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May 3, 2023, 8 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“A stately pleasure barge of a site”: For people who miss websites, there’s a new blog in town

“Not to brag, but if there was an obvious way to make money here I feel like I would know about it.”

It’s been quite a week for people who like fun on the internet. First there was the sudden rise of Twitter competitor Bluesky, spurring headlines like “I regret to inform you that Bluesky is fun.” And now there’s The Stopgap, a new blog from writers Daniel M. Lavery (who cofounded, with Nicole Cliffe, the beloved and now-defunct The Toast and was Slate’s Dear Prudence) and Jo Livingstone (who previously wrote for The New Republic and Bookforum).

“I think anybody who has in the past enjoyed reading the internet purely for fun can see that there’s a real dearth of URLs to type into one’s address bar these days,” Livingstone told me in a chat with Lavery this week. We conducted the interview in a live Google Doc — my way of allowing both of their internet voices to operate at a maximum, and eliciting comparisons of The Stopgap to “a stately pleasure barge of a site” (Lavery) or “a burnish’d throne??” (Livingstone). The Stopgap launched Wednesday morning, and you can read it here.

Laura Hazard Owen: Hi both. How did you decide to launch The Stopgap, and how you are you envisioning it? Also, why did you call it “The Stopgap”?

Jo Livingstone: Danny texted me and asked if I wanted to make a website with him. Which is funny, because I had thought about it too, because it just seemed — obvious? Right? Inevitable?

Danny Lavery: This is incredible, because I would have sworn up and down that it was Jo’s idea. Was it seriously me who said something first?

Livingstone: Laura, clearly we haven’t conferred, so let’s say we thought of it instantaneously at the same time. I do take credit for the motto of “It’s better than nothing,” which seems to encapsulate a lot about why we came up with The Stopgap and what it’s for. And then the name went with the motto in a rhythmically satisfying way.

I think anybody who has in the past enjoyed reading the internet purely for fun can see that there’s a real dearth of URLs to type into one’s address bar these days.

Lavery: Two minds with but a single etc.! I certainly remember having conversations with Jo throughout the last year, often after news came out that Bookforum was closing, or Paper was laying off its staff — just along the lines of “We used to have so many websites. Who knew you could miss websites so much,” which eventually turned into joking about the idea of putting up something small and obviously inadequate just to sort of stem the tide. So the idea of a stopgap was there from the beginning. Obviously neither of us thought “Let’s resurrect Bookforum,” or anything like that. And like all the best decisions in my life, it sort of jumped over the “just kidding” line without my having realized it after a series of escalating dares. “We should do it,” “Someone should do it,” “Bring back websites,” “We have a meeting with two people, impossibly also named Daniel and Joe, on Thursday to start our website.” That felt like an omen, or at least a portent of some kind.

Owen: You’re not going to pay writers, they’ll just have tip jars — which, in an everything-old-is-new-again way, feels innovative. You’re going into this without a business model or worries about scale or, like, how you’re going to monetize, and you’re not promising writers will be paid well or at all. There’s an implication that this is being done out of joy, which has been so lacking from basically all media recently! Tell me how you’re thinking about money for this from both your side and the writers’ side — like side gig, pleasure blog, etc.?

Lavery: Right, we’re not even paying ourselves. I think we’re both looking for day jobs at the moment, as it happens, so if you hear about anything either of us might be a good fit for, please let us know. It will be a stately pleasure barge of a site, is my hope. It might be possible to make money from a general-interest blog, but it’s very difficult, and if my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t know how to make money from a general-interest blog. And I’d rather do this and make money elsewhere.

So the idea is that the vast majority of the writing on the site will come from Jo and self, but we’ll be able to publish at a comfortable rate — since we’re not trying to keep to a publication schedule that attracts advertisers — and occasionally put up a post from anyone else who cares to join us. The tip jar was very much Jo’s idea. Maybe it will result in all our guest writers being able to buy themselves a stamp or a cup of hearty soup or something! Who can say.

Livingstone: So for me the barge is more like a burnish’d throne?? Danny’s subtly alluding there to the website he founded and co-ran with Nicole Cliffe, The Toast, which is legendary and the reason that nobody would ever hesitate for even a moment to become a co-proprietor with him on an internet concern.

