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Why are the most important people in media reading The Awl?

Stashed in: BuzzFeed!, Upworthy!, Active Users, Content is king., Content, Journalism, @iamjohnoliver, Microentertainment

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Why are three bloggers with no venture capital being listened to when they say the web is dying and producing content for closed proprietary platforms is not at all the same thing?

Good question. Who ARE these people?

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 memestirades against negronis and the Moonpersonal essaysdeadpan listspoetry. 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 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."


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 videosor 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.

Facebook denies it is swallowing the Internet:

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.

I do remember finding The Awl's "Internet is the Next TV" thought provoking:

With a million uniques a month, they're like an indie band.

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, 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."

You're a big Awl fan? You hardly ever stash from there!

i only read them on flipboard on mobile. my mobile reading mostly does not make it to PW 

Fascinating. I wonder what else I'm missing!

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