Coffee Times Is a Cautionary Tale
But it offers a valuable lesson about sacrificing one’s values
I’m about a month late to the party, but I just discovered what happened to the publication Coffee Times.
If you happen to fall into the same boat as me, here’s a quick recap, as I understand it, of what transpired:
- The publication's owner published another author’s piece entitled “Why I Hate the LGBTQ Community” and clapped for it.
- The article was poorly written and full of homophobic vitriol (as its title would suggest).
- Horrified members of the Coffee Times readership flagged the article to Medium, which removed the article from the platform.
- The publication is listed as being taken down for violating Medium’s rules, but it seems more likely that the owner decided to delete the publication.
- The owner’s and the author’s profiles are gone too, but I don’t know whether they opted to leave or Medium removed their profiles.
Commenters have expressed outrage at the article and how it got published, while others have wondered if a valued publication should have been given a second chance.
For me, the Coffee Times debacle offers a cautionary tale about what happens when you lose sight of the original values that inspired you.
Publish Fewer Pieces
Coffee Times grew very quickly. One reason was that it did not limit its topics nor, as far as I am aware, have any restrictions on how many articles it published. It prided itself on offering a welcoming venue for new voices, and it took steps to support writers with top-ten lists and newsletters on Substack. In many respects, it was a very positive place to publish.
But that growth came with a price to the editors, who faced a daily firehose of submissions, and the owner wouldn’t make changes to lessen that burden, as Yana Bostongirl and Ashley have explained, here and here.
But the price of that practice is also inflicted on the writers. When you publish anybody and everything, nobody gets read. Pieces are quickly pushed off the main page as new pieces come out of the queue. I’ve seen this practice in many publications, including ones I very much like, and the effect on my articles is always the same — reduced views.
So there’s a lesson here for all publication editors: If your queue is so long that you simply hit publish without taking a modicum of time to review a piece — especially one with such a patently inappropriate title — then you need to rethink your submission guidelines.
Publish fewer pieces. Curate with some sensible guidelines and clear editorial standards. Limit the number of articles any given author can submit to once a week.
I know it seems democratic and inclusive to accept everything. You also avoid the discomfort of declining a piece. But you’re doing your writers a disservice, because you’re tossing their pieces into a sea where they will quickly be forgotten. In the end, you undermine the values of inclusion and visibility that inspired you.
How to Respond to Mistakes
The demise of Coffee Times also has a lesson about responsibility, particularly on how to apologize.
The owner issued an apology on Substack in which he asserted that he was overworked and apologized “to the community” for publishing the piece. The volume of work that Coffee Times demanded was so high that he likened it to an addiction that was consuming him. He was opting for a break from writing.
Its time to face the music!
It has been an arduous weekend for CT and our editors. I spent the last few days recollecting the event that has taken…
As some have noted, the owner omitted a direct apology to the LGBTQ community.
Perhaps that omission was deliberate. It’s hard to believe that it was an inadvertent error to both publish a piece of that title and to clap for it, even if the pub’s standard policy is to clap for every piece. Moreover, at one point, the editor appears to have defended his original decision.
I’m going to give the owner the benefit of the doubt, but even if I assume it was an inadvertent error, this is not how you apologize.
In a nutshell, the owner quickly moved on to confess that he had been looking for an offramp from Coffee Times so he could focus on self-publishing. He even claimed this event might be a “blessing in disguise” so he could take a break from writing (but has published 7 pieces on Substack, the last one just two days ago). In the end, the apology was about him and his feelings.
Other editors stepped in to fill the void, and you can read their apologies here, here, here, and here. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I really appreciate that they did. Doing so speaks to their commitment to the values of the publication.
This episode reminds us that we can cause a lot of harm when we’re not careful with our words. A mistake that spreads hate speech can beget poorly worded apologies. In the end, the owner’s desire for growth meant that the spirit of Coffee Times — inclusive writing that uplifts — was sacrificed.
That’s a lesson for all of us, but especially for those running publications who value community but also want to grow. If you’re not careful, you can easily lose sight of what motivated you to start in the first place.