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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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April 26, 2012, 1:48 p.m.
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Approve This Message: Politics through Awl-colored glasses

The latest addition to The Awl’s network of sites brings a link-blog ethos and a bare-bones look to the election.

The Awl sure likes to build stuff. In about three years, they’ve gone from a single “New York City-based web concern” to a family of six sites. The latest just debuted: Approve This Message, a kind of politics wire with the sensibility of The Awl mothership.

It’s an aggressively, intentionally bare bones effort. At first look, you’re confronted more by what it lacks than what it has: Each story has a photo, a tag, a headline, and a credit line to the original source. That’s it: No summaries, no commentary other than the headlines that read as, well, Awl-esque: “Will Mitt pick a mini-Mitt? I hope so, because getting to say ‘mini-Mitt’ over and over will be the only fun we have,” and “Oh no! Obama has ‘only’ raised $196 million for reelection, how sad.”

Approve This Message is a link machine with a cyborg brain that is part Awl and part Percolate, the same team that developed Felix Salmon’s Counterparties at Reuters. Percolate is like a butcher with an algorithm, serving up lean news by separating the meat from the fat around the web, whether via Twitter, RSS, or elsewhere. (Think of our own heat-seeking Twitter bot, Fuego.) Unlike Counterparties, which was based off a set of existing sources from Salmon, Approve This Message is made from a wholly new set of sources, Percolate cofounder Noah Brier told me over email. As the human element in the Percolate machine, Awl editors Alex Balk and Choire Sicha can add new sources and push stories through to Approve This Message, Brier said.

“In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that”

When I talked with Sicha, he said they wanted to create something that could capture all the interesting, “did you read this” kind of stories on politics that happen every day. Approve This Message is designed to be selective and slower, so readers can find stories pegged to the news cycle or timeless work that relates to the election. It’s by no means comprehensive — the simplicity is meant to serve up interesting stories and that’s it. It’s the opposite of what Sicha calls as the “fire hose news blast” of headlines that come from most political sites. Nothing wrong with that approach — there’s an audience for it and the election is one of the biggest stories in the US this year. Still, that torrent can be daunting to even the most interested of readers.

“If you stare into the maw of the election too long you will lose your will to live,” he said.

Sicha said they’re big fans of Counterparties, and after talking with Brier they decided to run with a similar idea, thinking of the site as a scannable record of what’s being said in and around politics. “In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that, and if that changes of weeks and months we’ll have our memory file and can make note of that,” he said. The site doesn’t have any ads currently, but there are slots currently taken up by house ads sprinkled among the stories.

Approve This Message is the second new site The Awl has launched this month with the addition of The Billfold, the site dedicated to all things money. (At six main sites, The Awl’s URL count is edging closer to the scope of Gawker Media, where both Sicha and Balk put in their time pre-Awl.) But aside from a kind of wry conversational nature, the look of Approve This Message shares little in common with The Hairpin, Splitsider, or other more blog-like members of the family. As The Awl has grown its associated parts have taken on different forms, perhaps more distinct in structure than other vertical-assemblers like Buzzfeed or Gawker Media. Over in Brian Lam’s end of the universe, The Wirecutter is essentially a list, a repository of product reviews and guidance. Awl Music, the site launched in January, is like a radio station run by Eric Spiegelman with a crew of contributing DJs.

“It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype”

When I asked The Awl’s publisher John Shankman about that over email he said their strategy starts with finding good writers with vision and passion, then finding the right outlet for them. “Wirecutter is a very specific vision that Brian Lam has. Approve This Message is a tool that’s fun and useful and appropriate for who and what The Awl is and our readers are,” he said. “With that said, though, design and how to architecture our information better is something we’re considering a lot.”

Shankman said the value of curating in Approve This Message isn’t just pulling together good stories, but also in presenting them in a clean and accessible way. (As Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan put it on Twitter: “when did the awl get all designy? this is nice.”) Approve This Message provides a refreshingly simple experience for readers. The Awl gives its audience the choice to follow Approve This Message on the site, through Twitter or Tumblr. And on those two venues they link directly to the source of the story, not back to their site. “It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype. The election through Awl-colored glasses, if you will,” Shankman said.

Sicha calls Awl Music and Approve This Message more disintermediated than other sites in their network. It’s not that they want out of the blog business, because they love that and will continue to build out new places for writers to showcase their talent. But they also want to toy around with the medium, and Approve This Message is one way of doing that, Sicha said.

“We’re not building traffic here. We’re using a great tool and letting it be free,” he said. “That’s probably the opposite of what we should be doing running a business, but that’s what it is. To do anything else would be untruthful or wrong.”

POSTED     April 26, 2012, 1:48 p.m.
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