The Awl and The Hairpin, Eccentric Showcases for Writers, Are Shutting Down

Posted January 17, 2018 12:04 a.m. EST

For almost a decade, The Awl implored the world to “Be Less Stupid.” There was a “great big internet” out there, the editors cautioned. And by writing intelligently about offbeat topics — from a locket meant to hold “mad money” to a deeply unsatisfying West Elm couch called “the Peggy” — The Awl and its sister sites did their best to live up to the motto.

On Tuesday, though, editors of The Awl and one of the sister sites, The Hairpin, announced that the end had come. Statements on the sites said editorial operations would cease at the end of January.

The closings represent yet another loss for independent publishers that have long struggled to compete with larger ones, which can offer ad buyers a wider audience. And in an email, The Awl’s publisher, Michael Macher, said that “a steady decline in direct sales” was “the root cause” for closing.

“We followed a dream of building a better internet, and though we did not manage to do that every day we tried very hard and we hope you don’t blame us for how things ultimately turned out,” one of the statements said. “The greatest achievement any site can claim is in the quality and fervor of its audience, and on that score we feel like we were the most successful organization ever.”

The Awl’s other sister sites, The Billfold and Splitsider, are not ceasing publication, Macher said, noting that “it’s business as usual in terms of publishing cadence and partnerships” for both properties.

Founded in 2009, The Awl — whose name refers to a pointed tool used for punching small holes — has been independently owned and operated and did not receive venture capital backing or any outside investment, according to its website. Ownership of each property is distributed among the editors, Macher said. Historically, he said, each site in the network had only one or two editors.

Silvia Killingsworth, who in 2016 became the editor of The Awl and The Hairpin — a website geared toward women — said her main job was to discover talented new writers and encourage them to fully embrace their voice while writing about a topic that piqued their interest, no matter how obscure it might be.

Over the years, there were viral stories about how to cook a steak and David Foster Wallace’s private self-help library, as well as popular essays providing pointed advice to young people and exploring a writer’s evolving relationship with death.

Many of the writers went on to distinguish themselves. Some, like Vinson Cunningham and Heather Havrilesky, now write for The New Yorker and New York magazine’s website The Cut. One of The Awl’s founders, Choire Sicha, is now the editor of the New York Times Styles section.

“The common thread of all great Awl pieces is that the writing is so indicative of who the writer is and what their interests are,” Killingsworth said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “It’s a place for the writers to just be themselves.” It helped that many of the website’s loyal readers were themselves powerful media figures who were able to give talented writers their big break. In a lengthy 2015 article about The Awl, The Verge noted that The Awl was profitable, “though with a very thin cushion.”

The Awl,” Josh Dzieza wrote, “has found a way to make being small work in an industry that favors scale and mass appeal.”

But he went on to add, in a passage that would prove prescient, “The company is subject to the same forces they’ve been warning about, and the people who built it are thinking about how to navigate the weird new internet taking shape.”