In March, at the Code/Media conference in Dana Point, California, some of the most powerful people in media found themselves discussing an unsettling story published two weeks prior.
Why are the most important people in media reading The Awl?
By Josh Dzieza
In February, at the Code/Media* conference in Dana Point, California, some of the most powerful people in media found themselves discussing an unsettling story published two weeks prior.
The piece predicted that the future of the internet looked a lot like the television industry: websites would atrophy, and publications would become disembodied producers of content for large social networks like Facebook. "If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and ‘publications’ are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms," the author wrote, "what will have been point of the last 20 years of creating things for the web?"
Recode’s Peter Kafka used the piece to prod Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. Cox denied that Facebook was trying to devour the internet. But Gawker founder Nick Denton brought the piece up later in the conference, endorsing its central idea. "Every publisher has to make a choice as to whether they’re going to be a content provider within somebody else’s ecosystem, on somebody else’s platform and subject to somebody else’s algorithm, somebody else’s rules," Denton said.
The piece hit a nerve in an industry trying to figure out where it sits in an internet centralizing around gigantic platforms. It was written by John Herrman, a journalist who established his name as a tech blogger, but it wasn’t published in The New York Times or Columbia Journalism Review, publications with long histories of media criticism, or by any of the big new media companies at the heart of these changes. It appeared on The Awl, an offbeat site with a small readership and a wry sensibility.
Founded in 2009 by Choire Sicha, Alex Balk, and David Cho, The Awl stands counter to the prevailing trends in the media industry, commenting skeptically on the conventions of the wider web while running a mix of stories that are both wide-ranging and unabashedly specific: writerly reviews of the previous day’s weather, deconstructions of minion memes, tirades against negronis and the Moon, personal essays, deadpan lists, poetry. The site’s tone, knowingly smart and aloof from the news cycle, is especially popular among people who work in media, and it has become a farm team for larger publications. Lately, under the editorship of Herrman and Matt Buchanan, it also publishes some of the most incisive criticism about the ongoing collision of media and technology.
The Awl’s unique position is partly the result of its business practices and goals. The site has expanded into a network, with the comedy site Splitsider, the women-oriented site The Hairpin, and the personal finance site The Billfold. At a time when venture capital feels abundant, it’s entirely self funded and profitable, though with a very thin cushion. In an industry obsessed with rapid growth, the editors are wary of scaling up. When the company expands — as it plans to do soon with a new parenting site run by former Gizmodo editor Brian Barrett — it does so cautiously, by partnering with writers. A few months ago, The Awl gained a newsletter by bringing Laura Olin’s Everything Changes under the site’s banner, and now Buchanan and Herrman are launching a podcast, which they’ll host, record, and edit themselves.
The Awl has found a way to make being small work in an industry that favors scale and mass appeal, and it’s become the sort of place where writers like Herrman and Buchanan can stand back and watch the content dynamo churn. But the company is subject to the same forces they’ve been warning about, and the people who built it are thinking about how to navigate the weird new internet taking shape.
In April, I met up with Herrman and Buchanan at an empty hotel bar not far from The Awl office in Downtown Brooklyn. Buchanan, in a crisp oxford buttoned to the neck, his red hair pushed to the side, ordered a ginger ale. Herrman, also red-haired and looking slightly more rumpled in a worn green sweatshirt and jeans, got a beer.
Herrman and Buchanan think the media industry is due for a reckoning. The transition from media hosted on websites to media built around social platforms is more profound than people realize, Herrman says. As more content is published directly onto Facebook, users will gradually lose a sense of who’s producing what. The most consequential journalism becomes just another unit of content in a single stream of music videos, movie trailers, updates from friends and relatives, advertisements, and viral tidbits from sites adept at gaming fast-changing algorithms and behaviors. Readerships that seem large now will turn out to be as ephemeral as Snapchats.
"I think John tends to be ahead of these things because he reads them as science fiction of the present," Buchanan says. "That’s a lot of what The Awl does now," Herrman agrees. "Our entire economy is just a giant science fiction writing prompt."
The two have worked together for so long, first at Gizmodo, then at BuzzFeed, that they’re widely referred to as "the gingers." ("Actually they’re one big ginger man in a trench coat that people mistake for two people," says Adam Frucci, who worked with them at Gizmodo and now edits Splitsider.) Herrman is genial and goes on frequent flights of theoretical fancy that often end in apocalypse and laughter. Buchanan is more reserved, punching in with acerbic jokes. When they get on one of their favorite topics — Amazon, Uber, Facebook — they bounce back and forth in an accelerating game of dystopian repartee.
