The news on Tuesday of the death of The Awl and The Hairpin has proved an unexpected joy. Not because this excellent set of websites deserves shuttering, but because, like a funeral, it gives us a chance to pause, take stock, and mourn the worthy while we’re still young enough to remember. And there is so much to remember. The time Rosa Lyster pretended to a “Marxist bro” that she hadn’t heard of Slavoj Žižek. Dave Bry’s series of Public Apologies to those he had wronged in the past. Jia Tolentino’s Interview With a Virgin. The Ask a Queer Chick post titled “No Lesbian Shirt, No Lesbian Shoes, No Lesbian Service.”
The Awl was founded in 2009 by publisher David Cho and editors Choire Sicha and Alex Balk. Cho left in 2011, but Sicha and Balk remained as guiding fathers even as the next generation of editors, Matt Buchanan and John Herrman, inherited the mantle. Those two left in 2016, and The Awl’s final editor was Silvia Killingsworth. Although she rarely appears in articles about The Awl, Carrie Frye was its managing editor for a long time.
The Hairpin, the network’s women’s site, has received less fanfare on Twitter than its brother, which is deeply unfair. Edith Zimmerman founded the site in 2010 and her voice permeates its sensibility to this day. She was succeeded in various capacities by Emma Carmichael, Jia Tolentino, Haley Mlotek, Jazmine Hughes, and Alexandra Molotkow, each a brilliant journalist in her own right.
To the new reader, a network of sites devoted to lesbian shoes and context-less apologies and random virgins might sound like a wild, wild gamut. And they’d be right, but they’d have identified what made The Awl network itself: the principle of general interest. Each editor in sequence has of course shaped The Awl’s coverage, Killingsworth explained to me this week. “Matt and John were always interested in technology and the future and coffee and Uber. Choire was interested in the media and Balk was interested in the moon and literature.” Killingsworth’s own interests veered towards pop culture and “dorky shit,” which may have been why she let me write a short-lived column about academia. (I also spoke to Balk for this story, but he is “never quoted in the media.”)
“General interest” for The Awl has never meant a dilution of interest, or a limp embrace of all things equally. Its best writers flung their arms around whatever they cared about, and choked it to death. As several editors have explained to me in the past few days, there has never been an Awl rubric, beyond the “Be Less Stupid” strapline. The target audience for The Awl and the Hairpin has always just been smart, engaged people looking for articles that were really about something. There was so much content on The Awl, and no fluff. Its writers have always been allowed to pursue rabbits down rabbitholes, with newsiness sidelined in favor of passion, eccentricity, and humor.
Killingsworth came to The Awl from The New Yorker, and told me that she couldn’t have imagined working anywhere other than The Awl because it “embodied the ideal of a generalist publication.” In some ways The Awl and The New Yorker are spiritually similar places, she observed, because each follows the same principle: “Just apply a good writer to any subject and you will probably get something good if they are actually enthusiastic about it.” The difference is that The Awl’s subjects were often general in the extreme: toasters, bay leaves, comics.
Tom Scocca’s deranged Weather Reviews embodied this principle best. In each post, Scocca described the weather from the previous day and rated it out of five stars. It’s a concept pushed past the point of functioning, a format emptied of all meaning. “It’s today’s review of yesterday’s weather,” Killingsworth said. “It’s deliberately obtuse and staunchly the opposite of weather prediction.” And it’s beautiful. Scocca wrote an unimaginable number of these posts. Let’s navigate to this day in New York City, three years ago, when The Awl was something I thought we’d never lose. The gray sky got one star. “Mist gnawed on the tops of buildings, devoured the river, chewed its way up 70th Street. Nothing would be done outside if there was a way not to do it,” Scocca wrote. “Even with rain boots on, it was worth finding the less flooded parts of the rain-dotted crosswalks.”
