During his first company-wide meeting two weeks ago, Nick Denton declared that Gawker Media is a technology company, not an editorial one, according to a report published on The Awl. The recasting of the Gawker blog network left at least one current editor scratching his head, but it was clearly a smart strategic message for Mr. Denton to broadcast.
The resurgence of New York media over the past two years has been led by companies whose primary business does not involve words. E-commerce colossus Gilt Groupe and technology and data giants Bloomberg and Reuters lured top legacy media talent to their doors with pre-recession salaries and the sense of relief offered by a company for whom making payroll is not a routine emergency.
But on the other end of the media spectrum, a handful of entrepreneurial online editors have been striving to turn publishing quality content into a business model. Websites like The Classical, Rookie, Thought Catalog, and Los Angeles Review of Books talk the talk of Silicon Alley start-ups, but are founded on an editorial ethos rather than a technological idea. They seem to be led by the example of (and no doubt encouraged by the success of) former Gawker editors Choire Sicha and Alex Balk’s The Awl.
Launched in late 2008, The Awl carried on the hallmarks of the “good,” “old” Gawker even as Mr. Denton shed them. When Gawker corrected its New York media myopia, The Awl offered media commentary like Edith Zimmerman’s parodic “Letters to the Editors of Women’s Magazines” and David Parker’s “The Most Emailed New York Times Article Ever” (not to mention Mr. Sicha’s attentive coverage of masthead changes at this publication). After Nick Denton told The Observer that social media killed the ironic headline—so unclickable—The Awl’s headlines became deadpan to the point of obfuscation. “Man Gets Job,” The Awl recently tweeted.
In the fall of 2010, David Carr reported that the The Awl was bringing in $200,000 in revenue.
“I’m surprised that there aren’t a lot of independent, owner-operated editorial Web sites out there,” Mr. Sicha told him then.
A year later, they’ve begun to spring up, and several cite The Awl as inspiration.
Teen blog phenom Tavi Gevinson’s new web magazine, Rookie, had originally been slated to operate in partnership with Jane Pratt’s website, xoJane.com, but Ms. Gevinson pulled out at the eleventh hour. xoJane.com is published by SAY Media, and Ms. Gevinson wanted to own her own work. When the project went indie, Ms. Gevinson’s friends and collaborators turned to The Awl for advice, according to managing editor Emily Condon.
“We’re super thrilled that Tavi is being her own boss too,” Mr. Sicha wrote The Observer. “So punk.”
Like The Awl, Rookie’s overhead costs have come out the pockets of its friends and founders, but unlike The Awl, it has a key ad partner from the outset: the advertising sales team at New York Media, parent company of New York magazine.
Perhaps more important, Rookie needed to be independent in order to adhere to its editorial ethos, which, like The Awl, bucks conventional new media strategy and bets long on original content. “A lot of websites run on a system of having to get a post up every half-hour, and a lot of those end up being filler posts because they don’t actually have that much to say,” Ms. Gevinson told New York. “After being in all these meetings with publishing companies and advertisers and stuff, it’s like everyone just wants to trick people into reading their website. If the content is good, people will read it.”
Last month, a group of similar-minded if somewhat older sportswriters teamed up to launch an independently owned and operated website called The Classical, a home for ponderous long-form writing about sports and popular culture. It sounded a lot like the Bill Simmons’ blog Grantland, launched earlier this summer, but the entrepreneurs insisted otherwise.
“We’re way smaller, way more seat-of-pants, with no giant corporate funding (yet),” managing editor Peter Beatty wrote The Observer, noting that their plans hinge on attracting a dedicated commenting community that will also contribute.
“The Classical will be a running, wide-ranging conversation between us and our readers,” The Classical founders wrote in their manifesto. “Our model in this regard is The Awl, a site for which many of us have written and which all of us love.”
But the comparison ends there. Although the founders of The Classical (Bethlehem Shoals, Tom Breihan, David Roth, and Tim Marchman, among others) have many years of writing and editing experience, they lack the large online followings that Mr. Sicha and Ms. Gevinson have built up, which are immediately attractive to advertisers. Instead, The Classical asked its would-be readers, commenters and contributors to fund its first year, through the micro-philanthropy site Kickstarter.