Soon cities will be stratified into classes of on-demand laborers, Herrman says, "app playgrounds" zoned by service radii. It’s going to get more interesting when you replace those people with robots, Buchanan says, adding that everyone will be eating soylent while the rich eat solid foods in surge-priced restaurants. "I can’t wait for the progressively priced food market," Herrman says, with genuine enthusiasm, "that’s going to be great." Struggling to keep a straight face, Buchanan describes college lectures with professors delivering sponsored native ads indistinguishable from the course — environmental science brought to you by Exxon. "In-app purchases for college! College premium! I can’t wait!" Herrman says. "The future is going to be amazing," Buchanan says, dryly. "I’m so glad I’ll be dead."
The two got their start at Gawker’s tech site, Gizmodo: Buchanan in 2006, while still at NYU, and Herrman in 2008, while at the University of Edinburgh. It was classic gadget blogging in a very different internet, and they excelled at it. They wrote up to a dozen posts a day — "What is Gorilla Glass?," "The Greatestest Mouse Ever, Reincarnated" — which readers found by checking the site’s homepage, through RSS, or by following links from other blogs. "They were the two smartest people, the most talented people that came through that site," says Brian Lam, who ran Gizmodo at the time. Lam went on to launch The Wirecutter, a gadget review site for The Awl Network that now runs independently.
In 2012, as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter were becoming major sources of traffic, Buchanan and Herrman left Gizmodo to start BuzzFeed’s tech section. There, Buchanan did close-readings of Twitter design changes while Herrman took an interest in Facebook’s effect on the media. Herrman "was one of the first reporters to understand that the genre known as ‘media reporting’ exists now largely within the larger context of companies typically thought of as tech companies," says BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, citing Herrman’s piece on Facebook’s social readers, a partnership that drove traffic to news sites until Facebook redesigned the feature. Buchanan went to The New Yorker for a year, then rejoined Herrman at The Awl in 2014, after they were both approached by the site’s co-founder Choire Sicha.
Buchanan does most of the editing, while writing about architecture, technology, and drinks. Herrman has stayed on the Facebook beat, now covering the subject as an outsider. "You can’t write about media and the internet at BuzzFeed without torturing yourself over what it means," he says. He writes with the tone of an anthropologist studying the bewildering behaviors of the content industry: the "sacred ritual" of embedding John Oliver clips that every site performs on Mondays, the dozens of identical posts that spring up around the same Twitter gaffe, the collective rush to dash off opinions about whatever topic everyone else is covering. Herrman’s 10,000-foot view of the industry is disquieting: publications start to look strangely similar, hazily defined organizations jostling for a spot in the feeds of social platforms. Publications like Upworthy and spammier clones grow rapidly using formats tailored for Facebook’s News Feed, only to plummet with every opaque tweak to the platform’s algorithm.
"I think things are probably much, much worse industry-wise than people acknowledge. It is, to the web, what the web was to what came before it," Herrman later says of the shift to platforms. "If in the process of adapting to it you also lost track of what you were intending to do, then you are just an instrument attached to someone else’s machine, this little weirdly adapted thing that will be disposed of once someone gets around to fixing it."
Not everyone is so grim. Large companies like BuzzFeed and, well, The Verge’s parent company Vox Media, are forming partnerships with platforms to let them host content directly, in the belief that the relationship will be mutually beneficial. "I am definitely thinking about similar things," BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti says of Herrman’s writing. "I enjoy reading his columns because I’m also trying to understand the changes happening in the media industry — though I tend to be more optimistic than he is."
But Herrman and Buchanan are wary of the distorting effects platforms bring. There’s a sense that social sharing is impossible to game, Herrman says, that makes it authentic. But platforms have their own dynamics. People share content that confirms something they believe or that they want people to believe about them. More arbitrarily, certain forms thrive according to the changing metrics of Facebook’s algorithm: time spent off site, or comments. Teasingly captioned videos or quizzes rule for a time, then die off as behaviors and algorithms adjust. Everything is accelerating and nothing lasts for long. At The Awl, Buchanan and Herrman have found a perch where they can stand back and watch the show.
"I’m ready for a big storm," Herrman says, putting down his beer and launching into an exaggerated vision of the future. "Everyone wakes up, and it’s just sand. And most people die, but a few survive, and they all walk in different directions. And I’m ready for this to happen every three months. That’s the cool cyberpunk outcome of all this. Everything remakes itself all the time, and then nothing is sustainable, and the idea that you could do any of these things we’re doing now as jobs will be some ridiculous anachronism." The Awl, he says, laughing, is "the counterexample to entropy that proves the rule. Just wait."
