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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.”

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