Is That Awl There Is? Remembering The Awl And The Hairpin

Jan 19, 2018
Originally published on January 19, 2018 10:22 am

It's easiest to say what The Awl and The Hairpin were by describing what they weren't.

They weren't places you went for lazy listicles and clickbait quizzes — Which Character From 'The Greatest Showman' Are You?

You didn't go there to get yet another hot take on whatever it was that everyone on social media was buzzing about that day.

They didn't do takes — hot or cold. They weren't reactive.

Again and again, they generated the content that everyone else reacted to. Not with outrage, as has become the norm, but with amusement. Appreciation.

You kept The Awl and The Hairpin bookmarked for the writing — smart, vigorous, highly voiced writing on subjects that were personal, idiosyncratic — and likely deemed too off-center by the big print and online magazines. They were little havens of eccentricity and everyday absurdism.

Many of today's writers — too many to list here — got their first bylines at The Awl and The Hairpin, writing about things like what the McDonald's McRib sandwich says about marketing — and about society, or the Scandals of Classic Hollywood, or a set of acerbic Fairy Tales For The Modern Day Woman, or a deep dive into the world of online product reviews that famously asked, "Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much?"

Not the Pentagon Papers, no, but that was never the intention.

The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the '70s, Spy Magazine in the '80s, Sassy in the '90s and McSweeney's in the aughts — they were places someone could take their voice and sensibility out for a spin, to open them up and see what they could do. Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.

The Awl launched in 2009 as a rudimentary Wordpress blog. Founders Alex Balk and Choire Sicha, along with publisher David Cho, were veterans of places like Gawker and Radar Online. They named The Awl after a tool that punches holes, and from the start the editors sought to puncture the New York media bubble, welcoming pitches from writers beyond the five boroughs. In 2010 they were joined by Edith Zimmerman, who launched The Hairpin, a website that featured writing by and about women.

Both The Awl and The Hairpin stayed true to their writing-first organizing principle, but the Internet changed around them. Ad-driven Web revenue declined sharply. The sites scrambled to make it up, but this media landscape isn't a friendly one for independent, general interest publishers.

That might be why two of The Awl's sister sites — The Billfold and Splitsider, which focus more narrowly on the worlds of finance and comedy, respectively, will remain, for now. The Awl and The Hairpin will shutter on Jan. 31. It's still unclear whether you'll be able to access the nine-year archive of content after the sites close.

But whether you can or you can't, The Awl's organizing principle, summed up in its tagline, will hopefully continue to inspire writers and readers in this tumultuous media environment for years to come.

That tagline: Be Less Stupid.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two websites known for creative writing close at the end of the month. One is The Awl - that's A-W-L like the hand tool. A sister site is The Hairpin. Both are much admired. So what went wrong? NPR's Glen Weldon reports.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: It's easiest to say what The Awl and The Hairpin were by describing what they weren't. They weren't places you went for lazy listicles or click-bait quizzes. No, you kept The Awl and The Hairpin bookmarked for the writing - smart, vigorous writing on subjects that were personal and idiosyncratic. Best-selling author Mallory Ortberg got some of her first bylines at The Awl and The Hairpin as a young writer. Before that, she'd been a fan for years. For her, it represented...

MALLORY ORTBERG: An absolute beacon of everything I kind of wanted for my life. And so I started reading it pretty obsessively in between, like, applying to jobs on Craigslist and crying.

WELDON: Ortberg and scores of others made their bones writing about things like what McDonald's McRib sandwich says about society or crafting a set of acerbic fairy tales for the modern-day woman or doing a deep dive into the world of online product reviews with the headline, "Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much?"

ORTBERG: There was an editorial vision and a sense of responsibility. Like, they weren't going to just unleash you saying something really stupid at 21 years old without kind of doing any sort of editorial work or reining in some of your worst impulses. There was a sense of, like, editorial care. But there was, within that, a ton of freedom in terms of topic and scope and voice.

WELDON: Voice especially - that was the key. The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers, like the National Lampoon in the '70s, Spy magazine in the '80s, Sassy in the '90s and McSweeney's in the '00s. They were places someone could take their emerging writerly voice out for a test drive.

Both sites stayed true to that sensibility over the years, but the Internet changed around them. Revenue from online ads declined sharply. And though they spent the last few years scrambling to make it up, this media landscape just isn't a friendly one to independent general interest publishers - which is probably why two of The Awl's sister sites, The Billfold and Splitsider, which focused more narrowly on the worlds of finance and comedy, will remain for now.

It's still unclear if you'll be able to access the nine-year archive of Awl and Hairpin content after they close down at the end of the month. But whether you can or you can't, here's hoping the Awl's organizing principle, summed up in its tagline, will continue to inspire writers and readers alike. That tagline - be less stupid.

Glen Weldon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAKIM KARUD'S "LOVE MODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.