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July 19 2011

09:50

New York Magazine: New(s) business - 21 New Media Innovators

New York Magazine :: While the dark days of journalism have receded a bit — it was only three years ago that layoffs were a weekly occurrence, and serious people discussed the closure of the New York Times — the business is still very much in a state of chaotic flux. The so-called war between new and old media rages on among the pundits, with Facebook supplanting Google News as the new bogeyman.

But if you look past the hype, a bumper crop of new jobs and new ways of reporting have taken root, created by people who are willing to throw themselves into the breach and experiment. What follows is a list of 21 journalists and like-minded inventors who have created something exciting, interesting, and just plain cool.

Do you think there are people missing? Tweet me your thoughts!

Continue to read Chris Rovzar | Noreen Malone | Dan Amira | Adam Pasick | and Nitasha Tiku, nymag.com

July 05 2011

14:00

Exit music: David Cho on leaving The Awl, joining Grantland, and building a business from high-quality writing

The world of online publishing, or at least upstart online publishing, got a surprise on Wednesday when David Cho, publisher of The Awl, announced he was leaving the 2-year-old site he founded with Choire Sicha and Alex Balk. He’s packing his bags (literally) and heading west to join Bill Simmons and Team Grantland, where he’ll be director of business development.

We (probably like a good number of you) are fans of The Awl here at The Lab, and have been following its growth from “scrappy” three-man circus to money-making writing franchise, complete with its own spinoffs: Splitsider and The Hairpin.

I reached out to Cho, busy in the dreadful/necessary task of packing, to talk about his time with The Awl, connecting with audiences, and the new economics of writing online.

“The Awl as it stands is a very good business. The goal in the next two years is to make it a great business,” Cho told me.

If past success is any measure, The Awl will make good on that, with the three sites combined reaching 2 million monthly unique visitors, Cho said, with annual revenue for 2010 reportedly over $200,000. Those figures are what Cho thinks bodes well for the future of The Awl family. It’s not just 2 million passersby, it’s people who regularly visit the site, read stories, and click to others, people who comment and want to contribute their own writing. That’s the sites’ measure of success, he said.

So if everything’s (and everyone’s) clicking, why’s he leaving? The opportunity at Grantland, Cho said, was too good to pass up. And The Awl, he thinks, will thrive without him. Cho describes it like this: “If I thought The Awl would be hampered in any way, I wouldn’t have left. I couldn’t have left,” he said. “I compare it to raising a child. You’re not going to leave your child in the hands of people you don’t trust to raise them.”

It’s a bit like Three Men and a Baby, yes, but understandable. But from the beginning, the strategy for The Awl, and later for its associated sites, was to create good content and trust that people would come to it. Cho goes further, though, saying that The Awl wanted to cultivate a particular audience, one with a taste for a certain kind of writing. It created a destination, Cho said, for writers who are passionate about certain subjects and have an enthusiasm for connecting with people on the same wavelength.

“I think the mission statement for The Awl — and it evolved as the business did — the mission statement of The Awl was: How can we best help writers monetize content?” he said.

They’ve put that plan on wheels, too, generating revenue through display ads and smart partnerships with companies like Gillette and Dockers. (Deals that, Cho says, make sense: Sicha’s posts on dressing well — which could seem like a too-neat bit of brand-blurring synergy — would have run either way. “We would have done that no matter what, it just so happens we have brands that align with that,” he said.) As a result, starting in January, they begin profit-sharing with contributors, which, while the money isn’t a lot, is a start, Cho said.

Of course the other, perhaps unofficial path to compensation for Awl writers is the book deal: Count contributors Chris Lehmann and Natasha Vargas-Cooper down in that camp.

All of this — and the fact that it’s all in the capable hands of Sicha and Balk (who Cho calls “champions of writers and writing”), as well as Splitsider’s Adam Frucci and The Hairpin’s Edith Zimmerman — are reasons why Cho is betting on The Awl’s continued success. The plan, at least as he describes it, seems simple: “Finding people who you work with who understand the audience or are passionate about the audience or passionate about a subject. That, more than anything, has helped [The Awl],” Cho said. “At the end of the day, it’s a writer’s website.”