The Awl launched in April of 2009 out of Choire Sicha’s East Village apartment. The publishing industry, weakened by the internet, was crumbling as the recession worsened. The magazine Radar had just closed, putting Sicha and Alex Balk out of work. Rather than write for someone else, they decided to launch their own site, with Radar’s David Cho as their publisher. Their plan was to hire reporters and cover local news, media, and politics, but they couldn’t get funding.
"So we were like, fuck it, and just launched like a piece of garbage, like throwing a rock in the ocean," Sicha says, lounging on the couch in The Awl's office, drinking seltzer. Sicha is a charming speaker, both friendly and mocking, especially when it comes to himself and the company’s haphazard origins. He relishes the ugliness of its early design, a minimal Wordpress blog with a photo of a Butterfinger in lieu of an ad.
Early on, Sicha and Balk would sit at a long dining table, smoking, wearing coats indoors in the winter, and writing post after post. In a stroke of luck, Sicha’s landlord mysteriously vanished and stopped cashing his checks; less luckily, the apartment began to collapse, the ceiling falling into the bathtub. To help finance their venture, Sicha says he stopped paying taxes, running up a six-figure tab with the IRS. "It was terrible," he recalls. "I’ve been broke before. I don’t mind it. It’s something that happens to me sort of regularly in my life, but that was a bad one."
Sicha and Balk were among the first professional bloggers, largely by happenstance. (I spoke with Balk on background; he’s never been interviewed for publication. Sicha, on the other hand, spoke freely: "I don’t give a fuck," he said, "I’ll say anything.") Sicha worked as a bartender and in homeless shelters in San Francisco after high school, then as an art dealer in New York. "I liked writing, and I wanted to be a writer, but I was a mess," he says. "I wrote like one paper in high school, and then I didn’t go to college." In his late 20s after moving to New York, he started blogging to stay in touch with a friend back in California.
In 2003, Gawker’s Nick Denton hired Sicha to run Fleshbot, the company’s now-abandoned porn site, then Gawker itself. Meanwhile, Balk was in advertising and writing a culture blog on the side; he landed at Gawker a few years later. Sicha left for The Observer after a year, then returned briefly in 2007. The style that he developed at Gawker, conversational with bursts of enthusiasm and ironic swerves, exerted a deep influence on the voice of the early web.
"That style became internet parlance," says Andrew Womack of The Morning News, where Sicha freelanced while at Gawker. "You almost can’t think of a bigger effect. I can’t look at anyone type an exclamation point without thinking of Choire’s first stint at Gawker. It wasn’t snarky; it was honest and had this fuck-it-all attitude I think we’ve all had."
Balk and Sicha left Gawker as it began to expand beyond local media gossip. "Nick was starting to figure out that Gawker should grow, and I was like, 'I’m not the right man for this job,'" Sicha says. "I could’ve hired a Neetzan [Zimmerman], but I didn’t know that was what I should be looking for," he says, referring to Gawker’s former viral content superstar. "But I think I actually just didn’t want Gawker to grow."
The Awl went up on April 20th with a column by Emily Gould, a post about the Gawker office floorplan, and pithy news items from Balk and Sicha. "People were expecting something that was almost Gawker 2.0," says Nieman Lab’s Justin Ellis. "Instead it was something smaller and focused on the writing, where people can write about the stuff they’re passionate or super nerdy about." Insofar as the site had any kind of founding principle, it was that writers should only write about things they care about and not waste readers’ time. Its motto was "Be Less Stupid." Would it make readers smarter? Vanity Fair asked Sicha at the time. "I realized that we just don’t really want any stupid people reading it — which sounds mean, but they have plenty of reading material already," Sicha said. "I want to disinvite them."
Balk did most of the writing, posting about bears, English knife crime, and despair. His voice, unremittingly bleak to the point of comedy, with barbs hidden in the URL, alt-text, and tags, helped establish The Awl as a place where writers could experiment. Sicha chimed in with items on New York plus whatever else caught his eye, and edited pieces from friends, many of them writers who lacked places to publish during the recession.
In the fall of 2010, the company began to find its financial footing. They’d launched Splitsider and were working with Edith Zimmerman to start The Hairpin. David Cho had made a deal with Federated Media to run ads on the site, and money started to come in. Taking a cue from magazine advertorials, they’d also begun running sponsored content and native ads. "I think The Awl was too small to get a lot of credit for it, but it was one of the first places to do it," Cho says. Sicha’s first paycheck warranted a column by the late David Carr, who joked that if you were going to launch a site, you’d look at everything The Awl did — its hard-to-pronounce name, its eclectic mix of content, its literate but minuscule audience — and do the exact opposite.
