Earlier this month, the Chicago-based staff of the A.V. Club wrote their final words for the esteemed, deeply midwestern pop-culture site, which is relocating its headquarters to California.
The dreadful move came months after the company’s private equity owners announced they were bringing the site “closer to the industry it covers”—and forcing staffers to either relocate or quit their jobs.
Longtime fans from all over poured out their sympathies online for the writers and editors forced to make the gut-wrenching decision between moving cross-country or losing their jobs.
For years, the A.V. Club was the pop culture website for people who religiously follow entertainment news. Maybe you were lucky to witness the site’s comment sections after hate-watching season eight of Dexter or the A.V. Undercover live music webseries.
If the somber news of the departure feels eerily familiar, that’s because it is: news companies everywhere are being gutted by private equity firms or hedge funds. The publication’s owners claimed the move will “allow the site to grow its entertainment relationships and provide more access to exclusive events.” But that kind of music-insider business is the very antithesis of the A.V. Club.
There’s “something midwestern at the heart of the site,” former managing editor Erik Adams told the Reader in February. Founded in Madison, Wisconsin, the A.V. Club was once buried in the back pages of the Onion, and later grew to become its own media sensation. Over the years, it would find a home in Chicago, far from Hollywood’s glamour, where it had space to write the honest (and sometimes crass) pop culture criticism it grew to be loved for.
This isn’t an obituary of the A.V. Club—the site isn’t shutting down. It’s a tribute to the people who made it a staple of the midwest, and the story of how they did it.
In the fall of 1992, a satirical weekly newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, was becoming popular enough to start attracting advertisers. With the revenue they brought in, the Onion was able to hire more staffers and add pages—so much so that its writers, who were mostly college students, began looking for new ideas to fill the paper. They hired a friend, Stephen Thompson, to write concert listings for a whopping $15 a week. Other weeks, they paid him $25 for album reviews.
As a 20-year-old fan of the Onion, Thompson happily agreed. Over time, he began fleshing out an entertainment section to fill the back pages, including sections of its own: Sonic Boom for music, Toilet Reading for books, and the A.V. Club, its name a nod to high school audiovisual clubs, for movies.
Then the staff decided to rebrand the paper, which Thompson said was originally designed to be silly, with over-the-top screamer headlines, to look more like a real newspaper.
“They went from being a parody of Weekly World News to a parody of USA Today,” Thompson recalled. The entertainment section, too, was redesigned and collected under the A.V. Club.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s, with the launch of its website, that the Onion went from being a regionally known paper to an international media phenomenon. TV camera crews parked outside the Madison office, desperate to capture writers in action.
“I remember cameras pointing at the accumulated dust and garbage strewn on the floors,” Thompson said. “It was like a college group house.”
In contrast, the A.V. Club was inconspicuous. Its Internet debut was gradual. Staffers updated the site once a week with a few reviews and a feature—always in the shadow of the Onion.
“One of the big things that we had to learn was how to be our own publication and have our own voice that was separate from the comedy section,” Thompson said.
But its time would come soon enough. In 2000, the Onion moved its editorial offices to New York. A.V. Club staffers stayed in Madison, but not for long. They began to look elsewhere—148 miles south to Chicago—where they could get better access to press screenings and movie premieres.
Thompson stayed in Madison, where he worked remotely as editor in chief of the A.V. Club. The Onion’s online success meant faster turnaround, which also meant he was working seven days a week for six months at a time.
“I was massively burned out,” he said.
He stayed on until 2004, having paved the way for a new era of the A.V. Club under the leadership of Keith Phipps. Over the next eight years, the publication would reach unprecedented heights in its new home in the heart of the midwest.
The A.V. Club broke into the Chicago scene in a cramped office near the corner of Clark and Belmont, on the second floor of the building neighboring the Dunkin’ Donuts affectionately called “Punkin’ Donuts” because of the mohawked, leather-jacketed kids who hung out there (the location is now a Target). Former film editor Scott Tobias fondly remembers the stench of urine greeting staffers from the alley every day while walking into work.
“We were all working on top of each other,” Tobias said. The office was a tight space for the growing staff.
