The Awl to start paying its writers in January

Joe Pompeo
Media Reporter
The Cutline

The Awl, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk's irreverent and idiosyncratic 2-year-old journalism start-up, will as of Jan. 1 start paying the writers who have helped turn the site into a culture and media must-read with half a million monthly visitors.

"Each month, we plan to lop off some portion of our income and share that money equally among the month's writers," Sicha told The Cutline. "Paying writers has been a top priority since Day One."

Sicha and Balk, who were previously editors at Gawker and Radar magazine (as well as the New York Observer, in Sicha's case), launched The Awl on their own dime with fellow former Radar cohort David Cho in September 2008. Since then, they've slowly but steadily begun to generate revenue on their anti-conventional blog, whose contributors range from emerging young journos to established bylines.

They have not until recently, however, become financially secure enough to start paying writers (though they have paid writers for "sponsored editorial projects," which Sicha defined as "editorial The Awl wants to do" that has the potential to be sponsored by an advertiser). Those writers -- and there are many, considering that The Awl usually churns out around two dozen posts a day that range from two lines to 2,000 words -- have so far seemed happy to offer up pieces free of charge, either because they see value in the buzz surrounding the site or because they simply believe in its mission.

"We talked quite a bit about models of pay, and about what models were 'right' and what were 'expedient,'" said Sicha in an email. "In the end, we kept coming back to a form of profit-sharing."

He continued: "This has upsides -- for one, it's an extremely honest and real-world value, pegged as it is to the site's overall success. The downside might be that the pay won't be a lot, shared as it is, particularly in the beginning. And somewhere in the middle -- neither a downside nor an upside, really -- is the fact that straight money, tied to income, doesn't influence or connote values with regard to what type of work people are doing. In short: it doesn't reward pageview-hustling."

The Awl settled on a similar model for two other sites it recently launched -- Splitsider (comedy and entertainment) and The Hairpin (women's things). The editors of each site have essentially entered into a business partnership with The Awl, which has no investors but is expected to surpass the $200,000 revenue mark for 2010. ("I think that we can realistically expect to be in the low millions in terms of annual revenue in the next 18 months," Cho, The Awl's 27-year-old publisher, told David Carr back in October.) Sicha added: "We did not pay ourselves very much this year."

Of the new payment structure, Sicha explained: "We think that this meets the test for best practices. It's practical, after all, while also expressing our values. It should be said that we reserve the right to completely change our minds, however, after we try it out! Trial exposes unforeseen problems; user experience gives unexpected feedback. You never know!"

In another financially promising gesture, The Awl announced Monday that it is looking to hire a managing editor, who will be the site's first paid staffer beyond its founders. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 50 "amazing applications" had come in, Sicha said.

(Disclosure: Cutline editor Chris Lehmann is a contributor to The Awl. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this piece.)