The money stuff is interesting. Put together, Danny and I have sort of madly comprehensive experience working in different types of publishing, at different ends of the process. Danny has published 10,000 books and run a whole publication in the past, and I’ve worked business jobs at literary nonprofits and writer jobs at “regular” magazines, and events at NYC hotels, and…every kind of job you can think of. Not to brag, but if there was an obvious way to make money here I feel like I would know about it.

There’s only one way that people on the social internet feel comfortable and well-practiced in sending money to strangers: When they know the other person’s name, have some basis for independently assessing whether or not they want to give them money, and they’re already familiar with the process. For some people, maybe that context is typing in their credit card details manually into The New York Times’ website. For most people, it’s throwing a few bucks to somebody who has earned it or needs it via Venmo, CashApp, PayPal, etc.

The tip jar idea encapsulates a lot of what has changed in the topography of the internet since the “golden age of blogging.” Those are heavy irony quotation marks because obviously people have always pumped disgusting shit into the world. There are better free or cheap CMSes available. Small financial transactions are in a different universe.

In short, we pictured what we wanted and then took the absolute shortest route available towards creating it. Right now, for example, I’m playing with a complicated subscription model built into the product we’re using, because I want to turn on comments. But that’s oddly easy, because the product thinks I want to make my living from emails! It’s interesting — we’re just throwing our needs and wants at the internet and seeing what’s sticking. The thing we need and want the most is to enjoy ourselves.

Owen: Ha, yeah, so speaking of making your living from emails! Talk to me a little bit about Substack and also why Jo said The Stopgap would “produce no podcasty newslettery bullshit.” Really, just feel free to vomit out your thoughts on Substack.

Livingstone: I was kidding! Because there are so many incredible newsletters and podcasts out there. Not least Danny’s fabulous one, and all the ones I’ve guested on. However! When a new product shifts from being an exciting available option to feeling compulsory, it’s like you can hear a gigantic creak resounding through the world from all the joy going out of it. Does that make sense? A blog can be a blog, and it doesn’t need to be anything else. Commercial imperatives change from year to year or month to month, but if you don’t have commercial motives there’s no reason you have to take them into account at all. I guess I meant “bullshit” like “work I could be doing right now but am choosing not to.”

Lavery: I’ve made good money at Substack! I have no complaints about making money. “If you like your newsletter, you can keep your newsletter.” Which I’m still doing, to be clear. But writing a newsletter is very different from a website — I missed having colleagues, someone else to develop ideas with. And I take Jo’s line about “podcasty newslettery bullshit” not to mean “half of Daniel’s output over the last five years has been worthless garbage” so much as a charming, off-the-cuff way of making it clear from the jump that this was about blogging for blogging’s sake! I think both Jo and I are very interested in a similar kind of productive idleness, or idle business.

Besides which, sometimes I want to write more often, but I don’t want to email my newsletter subscribers six times a week. If I were to imagine the Platonic ideal of a Daniel Lavery “guy,” who is my biggest supporter in the world and reads every single thing I’ve ever written, I don’t think even he would want to get a newsletter email from me every single day. You can only email people so much!

Livingstone: Danny could not publish garbage or speak it with his mouth if he TRIED.

Owen: Awesome, OK. is there anything else that either of you want to add?

Livingstone: I wanted to note that, personally, this might seem like a big strategic decision or whatever, but really it’s just about what felt necessary to create in order to even keep going. I got laid off from The New Republic, where I’d worked for five years, a little over a year ago. Then my visa expired and I applied for a green card. That means I’ve been unable to work for months, supported by my incomparably excellent partner, bereft of my nice comfortable spot in the media landscape, and generally I kind of lost direction and had no idea what to do.

Now that my green card finally got approved (!!) I feel able to look up and around me suddenly, to realize that my wonderful friend Danny helped me get to make a website that could have gotten me through the last shitty year of my life with a little more ease, and maybe will help someone else. You need to have papers in order to “work” in journalism. You do not need papers to blog. And for that I am so very grateful.

Lavery: Yes, the idea of working together with Jo was something I really wanted to do! And would gladly do for free. I just think this will be pretty fun. And if it’s ever too much work, we’ll just work less on it! But there ought to be a little website. People ought to be able to type a little something into their address bar and get to look at something interesting, every once in a while, else what’s a heaven for!

The Stopgap’s logo is designed by Hallie Bateman.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 3, 2023, 8 a.m.
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