publications, it struggled to make money.
The solution seemed to come in 2017, when the philanthropist Beverly Rogers provided funding for the university’s Black Mountain Institute to buy The Believer for $650,000. For the next few years, the magazine thrived, increasing its staff and budget, creating internship programs for university students, and launching a literary festival, Believer Festival, which helped to turn Las Vegas into an unlikely literary hub.
But it was never financially self-sustaining. Then, last year, its editor in chief, Joshua Wolf Shenk, held a Zoom meeting from a bathtub, inadvertently exposing himself to staff. He resigned, and the magazine was left without a leader. (Shenk declined to comment.)
Months later, the magazine’s funding was withdrawn. Rogers told the institute that “the amount of money being used to support The Believer was untenable, and that it needed to be reallocated” to other literary projects, she said in an email.
In the fall, the university announced it was going to shut down the magazine. For months, The Believer’s future, and the fate of its archives and its staff, was uncertain.
McSweeney’s submitted an offer to take back the publication that included maintaining paid internships for students and workshops with visiting authors, emphasizing the magazine’s literary mission and opportunities for students, something McSweeney’s management said they were encouraged to do by the university. But the proposal did not include any payment, and it was rejected, the university said, adding in an email to The Times that the deal would have been a net loss.
McSweeney’s said that it had been authorized by its board to pay for The Believer, but the university never circled back to say its offer was too low. Instead, it sold the magazine to Paradise for $225,000.
The new owners announced themselves on Twitter last week with a prosaic, “Hi, this is the new owner of The Believer.” The message came from the Sex Toy Collective, a website owned by Paradise that reviews nontoxic sex toys.
The news media jumped on the unlikely story, with articles in Gawker, Vice, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Times and others.
Rogers, whose grant helped to bring The Believer to the university, said in an email to The Times that she was not consulted on the sale to Paradise, and supported McSweeney’s efforts to take the magazine back. “I’m disappointed with U.N.L.V.’s lack of judgment, and, for the life of me, cannot understand why U.N.L.V. would damage its own reputation and sully my name and my foundation in this way,” she said.
The university stood by its decision.
“We weighed all viable options for the future operation of The Believer,” Jennifer Keene, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said in a statement. “This was a sound business decision and the best step forward.”
Paradise appears to have been blindsided by the backlash. Overwhelmed by the furious response from Believer fans and former staff members, Moe deleted the new content Paradise had added, he said, and temporarily took down the Paradise Media website as well as his personal LinkedIn page.
Paradise buys websites with substantial archives and makes money by tailoring the content to attract search engines, which in turn draws advertisers. It owns a number of websites beyond the Sex Toy Collective, including managementhelp.org, which is dedicated to management and business advice, and Philadelphia Weekly, an alternative newspaper that was moribund when Paradise acquired it and has since started to revive its online archives and publish new content.
The sale from Paradise to McSweeney’s came together with extraordinary speed. They had their first meeting on Friday, and by Saturday the deal was done.
“Ian and I are elated that we were able to work together to bring The Believer back home to McSweeney’s,” said Brian Dice, the president of McSweeney’s and the chairman of its board.
Readers can expect the next issue of The Believer, Dice said, by the end of the year.
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