Unlike The New Yorker, The Awl was not a massive legacy title owned by Condé Nast. It was independent, intransigently against outside investment, and came into being in a weird golden age of cash-for-blogs. As its publisher Michael Macher told me, the years 2009 to 2013 were a time when “small ad networks that were focused on servicing smaller publishers” flourished. These were years when young writers with popular blogs were getting really good at what they did, and making entrepreneurial moves. There were big advertising deals to be had, and those little ad networks could “work with ad agencies and brands that typically these smaller independent publishers would never be able to access.”
That time is over. Some of the sites founded in those years turned into behemoths. Gawker, of course, though it died in a freak episode of billionaire revenge, rather than by the hand of the market. Vox and Vice medias, for sure. Macher explained that, with the advent of programmatic technology, which segments populations and targets them with tailored ads, the winners of that early round of innovation have consolidated power. “They have VC funding. The ones that succeeded and that were able to grow got even more VC funding.”
And in our era of programmatic spending, the general interest site does not win out. (It is no coincidence that the specialist Awl network sites The Billfold and Splitsider survive.) Macher agreed that there was nothing “intrinsic to The Awl Network’s content that would make brands cautious or resistant toward advertising with it.” Indeed, advertisers at one time valued what former Awl publisher John Shankman called the “indie-lectual.” But the question Shankman articulated to The New York Observer in 2011 has remained unanswered: “How do we scale smart?”
As Macher told me, The Awl network died by a thousand cuts rather than one blow. As an independent media concern, he said, it’s always been the case that “when we make more money, we tend to publish more, and our budgets are higher, and when we make less money, we spend less.” He added, “Those kinds of contractions, they’re kind of like breathing.” A thing that breathes must die, and the struggle seems to have simply become too hard. A misadventure with Medium in 2016 cannot have helped matters. The deal involved transferring all The Awl network’s content to the Medium platform, in return for freedom from all the financial worry related to selling ads. The Awl network did enjoy that freedom, Killingsworth emphasized to me. But Medium at the time seemed poised on the brink of discovering some way to return to a Xanadu of indie web financing. It did not happen, and The Awl went back to its own island.
You can’t scale smart, it turns out, or at least not this kind. And so, because a computer brain cannot tailor data-driven advertising to a small group of people who don’t have as much in common as, say, people from Arkansas who bought a microwave last week, The Awl-reading eyeball has lost its value. Data has taken The Awl network away from us. It’s arbitrary, it’s ridiculous, but that’s the way the internet economy works now.
The great irony of losing The Awl to brainless data and centralized platforms is that John Herrman wrote so well there about losing our best media to brainless data and centralized platforms. That commentary on publishing formed the hook for Josh Dzieza’s massive 2015 profile of the site The Verge. Consider Herrman’s vision of the near future, published in February 2015:
What was even the point of websites, certain people will find themselves wondering. Were they just weird slow apps with nobody in them?? Why? A bunch of publications will go out of business and a bunch of others will survive the transition and a few will become app content GIANTS with news teams filing to Facebook and their very own Vine stars and thriving Snapchat channels and a Viber bureau and embedded Yakkers and hundreds of people uploading videos in every direction and brands and brands and brands and brands and brands, the end. Welcome to 201…..7?
I think of those predictions every time I see a new freakish brand-meld inside my phone. You can tag and embed links to products on an Instagram image now, and you can hire a sexy teenager’s Instagram to do it on, and it feels as if the walls are being built around us as we scroll. Herrman’s vision of platform-creep is oozing into the center of our media landscape. The loss of the Awl Network is a gain for the tyrant of centralization.
One of the best Weather Reviews came out just the other day. “The light and air were so clear that there was little optical shimmer around the sharpened edges of things,” Scocca wrote. Seeing things in very sharp relief is not always a pleasant experience. The end of The Awl is very sad, but its death in the churn of internet life still has meaning. Chaos is beautiful, in a way. We can remember The Awl as a strange, gorgeous kind of orchid that grew out of a gross fungus in a New York sewer. The conditions were right, once, and now they’re gone, but it’s not something you’ll ever forget.