Today, The Awl sites are run out of two rooms above a bodega in Brooklyn. It feels more like an apartment than an office, with everyone seated at desks crammed into one room, and occasionally retreating to the sofa next door for meetings. When I visited in May, the mood was relaxed and collegial: the band Destroyer played quietly over speakers, and Sicha, his shoes off and his feet propped on the desk, was going through a freelance budget. Buchanan and Herrman discussed Tom Scocca’s review of the previous day’s weather. Actual awls served as hazardous-looking paperweights among the seltzer cans and books scattered across the desks.
Just 13 people work at The Awl Network, but it draws on a large reservoir of freelance talent. Writing for The Awl isn’t lucrative, but writers have a lot of freedom, and the sites’ popularity among editors means it’s a good place to get noticed. Many writers have passed through and gone on to book deals or jobs at The New Yorker, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. Maria Bustillos, who now writes for The New Yorker and other outlets, got her start when Sicha turned her emailed rant about Avatar into a post. More recently, Jazmine Hughes went from co-editing The Hairpin to editing at The New York Times Magazine.
"This is going to be gross because it’s so sincere," says The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, "but The Awl is truly the best thing that ever happened to me." Her book, Texts from Jane Eyre, began as a Hairpin series that was inspired by a comment left on an Awl story by her future Toast co-editor Nicole Cliffe.
Sicha and Balk take a laissez-faire approach to running the network. "He’s always like, 'We are a confederation, you are your own state,'" The Billfold’s Mike Dang says of Sicha. Balk is something like the editorial director, meeting with editors once a week about what’s coming up. Sicha is a mix of CFO and floating adviser. Jazmine Hughes describes him as the company’s cool aunt.
Sicha has a rare ability to float above the online scrum that burns many writers out, and he’s instilled a similar ethos at the company. Ortberg compares him to Tom Bombadil, the friendly magical being from Lord of The Rings who’s immune to the ring’s warping power. "A lot of folks who work in media are like, 'God, I have to carry the ring. Doesn’t this suck?' We all have to have the same fights. Tom Bombadil is… kind of untouched by all of it. He puts on the ring and doesn’t care. He’s just leaping around the woods merrily being like, ‘I own myself. I own these woods. No one can harm me.’ That to me is kind of Choire. He will choose what parts of the conversation he’s going to engage in, and he’ll choose how to talk about it, but you can’t make him do it."
"Sicha's just leaping around the woods merrily being like, ‘I own myself. I own these woods. No one can harm me.’"
A lot of Sicha and Balk’s advice involves encouraging editors to do what they want and ignore traffic. "Hot takes are epidemic," Sicha says, referring to hasty opinion pieces spun up to harness the inertia of a viral story. "Nobody should ever have to write X posts a day. That’s when you end up writing something you regret. You become someone else’s hot take."
Dang and The Hairpin’s Haley Mlotek say that Balk never encourages them to recreate past successes, simply shrugging and saying that you never know what hits. (One of The Awl’s most successful posts is Balk’s "How to Cook a Fucking Steak," which poked fun at the site’s sometimes precious food writing, but with righteous indignation that gets recurring traction on Facebook.) Sicha recently changed the password to the traffic-tracking app Chartbeat without telling anyone, then briefly forgot it. Most editors have it back now, though Buchanan and Herrman say they check it mostly to confirm the site isn’t dying. They both say one of the biggest luxuries of working there is being able to choose what they write about. "So many sites feel like they have to cover everything," Buchanan says. "We get to ignore most of it."
By staying aloof from the content cycle, they’ve succeeded in creating a series of publications with coherent identities and distinct sensibilities. Those traits can be hard to maintain today, when stories are encountered alone and out of context on social platforms, and when there are huge incentives for covering viral stories that lie outside of a publication’s wheelhouse. Gawker’s Denton lamented Facebook’s distorting effect in a memo at the end of last year, saying that they’d become "slaves to the Facebook algorithm," and declaring a return to blogging. At The Awl, Sicha and Balk have tried to maintain that spirit since the beginning, building a network of sites unified by tone, with in-jokes and Easter eggs for longtime readers. It also means they’ve chosen to stay small.
BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti compares the site to an indie band. "It’s them saying, 'I don’t want to get that big, I want to stay true to my original rootedness in the music or this particular kind of art we’re making.' I’ve always seen [media] more like hip-hop, where you don’t sell out, you blow up. But there will always be a stage for certain indie rock sites that are about creating the in-group that has a certain aesthetic and special inside knowledge."