A few years later, the A.V. Club upgraded to a converted loft space at 212 W. Superior, and later moved into a bigger office around the corner near Chicago and Franklin. The new office had a rooftop deck (that they only used for a couple of summers because the building owners didn’t get the right permit), a Kegerator, and a tech start-up feel. It was also a short walk from film screenings in the Loop.
A space at 730 N. Franklin would later become the Onion’s headquarters, too, after that publication returned to the midwest from New York City in 2011—a move that startled its staff, who like the A.V. Club staffers a decade later, were forced to either make the move or quit their jobs.
“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I don’t know how you could give up a job like that,’” Erik Adams said. “It’s hard enough getting a job at the A.V. Club. For a job with the Onion, there’s so many other hoops to go through.”
The Franklin building would end up housing several of the Onion’s sister publications—the A.V. Club, ClickHole, and the Takeout. Staffers quickly became accustomed to working closely with one another.
“What I remember a lot about that office is the A.V. Club writers would be sitting there writing their 5,000-word treatises on TV episodes, while the Onion pitch meetings would be going on and they would always be laughing really loud,” former senior writer Katie Rife said. “It was an interesting combination of a library and a comedy club in there.”
The Franklin office remained the A.V. Club’s headquarters as long as the publication was based in Chicago. In interviews with the Reader, staffers reminisced about their days working at their “dream job.”
Former unofficial music editor Alex McLevy still remembers the excitement he felt on his first day walking into the office. “It felt like Charlie Bucket getting the gold ticket” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he said.
During his first week at the A.V. Club, McLevy was working on a story when his editor told him to take a break so that they could go watch Screaming Females play. Down the hall, the three-member rock band was performing a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
It was one of hundreds of performances from bands invited to perform song covers at the Chicago office in what came to be known as the A.V. Club’s Undercover series.
“It was cool because you could kind of pause your workday and go into the studio and watch your favorite band play for a little bit,” Rife recalled.
The A.V. Club was also deeply embedded in Chicago’s music scene.
The Hideout’s annual block party, which later turned into the combined A.V. Fest/Hideout block party, was a popular hit for local fans in the mid-2010s. Named the “anti–Lollapalooza” by Consequence Media, the music festival was affordable and fan-friendly. A.V. Club editor Josh Modell and Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten curated a lineup of their favorite bands, and the dive bar’s parking lot served as the stage.
The A.V. Club also grew to be lauded for its TV coverage, which exploded in the 2010s. Phipps expanded the freelance budget to hire more contributors from around the country, like TV critic Emily VanDerWerff, who worked remotely from her apartment in LA.
Fans became enamored with the reviews and comment sections, like VanDerWerff’s reviews of the TV sitcom Community. Her recap of the season three finale garnered over 100,000 comments.
The in-depth TV coverage was exceedingly popular, even for people hate-watching Dexter or True Blood. “I bet there were people that only watched terrible shows to go to the A.V. Club afterwards to crack some jokes,” a commenter on the news-aggregator site Reddit wrote.
“There is often a fair accusation of rose–colored glasses in that the people who worked there, the people who commented, the people that read that site cared about each other in a way that has become a lot harder to find online,” VanDerWerff said. “It felt like you could go there and the world would be a little less unforgiving . . . even if it was comment wars about America’s Next Top Model. It wasn’t like we were arguing about the future of the republic. It was a place where the world felt like it made sense for a little while.”
In the late 2010s, the A.V. Club began diversifying its masthead and pool of freelance contributors. Former TV editor Danette Chavez remembers being the only person of color working full-time at the A.V. Club. She successfully pushed the company to hire more Black and Latinx staffers and also widened the contributor pool.
“We now have young Black women, like Ashley Ray-Harris writing about Insecure, and Ali Barthwell, who recently won an Emmy for her work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Chavez said.
As that success panned out, “The A.V. Club became more of a platform for voices that have been historically underrepresented in alternative media,” Chavez said.
In 2012, Phipps stepped down from his role as editor in chief, the first in a wave of departures at the A.V. Club that included staffers Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Genevieve Koski, and Noel Murray. A few months later, the six former staffers announced their new senior roles at the Dissolve, a Pitchfork-run film website that closed in 2015.