They cleared the $50,000 hurdle—including a contribution from Mr. Balk—with more than a week left of fundraising.
Dissolving the line between producers and consumers of media has supported the growth of another of The Awl’s spawn: Thought Catalog. Launched in 2009 with a confident mission statement (“Thought Catalog is illuminating and informative… TC contributors are at the vanguard of their respective fields… We’re avant-now”), the site initially commissioned relatively well-known contributors and critics like Douglas Wolk, Molly Young, and Killian Fox, but soon opened its arms to unpaid submissions. A young editor, Ryan O’Connell, was hired to vet and edit them, in addition to publishing his own writing.
Mr. O’Connell developed a large following which did not just read him—it emulated him. Thought Catalog now has more than 500 listed contributors, the vast majority of whom have only written once or twice, and who, in aggregate, increasingly reflect an editorial penchant for millennial memoirs, semi-ironically packaged as service content (“How To Be My Boyfriend.”)
Thought Catalog’s style is an easy target for teasing Internet upperclassmen, but the site has four times as many Twitter followers as The Awl, and enjoys roughly three times the monthly visitors, according to QuantCast. Contributors share their articles, and comments often rival the posts themselves in length, driving the kind of writing-as-group-therapy social traffic more akin to Tumblr’s shallow reflecting pool than the competitive, reverse-chronological stream of Twitter- or news-driven blogs.
For The Awl, the pivot from scrappy start-up to model media player seems to have come in the form of the ability to pay themselves—which coincided with the appearance in Mr. Carr’s column. Spin-off sites focusing on humor (Splitsider) and women (The Hairpin), had just been launched, and a managing editor would be hired soon after.
Such organic growth was attractive to traditional media players. The Awl lost its founding publisher, David Cho, to Grantland—an ESPN property, albeit with its own similarities to the Awl—earlier this year. Its new publisher, John Shankman, has a more conventional marketing background. He comes to The Awl from The Huffington Post, but prior to that worked at Federated Media, which sells advertising for independent new media companies, including Digg and TechCrunch in their early days, BoingBoing, and The Awl.
He has come up with a marketing term for the ineffable editorial quality that’s inspired imitators.
“The audience that we attract is “indielectual,” Mr. Shankman told The Observer. “That’s the big challenge for us, ‘How do we scale smart?’ What’s happened in a lot of entrepreneurial media companies is they sacrifice quality for the sake of growth,” he added. “We’re not falling victim to that.”
Similarly, at the time of its launch, Rookie managing editor Emily Condon told the Observer that it was produced on volunteer labor, but planned on using future advertising revenue to pay contributors. This week WWD reported that Ms. Condon is headed back to her day job at This American Life. In searching for a replacement, she invoked the entrepreneurial appeal of the job.
“We’re brand new, but the growth potential could be really significant for someone willing to buy in and take a bit of a (calculated) risk,” she wrote in an e-mail obtained by WWD.
And for all The Classical’s lofty editorial ambitions—it will combine post-punk and critical theory—it has modest business goals. The $50,000 first-year budget is just enough to build up the website’s infrastructure and pay a yet-unnamed publisher a “nominal” salary to sell enough advertisements to keep it going.
Even outside the Manhattan media bubble, a group of academics and critics are united by an editorially entrepreneurial spirit. University of California-Riverside professor Tom Lutz launched a website for them this summer, the Los Angeles Review of Books. It aims to replace the long-lost Sunday literary supplements, which give academics a popular platform and were never fully supplanted by literary blogs. The University is an institutional sponsor, and the site collects commissions on any titles purchased through an affiliate independent online bookseller. For additional revenue, LARB plans to launch a book imprint and collect advertising revenue, gifts and grants.
“We hope to build an institution that will continue to function as a public service, having the best writers and artists responding to the best artists and writers, for years to come,” Mr. Lutz wrote The Observer in an e-mail.
LARB is perhaps most transparent about the fundamental earnestness underlying this wave of editorial entrepreneurs. It has by now surpassed that of the The Awl, which much of the time is a weird news and animal videos aggregation blog.
“We really are literary idealists,” Mr. Lutz added, “the whole lot of us.”