Tom Scocca wants to provide an alternative to the NYT Opinion section

Photo by Victor Jeffreys II

Whether in print or online, the past few years have seen the disappearance of alternative outlets that provide a platform for unconventional views and undiscovered voices. Tom Scocca, a veteran of several of those late-lamented publishers, is hoping his new project can help stem the bleeding.

Scocca, a former Gawker and Deadspin editor whose previous stops included The Baltimore City Paper, New York Observer, and Slate, along with thousands of weather reviews for The Awl, is launching Hmm Daily as part of the journalism startup Civil’s network of sites. He says he hopes the blog will provide smart social and political commentary, and will serve as “a continuation of the tradition of sites that give people the chance to write and to read things they can’t find other places.”

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Civil is building a platform for financing and distributing journalism using the blockchain and its own cryptocurrency, in part as a way to protect its publications from the sort of malicious litigation that brought down Gawker and continues to threaten its archive. It plans to launch several sites this spring, covering a variety of topics.

Scocca spoke with CJR ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, explaining how he hopes to promote new voices, capture the spirit of Gawker and The Awl, and offer an alternative to The New York Times Opinion section. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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How do you define your credo for the site? What do you want Hmm Daily to be?

I want this to be a continuation of the tradition of sites that give people the chance to write and to read things they can’t find other places. That’s sort of been the unifying theme of most places I’ve worked, like Baltimore City Paper (RIP), the Observer (RIP, or at least somewhere between hospice care and Weekend at Bernie’s), Gawker (RIP), and The Awl (RIP). Various market forces and a vindictive billionaire or two have killed these various platforms off, but I think the underlying mission is essential and valuable, and is something people will always want and always need.

I’m going to be blogging, but it’s not just going to be me; [former Art Director of Baltimore City Paper] Joe MacLeod is going to be the creative director, Jiajing Liu has agreed to do stuff about art and immigration, Jacob Bacharach is going to be a business columnist. It’s hard to recruit when you’re not trumpeting anything, so I hope when the news comes out there’s going to be more writers.

 

So, on some level, it’s an attempt to recreate the best of what you’ve had at those places?

Yeah, and part of it is hard to pitch because my dream is for things to happen that I can’t possibly anticipate because I’ll be getting writers I’ve never heard of doing stuff I wouldn’t have thought of. I hope the things people are able to do attract both writers and readers to the project, which is something that has happened at those other sites in the past. It’s an attempt to create something that’s going to give people a chance to do the things they haven’t had the chance to do, whether it’s because they don’t have the right credentials yet, or because they have ideas that don’t fit into the existing boxes for where ideas can be placed.

 

That sounds specifically like The Awl, in terms of giving lesser-known writers the chance to publish writing that doesn’t fit a box.  

That was a hugely important part of the mission of The Awl, and the mission doesn’t end just because The Awl reached the end of its ability to operate under the business model it had. Part of Civil’s whole purpose is to try to find new ways for these things to happen, and get a new model operating that can sustain and protect good journalism.

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Can you talk much about the planning that went into this and what the funding structure looks like? 

It’s part of Civil’s first fleet of sites, so they’re supplying the funding to stand sites up and operate them for a while. I don’t have specific benchmarks for growth and engagement, and it’s nice to be liberated from that kind of thinking. The goal is to connect with a community of readers and give them something they anticipate reading that feels like a bit of a respite from the brutal churn of the internet. We’re a blog, we’re going to be doing multiple posts daily, but I’m not going to try to plug my face into the firehose.

 

Who are these readers you’re hoping to attract?

I want to be surprised by who they are. I think the community that formed around The Awl. It’s not that I want those readers myself—though I would welcome a lot of them—but it’s more that I want to replicate that process of making something that finds its audience, and that audience grows together in its enthusiasm for what it gets from the publication.

 

This is a pretty depressing time for people who care about those type of sites, whether it’s Gawker or The Awl or Gothamist. You’ve written, most memorably in the Gaslight column, about how an angry billionaire can cause a lot of problems for independent media. Given all the bad things that have happened, are you optimistic about the state of media on the internet?

I don’t know if I can be optimistic about the state of discourse on the internet, although I think we’re in a moment of an unpleasant but inevitable shakedown of the whole platform racket collapsing. The way the Facebook situation has evolved has been horrible, and has caused a lot of people a lot of suffering, but the whole Facebook premise was always a disaster waiting to happen; turning control of what you did over to Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithm was not ever going to be something that was going to have a happy ending, either monetarily or expressively.

