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On November 16, Thrillist published an article by Kevin Alexander in which he tried to come to terms with his role in the closing of a restaurant named Stanich’s after naming its burger “the best burger in America.” Apparently, Stanich’s couldn’t handle the increased attention and influx of tourists:
For the past year, the story of Stanich’s has haunted me. For most of that time, I’d been away from Thrillist, as I worked on a book that frequently took me to Portland. Each time I was there, my story would somehow find a way into conversation, like the one with my Lyft driver who asked if I liked burgers. Yes, I said tentatively. “Well, we had a great one here,” he said, as we drove over the Burnside Bridge. “But then some asshole from California ruined it.” Or the time, while sitting at the bar at Clyde Common, the bartender came up to me and in a soft, friendly voice inquired if I’d planned on closing any more burger restaurants while I was in town.
This self-reflective deep dive went even more viral than than the initial burger rankings. According to BuzzSumo, this article was shared more than 9K times on Twitter and had over 37K Facebook engagements (compared to less than 1K Twitter shares and 32K FB engagements on the original piece). Self-flagellation in the publishing industry not only makes for compelling reading; it also pays pretty well too.
The headline was exquisite, promising a piece that would not only reveal some insights about the aftermath of being named in these type of listicles, but also serve as an indictment for the viral systems many of us are complicit in every day. I was happy to see Alexander’s piece was creating a lot of soul-searching in the online publishing community. But I had my doubts about the actual premise of the article (much smarter folks like Nate Silver did too). One passage from the piece stood out, in which Alexander describes the events leading up to the restaurant’s closing: “I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.”
Now, new reporting has come to light that makes clear Alexander left some major parts out of his original piece. Here’s Matthew Singer, writing for Willamette Week, detailing those personal problems:
On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland. Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich’s for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation. He was prohibited from owning a gun or contacting his wife. He was required to undergo treatment for his drinking, barred from consuming alcohol and, in a stiff prohibition for a bar owner, prohibited from entering establishments that primarily serve alcohol, except for work. For the past four years, the only bar he was allowed to set foot in was his own.
The information undercuts Alexander’s piece in several important ways. The first is that, obviously, there were probably greater forces at work creating trouble for the restaurant beyond the Thrillist burger ranking. Only Stanich’s family know the real story behind these events, but it’s safe to say that the restaurant could’ve easily shut down even if the Thrillist article had never been written. Right off the bat, the entire premise of Alexander’s piece is shot.
But in a more significant way, the piece also upends the way Alexander positions himself as a commentator on journalistic quality and ethics. Before he wrote about how he helped cause Stanich’s demise, Alexander explains:
[G]ood, sturdy, reliable lists requiring on the ground knowledge and reporting were actually hard/expensive to make, and few places wanted to pay for that sort of reporting, so most lists just ended up plagiarizing off of the few good ones. And, as these lists increased in frequency while simultaneously decreasing in quality, you watched the collective trust in any one list diminish. Comment sections turned cynical, “this is clickbait!” being the most common refrain, then outright ugly and hostile as discourse on the internet has devolved into a garbage fire inside a waste processing plant atop a landfill built on a massive skunk burial ground.
Alexander explicitly positions his own writing as being a force for good in this mixed up, Facebook-algorithm-driven world:
From a content perspective, my final list overachieved. It got the proper number of engagements, and shares, and clicks, and all the other analytics boss folks use in the Billy Beane Moneyball era of journalism, and the video with Steve Stanich joyfully weeping got millions of views and I got to go on podcasts and radio shows and be interviewed by local newspapers. People could disagree with my picks (and they did!), but they couldn’t call what I’d done clickbait. I’d done the work. I’d made a good list.
But with Alexander’s new piece commenting on the matter, he unwittingly created that thing that he sought to avoid: A clickbait piece whose headline couldn’t deliver on the premise, and whose lack of context (conveniently ignored in service of a story that was too viral to check) ended up bringing more attention to Stanich’s problems. It’s a cautionary tale about cautionary tales.
If the narrative feels too convenient to be true, it frequently is.
Some things that might be worth your time: