An awl is a small, pointed tool used for punching small holes into things. As such, it is an apt symbol for a new cultural website, The Awl (www.theawl.com), which is patterned after successful lifestyle and news sites such as Salon (www.salon.com) and Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com).
The Awl wants to poke holes and question accepted political convention and cultural movements that are overhyped, overdone, and think too much of themselves. It’s also known for its wry sense of humor evidenced by its tagline, which reads “The Awl—Be Less Stupid.”
On a typical day in March 2012, the wide-ranging articles on The Awl included stories on whether the Final Four in basketball lived up to the hype, new trends in hip-hop, and a review of the popular film The Hunger Games. Another day the range was even more eclectic: there was a remembrance of the Southern author Harry Crews, a homage to George Plimpton’s classic April 1st spoof in Sports Illustrated written 25 years ago where he invented the baseball player Sidd Finch and fooled millions, and a look into beer cheese, a Kentucky concoction and perfect to munch while watching the Final Four. Can you spell idiosyncratic?
The Awl, launched in 2009 by editors Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, marches to its own drummer, with no regular beat. It’s not intellectual like The New York Review of Books, not snarky like the New York Observer, or satirical like The Onion; it’s just offbeat and slightly off center.
Even its key topics and organization reveal its idiosyncrasies. On one day, The Awl was organized into these categories: Culture and TV, A Study Has Found, Hairpin (which offers its most popular articles from the last week), and What a World, which reads like the National Inquirer and includes articles about elephants running away from the circus and a profile of a sketch artist who focuses on people’s butts. On another day, the Hairpin category was replaced by Science stories.
The Awl’s credo reveals its penchant for the unpredictable. It aims to provoke a lively discussion on timely issues including news, politics, and culture. It accuses other Internet publications of covering the same safe and predictable stories that the mainstream press specializes in. The Awl vows to concentrate on “topics that lack coverage because of commercial factors.”
Since editor Sicha was schooled at the New York Observer and the publication is edited in New York, The Awl focuses on “New York City’s self-centered and all-consuming industries: media and publishing, finance and real estate, politics, capitalism and gamesmanship.”
So how does it stack up on its manifesto of covering topics that other publications ignore? Contributor Cord Jefferson was one of the first to write about the influence of the Occupy Wall Street protestors and wrote inside views of how minorities were playing a critical role in the protest. But The Awl has broken few news stories and gradually has come to concentrate on cultural stories, reducing its news and political coverage.
Too often it aims for the wacky and low-brow, rather than the more thoughtful or investigative pieces. Do we really need a think piece on the impact of the Gong Show? Other cultural articles are informative, including a profile of the best comedy and improv clubs in Los Angeles and Austin and an analysis of why Saturday Night Live has lost its mojo.
The Awl has a knack of incorporating social media into its journalism. For example, editor/writer Sicha’s article, “The Five Nuttiest Things Mike Bloomberg Said Today So Far,” plays off Twitter postings from New York Times reporters Kate Taylor and Mike Grynbaum. Sicha pokes fun at Bloomberg for saying he lives in one place when he has six homes, and for espousing the usual mayoral bluster like the New York City police force is the best in the world without offering any proof. Though the article is clever, it reads like an extended Twitter posting. Instead of hitting the pavement the way newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin used to do to unearth stories, Awl’s columnists reach for their smartphones and read Twitter accounts.
Like the Huffington Post, The Awl emphasizes commentary over traditional reporting. For example, Abe Sauer’s column “America’s Unchecked Gun Culture Killed Trayvon Martin” rails against America’s gun crazy culture. Sauer shows how the conflict that led to Martin’s death wasn’t really about a black teen pitted against a Hispanic guy in a citizen’s patrol, but was more a conflict between an adult with a gun versus an underage adolescent without one. The column was timely and well-researched but there wasn’t anything ground-breaking in it enabling The Awl to live up to its credo of publishing something new.
Its writers also contribute to the other hip Internet cultural sites such as Daily Beast and Gawker. Writers include Doree Shafrir, currently an editor at Buzz Feed and formerly with Rolling Stone, Ana Marie Cox, former Gawker editor, and Simon Dumenico, Advertising Age editor.
Ten years ago, new magazines emerged to cover the arts, news, and politics, but now The Awl, like many of its Internet brethren, fills that role. The Awl captures offbeat trends and keeps its pulse on modern pop culture, but could add newsier stories and more investigative articles to round it out.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.