“There was greater concern for metrics, page-views, and sponsored content,” Phipps told the Reader regarding his A.V. Club departure. “I think my views on that have borne out, but I don’t think sponsored content saved online editorial sites in the long run.”
A few years later, CEO Mike McAvoy sold the Onion to Univision. Alex McLevy said the new owners mostly kept their hands off the A.V. Club, other than forcing the site to adopt Kinja as its new publishing platform, effectively annihilating the popular comments section. Around the same time, Univision purchased Gawker Media, another online media company, and reorganized several of its sites under the new Gizmodo Media Group.
In 2019, Univision sold the Onion, along with Gizmodo Media Group, to private equity firm Great Hill Partners. The new organization was rebranded G/O Media company.
“That’s when all the changes really began in earnest,” McLevy said.
The first mention of moving to LA, staffers recall, was in 2019.
“It was presented to us as an actual invitation,” Chavez said. “The way that the information was disseminated to us was that they were building up an office in LA, not that they were shutting down the Chicago office.”
In September of 2021, G/O Media hired Scott Robson, Los Angeles-based media executive previously from E! Online and Yahoo! Entertainment, as editor in chief.
The move didn’t come up again until December of last year, when staffers say they were informed during a meeting that the company would be shuttering its Chicago office and relocating to LA.
Staffers were given two options: move to LA, or quit and take a severance package.
The company offered the Chicago-based staffers $5,000 each to cover relocation costs, but no salary raises despite the higher cost of living in Los Angeles. They were given a month to make their decision. One said that had they not been unionized, they wouldn’t have even been offered the severance.
“We didn’t get an incentive to move,” Chavez said. “We were given an ultimatum.”
In a statement to Gawker, G/O Media’s spokesperson wrote that “The A.V. Club’s move to Los Angeles was planned to commence two years ago,” but was slowed because of the pandemic.
Some staffers considered the move, but it was less possible for others. “I have a three-year-old and we didn’t really want to uproot our lives,” said Alex McLevy, who ultimately chose to quit. “And also I fucking love Chicago.”
Before the deadline to make up their minds had even passed, the company was already advertising three of the seven Chicago-based job positions.
“It’s clear that G/O wants these veteran employees to leave so the company can replace them with workers paid at the salary minimums as stipulated in the union contract—minimums that were bargained based on Chicago rates,” the union representing A.V. Club staffers wrote in an online statement.
On January 18, the seven Chicago-based staffers announced they would be taking their union-contract-protected severances. In March, the A.V. Club began relocating its headquarters to Los Angeles.
On March 2, in the comment section of her last article for the A.V. Club, Katie Rife wrote a farewell to readers.
“I was a reader long before I was a writer for AVC, and many incredible writers, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends and colleagues, passed through these doors before my time,” Rife wrote. “Many more have during my time, and many will after.”
From its inception, the A.V. Club has been a home for pop-culture obsessives, but rooted in midwestern sensibilities, it stayed accessible to casual fans as well. Its distance—both physical and philosophical—from the industry’s epicenter granted readers and writers alike the space to be critical of popular media, from Breaking Bad to America’s Next Top Model.
Chicago is deeply indebted to the A.V. Club for helping make the city a mainstay of pop-culture criticism that is honest and sharp, like a true midwesterner. And perhaps because that kept it grounded, the A.V. Club was a platform for high-profile and emerging artists alike.
No one gave Bob Odenkirk—a native of Berwyn and star of the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul—the time of day quite like the A.V. Club. Local traditions like the old Hideout shows will be lost as well.
Thanks to the writers who gave it breath over the years, the A.V. Club will always be a product of the midwest (and maybe a candidate for “Chicago Not in Chicago”).
“I hope that people recognize that even as much as the A.V. Club has changed, if people are doing this work, it’s because they care about it,” Adams said.
“Our work at the A.V. Club wasn’t Pulitzer–prize winning investigative journalism and it wasn’t writing that righted injustices, but in small ways it helped people understand their world better through the media that they love.”
Editor’s note: The interviews for this story were conducted in January 2022, before any of the former A.V. Club staffers left the company.
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