The 60-second interview, Matt Buchanan and John Herrman, The Awl, co-editors
CAPITAL: What have you learned in the early stages of your reign? Is editing a website hard?
HERRMAN: A lot; not enough. Yes.
BUCHANAN: Less than I would like? And the hard thing is sort of the crush of expectations. Like, I think people depend on the Awl to satisfy some notional measure of “good” or at least provide some kind of respite from most of the rest of the internet, which is so very loud right now, so there is a sort of constant anxiety: “Is this good enough?” I mean, how do you think we’re doing?
CAPITAL: The Awl co-founders Choire Sicha and Alex Balk (along with David Cho) fairly quickly established the site as a destination for a certain kind of reader (common descriptors we've seen applied include "literary" "New York" "media" "web"). How do you keep that up? Did Choire and Alex give you any kind of mandate? What did they say before giving you the keys?
HERRMAN: Our only direct mandate was "don't treat the readers like idiots."
BUCHANAN: I mean, the other way to think about it is just like, “Don’t waste anybody’s time”?
HERRMAN: I think we've already done both of those things more than a few times. But less each week, hopefully!
BUCHANAN: They locked eyes with us as they dangled the keys above our heads, like we were cats, and then dropped them straight past our outstretched hands onto the office’s gleaming new wood floor. Wordlessly, Choire pointed at them, turned, and walked out the door to get an iced coffee at the Blue Bottle on Dean Street, which has the absolute nicest canopy of tree shade. (GREAT benches there. Or so we hear; we’ve not left the office since. The keys don’t unlock the doors to let us out????)
CAPITAL: The Awl recently moved into a new office in downtown Brooklyn. How is it going so far? Has the move at all affected your point of view? Do you have an outsider's edge?
HERRMAN: Oh I love it, it's close to my apartment and even closer to the place I'm moving. But no, we're still on the same dumb internet.
BUCHANAN: It’s great, we have such quality teens outside. My view now IS drastically different though: From my desk at the Condé Nast building, depending on which side of my face I pressed against the glass, I could see glimpses of both Times Square AND Bryant Park and Jonathan Shainin’s beard. Now all I can see is a Citibike rack (it’s mostly full), the Brooklyner (also mostly full too, but of expensive people, not expensive bikes), a new bagel shop (which is just great: they make the bagels in-house, I know this because the proprietor made me watch them) and John Herrman’s beautiful head (which just got a haircut).
CAPITAL: You both come from a tech journalism background—John from BUZZFeeD's tech site, and Matt from The New Yorker's science and tech vertical. What's the state of tech journalism these days?
BUCHANAN: It’s still here.
HERRMAN: It's actually EVERYWHERE, in bits, which can be overwhelming but is probably for the best. I think parts of it are mutating into something between political and financial journalism, which is mostly bad. Optics-obsessed envy monsters are not the people you want writing about these enormous companies that seem to have no idea how important they are (or if they do, for the wrong reasons). There does seem to be faction of tech writers that treats the big stories as sci-fi, which is heartening, because it's plain to them just how grim and lazy most of our Big Concepts are.
BUCHANAN: Right, like, eventually everything will have shades of tech journalism in it, because technology is in everything now; even just looking at cultural commentary lately, so much of it talks about technology in some form now.
CAPITAL: An Awl post can be anything—a poem, a longform piece on a cartoon, weather reviews or an embedded YouTube music video. How would you describe your intended reader? What's the perfect Awl post now?
BUCHANAN: A person. Definitely a human. Not a robot. Maybe the right kind of cyborg, you know? And hopefully they’re nice. Because who wants to make a not-nice person happy? Not us.
HERRMAN: Our ideal reader? I have no idea, maybe someone who knows how to accept an apology. The perfect post is pretty much anything we won't regret publishing in a year. Something the writers won't wish they could take down. Choire and Alex showed us a list of the most popular stories in Awl history and there was basically nothing to be ashamed of on there. How many sites can say that? How many humans, writing on the internet? The Content Wars have been hard on everyone.
BUCHANAN: Something that’s not one word longer than it should be, and not one word shorter than it deserves to be.
HERRMAN: Yes, agree: Something you can print on a mobius scarf and sell on Zazzle.
CAPITAL: In April, you published Maria Bustillos' piece on "Adventure Time" as its own standalone website. Can we expect more of that to come? Are we moving into a post-website future?
BUCHANAN: No, that piece is finished, I don’t think it will get any longer.
HERRMAN: Yeah we'll probably do a whole bunch of experiments this year.
BUCHANAN: What is Amazon and Google and Facebook if not a post-website future? We’re in a post-website present. It’s here, and when did you ever enjoy moving anywhere?
HERRMAN: Websites are so fucked, haha. That reminds me, our redesign is coming along nicely.