But the economics of online advertising favor scale, and The Awl is small: the site now gets a little over a million uniques a month, and the network usually gets 3 million, sometimes 4 million, Sicha says. (For comparison, BuzzFeed.com gets 190 million, according to Quantcast, which tends to be lower than internal Google Analytics numbers.) The Awl makes a virtue out of its narrow audience when talking to advertisers, calling their readers "indielectuals," a term coined by former publisher John Shankman and which Sicha uses with an exaggerated shudder. According to Sicha, 29 percent of the site’s readers have graduate degrees.
"By restricting audience size intentionally, you actually have a coherent audience to sell," Sicha says. "We actually argue a lot over what the maximum audience size is for each of the publications, and it’s not that big. I think The Awl should never have more than 3 million readers a month. Anything beyond it and you’re dipping into people who can’t make sense of the content, who will be a distraction — it’s not for everyone else."
Operating a site with narrow appeal means running extremely lean. Annual revenue is "in the very low seven figures," Sicha says, and at any given time the company has enough funds for one to four months’ worth of payroll in the bank. Instead of hiring writers, they partner with them to launch new sites, splitting revenue 50/50 between editors and the company, which handles the business and tech operations. Everyone owns a part of either their site or the company, Sicha says. "Basically nobody works for anyone here. It’s really a giant lesbian Australian socialized collective with capitalism in the mix in a really gross way."
With funds tight, new projects like the podcast tend to happen slowly. "Most places, you’d hire someone to make a podcast, but we all have 10 jobs," Sicha says. Herrman has been watching a lot of YouTube tutorials about podcast editing. "Either there’s going to be a podcast or the freelance checks are going to get cut," Sicha says. "There’s nobody else here." The Awl, he says, is "the littlest animal in the desert," inching along out of caution and scarce resources.
If the content apocalypse comes, Herrman is cautiously optimistic that The Awl will survive it. "We’ll be the cockroaches who don’t die but who are and will remain cockroaches," he says, laughing. The company was founded in a recession and to a large degree still runs like it’s in one. Over the years, it’s slowly built up a loyal readership large enough to keep it afloat, which alone is a feat.
Where will The Awl fit in the platform-dominated internet they’ve been writing about? "It doesn’t," Buchanan says. "Yeah, not really," Herrman agrees. "But then nothing fits in the new internet, nothing that isn’t literally an unincorporated part of the platform fits," he says. "The Awl started when there was no obvious place for it. It is probably at its healthiest when there is no obvious place for it. We have functioned to some degree on platforms, but we would be very paranoid citizens who have survived some great upset and who remember."
"And who occasionally commit acts of sabotage," Buchanan adds.
After stints at larger publications, Buchanan and Herrman have no plans to leave. "I love it here! There’s nowhere else like it," Herrman says when asked about longterm plans. "Also anybody in this industry who thinks they know what they're going to be doing in more than a couple years is mistaken." Asked about the future, Buchanan said he’d always planned to be dead by 35 and has nothing planned beyond that.
"The Awl exists for reasons other than expansion," Herrman says. "Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable writing critically about companies that do seem to exist solely to grow, companies that function as pure economic instruments. The Awl has a point for the people who started it. They want it to be a place where they and other people publish things that they like and don’t hate."
Sicha is thinking more seriously about how to grow. "We’d like to do new sites, we’d like to be able have cash on hand," he says. Increasing readership by 30 percent would be "life changing" for the company, and he gets excited contemplating moving over to the business side and being "sort of mercenary and evil" about promoting the sites. "I like the idea of wholeheartedly crossing the church-state line and literally being like, ‘Hi, why aren’t you posting to Facebook? Here, tell me about your Pinterest strategy!’ Which is literally just something that no one would ever say in this company because, well, we just don’t care."
Any growth would have to be "organic," he says. "I’m not saying game content, or do the stuff that always succeeds, or try to quantify it," he adds, slightly aghast.
"But I do think that more than it ever has been, it’s important not to be cavalier about these things in the next six years." He pauses and leans back, looking at the ceiling. "Six years! Oh my god, I wish I was dead saying that." He’s never had a job this long.
*During the course of reporting this story, The Verge's parent company, Vox Media, acquired Recode and the Code/Media conference.
Correction: The Code/Media conference was hosted in February, not March, as previously stated.
Clarification: The introduction was updated to include the fact that David Cho was also a co-founder.
Photography by Alex Welsh