Maria Bustillos, who is doing Popula for Civil, is eloquent and extremely passionate on the subject of this being a form of billionaire proofing, both in terms of distributed publishing being resistant to takedown—once something is published on the blockchain, you can’t knock it out the way Peter Thiel could buy Gawker.com and delete the archive—and also to the goal of having a funding system where people can underwrite the journalism they want through subscriptions or memberships or whatever. So maybe this will work; it certainly seems worth a try.

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In your sendoff from Gizmodo Media Group, Keenan Trotter wrote, “He genuinely believed—believes!—in the possibility of a better media, and sought to bring it about.” So what does that better media look like, and how will this project contribute?

It’s tricky to express it as some set of nostrums. It’s more bringing a process and a sensibility to bear on the job of telling people about the world. It’s not just possible, but feasible and enjoyable to insist on intellectual honest in argumentation.

 

This is going to be against everything The New York Times opinion section stands for. They’re just poking their readers in the eye and then chortling about it.

 

In your past writing, there’s a sense of moral clarity, and there’s also a defined opposition. So in this new project, what is it that you are working in opposition to?

There’s a quick answer that I feel is a woefully incomplete one. I think in my pitch [for the site] I outright said that this is going to be against everything The New York Times opinion section stands for. There’s a whole style of argumentation out there that’s grounded in bad intellectual faith. People are trying to do provocations based on partisan self-positioning. The way James Bennet keeps describing the Times opinion operation is great; it’s great to challenge your readers, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re just poking their readers in the eye and then chortling about it. If there is one thing I try to get across to people in editing them, it’s that somebody is going to find the weakest part of your argument, and it might as well be you. That kind of taking responsibility for what you say, and making sure that it will seem meaningful and defensible to other people, is the thing they just are categorically not doing there. There’s just so much room for a higher level of honest discussion and argumentation.

The theme that’s going around among the people who are defending them against the Twitter mobs is, well, are there any writers you disagree with who you still like to read? Stipulating that there’s a category of writer you disagree with is just a weird form of question-begging that sets up the problem all wrong. I think all of us love to read stuff we disagree with, but it’s because what we disagree about is a particular valuation or line of argumentation, and you want that to test your beliefs and ideas against it and see if you come out of it any different.

There was that London Review of Books piece by Pankaj Mishra questioning Ta-Nehisi Coates and, more fundamentally, how Obama’s presidency should be read in terms of America’s exercise of brutal imperial power. That’s a thing that challenges the sort of people the Times opinion section wants to believe it’s challenging. People need to think deeply about how they feel about what this country did under the “good president” and what that adds up to. There are all sorts of issues like that. Prison abolitionism, for example. What does it mean? What are you asking for? What are the possibilities that are opened up by taking seriously that question?

 

Or reparations.

Right. It’s kind of crazy that happened on Bennet’s watch. Maybe to him that was a troll, but there’s this crazy idea that good liberals turn to Ta-Nehisi Coates because he articulates a worldview that is congenial to them, and taking reparations seriously is a pretty big departure from what the polite liberal consensus was before. The conversation around policing has also changed drastically. These are all things where people have been challenged, and they’ve changed the way they think about stuff because of evidence and force of argumentation.

 

Nikole Hannah-Jones and school segregation seems to fit that, too.

Perfect example. Nikole Hannah-Jones challenges liberals so much harder than Bret Stephens does. Bret Stephens opens his yap, and people are like, “You fudged these statistics and you’re only arguing this because you have a prior commitment to an agenda that you want to push.” It’s like, “I’m annoyed that you’re taking this tone of voice with me, but I’m not really bothered by you. You don’t really care what I think, and I don’t really care what you think.” But Nikole Hannah-Jones hits you where you live.

 

So that’s the goal on some level? To say, “We want to make people uncomfortable in an honest way”?

That’s part of it. I also want to delight people and let them encounter unexpected and creative things. Although The New York Times op-ed section is the thing that nags me as the mission that is most visibly done wrong and could be done right, opinion-spilling is only one part of the project here. I want people to do reported stuff, too. If you know where I’ve been, you kind of get the sense of where I’m going.

Correction: The post has been updated to correct a transcription error in Scocca’s first answer.  

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.