And that makes leaving all the more bittersweet. “All the hard stuff has been done now,” Cho said. “I told the guy coming in now, ‘I did all the heavy lifting, and you get to have fun!’”

That’s not to say he isn’t thrilled to be jumping onboard one of the most-watched journalism start-ups (as much as you can call a project with ESPN dollars behind it a start-up). Both Grantland and The Awl, though different in size, share a similar ethos that Cho admires.

“I wouldn’t want to work somewhere where I didn’t believe in the product itself,” Cho said. “I think Grantland has great writing, I think The Awl has great writing, and there’s a lot of sites on the Internet that can’t say that.”

September 01 2010

14:41

The Awl gets a sister site, Splitsider, which will be its “newsy-voicey” compliment in covering comedy

It sometimes feels like all the good topics are taken online — it’s uncommon to find a promising but untrampled niche for a new website. The folks behind The Awl hope they’ve found one in a new site up in beta today called Splitsider. It’ll cover the comedy industry for a ready audience of comedy nerds/lovers, and it’s the first evidence of the Awl expansion plans we wrote about in June.

Last week Adam Frucci, who is going to head up Splitsider, said goodbye to his readers at the Gawker Media site Gizmodo. Reflecting on his four years there, he asked: “What other job pays you to test drug paraphernalia and sex toys, to create goofy videos and unscientific quizzes? No other job, that’s what.” But there is still plenty in store for him at his new gig, where his colleagues will include Gawker veterans Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

I spoke with Frucci about why moving on to Splitsidder was so appealing, considering his success at Gizmodo. “I’ve been at Gizmodo for four years,” he told me, “but I was never going to run Gizmodo.”

He’s in the process of sorting out what kinds of posts he wants to write himself and which contributors he plans to tap for regular features. “It’s been a lot of back and forth with writers,” he says. “I want people to be excited about what they write about.” Contributors will be unpaid, at least at first. (When I asked if he can guarantee book deals, like the kind Awl contributor Chris Lehmann landed for his unpaid column called Rich People Things, Frucci deadpanned, “I promise 100 percent if you contribute, you’ll get a book deal.”) He says the core of the site will be a running stream of newsy posts from him about things like which shows and writers getting deals, plus columns on specific topics.

Sibling sites

The site will compliment The Awl, posting content that at least some Awl readers should find interesting. That cross-promotion will help push early readers to the new site. But it’ll have a slightly different tone: Publisher David Cho told me that if The Awl is all about voice, Splitsider will be all about showing they can do “newsy voicey.”

Cho told me that the combination of content opportunity and voice is what made this an appealing prospect. “To have a great writer and a topic that no one else owned, that’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think from a content perspective, it might even have more potential than the Awl.” This spring, The Awl was up to about 400,000 pageviews per day. The bread and butter of Splitsider will be the die-hard comedy nerd (“they have nowhere to congregate now,” Cho says), plus the casual reader.

Risk

Frucci and Cho are optimistic, but there’s obviously risk involved. Frucci’s contract offers him the perks of getting to build and shape the site, plus a share of site revenue. But, if the site doesn’t take off, there’s no base salary for him to rely on. His old job at Gizmodo paid him a base plus bonuses for big traffic.

Cho agreed there’s a risk, but said he wouldn’t push him into something he thought would definitely fail. He added that you pretty much need a sink-or-swim personality to make this kind of project work. If you’re looking for stability, “I don’t think that’s the type of person we’d want for a job like this,” Cho said. “That’s the type of person whose going to get burn out.”

Frucci mentioned his idea for the site to Cho, who had his eye out for talented writers and good ideas for sites. Why launch with Cho and share revenue rather than go it alone? “I have no experience launching a site or selling ads,” he told me. “Basically, it makes it possible to do.” Cho says he “can get him a significantly higher CPM than if he were trying to do it on his own.”

Cho told me back in June that he hopes to launch several new sites this year. He’s keeping his eye out for interesting ideas and great writers to lead them. The details on the other sites are under wraps, but Cho did say “in a lot of ways, this site is a pilot.”

June 14 2010

15:30

The Awl wants to win on the web with great writing, not SEO tricks

Generally, when you think of a site launch, there’s a pretty standard checklist most people follow. Pick a niche topic that appeals to a big enough audience to merit selling ads. Devise a content strategy, whether its writers or aggregation or both. And, perhaps most important, draw up an audience strategy that factors in SEO, social media, and pageview-driving tricks. (Slideshows!) The Awl, a year-old site about current events and culture in a cheeky-but-not-quite-snarky voice, has taken a slightly different course: Create great content.

