It’s been an usually emotionally complex day for everyone in media twitter. First, the news that the New York Times has awarded its inaugural David Carr Fellowship. Originally, as the singular nature of that title suggests, but the Times was so pleased with its applicants (so unable to come to a decision?) that it was giving out three, count ‘em, three fellowships, to three amazing young-ish writers.
There’s John Herrman, the co-editor of the Awl for the past few years. He’s been writing an outstanding series of media columns lately, characterized by a very readable mix of prescience and fevered paranoia. Also getting awards are Slate’s Amanda Hess, and Deadspin’s Greg Howard (full disclosure, I once attended a podcasting convention for The Awl). So, hooray, congrats all around!
— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) February 23, 2016
i hope you apply to the david carr fellowship at the new york times and then you get it and THEN you bring me snacks https://t.co/baZUAD6pht
— Jazmine Hughes (@jazzedloon) November 18, 2015
BUT, this news was followed quickly by the revelation that not only would Herrman be stepping down from the Awl to work at the Times, but so would his co-editor, Matt Buchanan. In the post announcing their departure, which one is tempted to characterize as ‘wistful,’ they said, “There is truly nothing else like it, and not just because it’s the one of the last truly independent media companies still standing.”
But why, exactly, was Buchanan also leaving? On Twitter he seemed, hrmm, directionless?
(p.s. does anyone want to hire a ginger?)
— matt (@mattbuchanan) February 23, 2016
Buchanan, who considered joining shadowy co-founder Alex Balk as one of the last people standing, ultimately felt it was time to move on. In an interview with Max Read over at New York Magazine, said he’s “looking for a job” or “finally going to med school.”
Combined with the recent news that founder Choire Sicha was taking a job with Vox, and last year’s relatively high-profile departure of Hairpin editors Haley Mlotek and Alexandra Molotkow, one might wonder what exactly is up at the Awl network. Frequent visitors may have noticed a (near-but-not-entire) lack of ads recently, and the disappearance of the sponsored posts which they’d been publishing frequently thought 2014 and into 2015. This is all great as a reader, but worrying if you care about the future of the organization. Suddenly I am very worried!
Buchanan assures everyone it’s business as usual! But is it?
I’ve actually been on this trail for the past several months, though maybe I shouldn’t mention that, as I don’t really have anything to show for it. Asked if he’d like to comment on the future of his network in January, Choire replied:
“omg definitely do not no
However, when we interviewed him in 2014 about the Awl’s move to Downtown Brooklyn, he was a bit more forthcoming on all of the above topics. Below, find some bits that didn’t make it into the interview at the time, but seem pretty relevant now.
On his eventual bosses, Vox, he said, “Vox is an example of someone who’ll be public in three years and has a fuckload of money and does really well, and is actually really smart. It’s hard not to really like them. Unlike a lot of other companies in this space, whom it’s easy to dislike.”
On why he hadn’t taken investment from anyone yet: “There’s always people coming around with money. They’re interesting. But we’re having fun. There’s a funny thing that happens. I knew someone who sold a company, for lack of a better word, a content company, to a very large firm, and I was like, “oh, that’s great! How long is left in your contract that you have to work there?” And he was like, “One year, six months, and three weeks.” And I was like, oo, that sounds really un-fun, and you’re definitely really counting down the days until you don’t have to work there anymore, since you sold it. I don’t know if that position looks great.”
And on the essential skill of being an editor at the Awl: “They should all be pretty different in their wheelhouse of obsessions. And it’s very hard to present those things that you care about like that, to people who might be like, ‘What the HELL are you talking about?!’”
Herrman and Buchanan, whose Awl covered media, technology, robots, coffee, and food with deep knowledge and some insightful anger in a way that walked a reader from complete ignorance to deep apprehension about the future, were certainly a model of that. What will the future hold? No one’s saying, but, maybe not longform?
Update: Reached via email, Buchanan adds that “Herrman and I came in together and did a very specific thing, so it makes sense to go out together with a tidy sense of closure. (Closure is so rare and I’m such a sucker for it!) Plus I’m genuinely very excited to see what somebody with a wider scope or different set of interests is able to do with the Awl that we didn’t or couldn’t. I would hate to hang on to it for myself until it got boring!”