The site was founded by two Gawker editorial veterans, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, and David Cho, who worked on the business side at Radar, where the other two also had a stint. Sicha and Balk produce a stream of about two dozen posts per day (some written by outside contributors, many of them formerly of the Gawker talent stable), and they’ve grown an audience of about 400,000 unique monthly visitors. And in the next few months, they plan to expand by launching two new standalone sites.

I spoke with Cho about his strategy. (I first talked to Sicha, who said “you could kill either one of us [meaning him or Balk] and the site would be fine — but not David.” He warned journalists not to hire one of their own to run the financial side — get a “real” business person.)

Non-strategy as strategy

Cho said the site got off to a rocky start, after early investment money fell through. The trio ultimately launched on their own, embracing the idea of focusing on great writing, and scrapping SEO and pageview-generating maneuvers. The design was, and still is, barebones.

As Sicha put it in an interview with Vanity Fair last year, “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. I want to disinvite them.” The VF interviewer said The Awl “reminds me of the Gawker of four years or so ago, when it was more targeted to quote-unquote smart people, or Manhattan media people. Before it expanded to cover more of the same old celebrity crap that the rest of the blogs cover and opened the commenter floodgates.”

“I think it’ll be an interesting experiment to see if good content can win,” Cho told me. “I’m much more of the mindset of, ‘Balk and Choire, you should do more stuff like this, because it’s what people want and it’ll get more traffic than this,’ and blah blah blah. And then eventually we do what Choire and Alex want to do, because that’s the way it should be.”

In a sense, the non-strategy is their strategy. The site has a unique aesthetic, creating a strangely cohesive mix of politics, national news, international affairs, and culture stories. (The first written account of “bros icing bros” appeared on The Awl.) [Editor's note: The Internet has informed us that news of the meme predates The Awl's coverage. We regret the error of not being as up to date on the state of bros fieldwork as we should. —Josh] There’s lots of aggregation-plus-comment, but also longer essays by smart writers. The mixture attracts a high-brow, educated, savvy reader and a New York-heavy audience: 25 percent of readers live in New York, with another 10 percent or so in the metro area. Both are potentially attractive audience for advertisers.

A letter from the editor

A good example of the site’s strategy is the recent resurrection of a daily newsletter written by Sicha. “I wanted to keep in touch with those original core, core readers,” Sicha told me, explaining why he decided he needed to recommit to the daily email after a few months off. (The first email back noted it had returned “by popular demand (AKA the demand of our publisher).”) The email reads like a quick note from the editor, not a typical website blast email with a roundup of links. It’s an original piece of content only dedicated readers receive.

In its first week back, the email featured a Trump Soho ad, a New York-specific buy that generated some income for The Awl. Still, Cho is realistic about the promise of the email for now. “From an advertisers perspective, I think right now we’re still very much in a kind of an incubating mode for the newsletter,” Cho told me. He said the Trump ad “sort of fell in [their] lap,” but generally he plans to sell the email ad space as a free bonus if advertisers purchase more ads on the site. (Sicha gleefully described it as “adjacency!”) Right now only about 2,500 people subscribe. They expect more readers to sign on once they make the signup a more prominent feature on the site.

In terms of handling all the negotiating and sales, Cho said they have a variety of deals with outside firms, like Federated Media. “I think we’re getting to a good place with advertising,” Cho said. “It takes time to build momentum and for people to understand what your site is. The growth of the site is very helpful.”

Up next

In the next few months, The Awl will grow into a network of sites. One planned site already has a lead writer and a topic picked out; another has a writer, but no topic yet. Cho expects to work out a topic with the writer that could work for potential advertisers he has lined up. But overall, the plan is the same as it was for The Awl. “Our plan is to rollout more sites with great writers,” Cho told me. “That was always what the site was going to be, to give talented writers a place to talk and write.”

I pressed Cho for details on the new sites to come. The one nugget I got: “We’re not going to launch a poetry site any time soon. We have a poetry section. I know how it does.”

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