Edith Zimmerman on the Making of The Hairpin

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As part of our 2012 New Regime, we spoke to Edith Zimmerman, a prolific writer and editor for the likes of New York, GQ, Esquire, and others. Her big project the for the past year has been (with Jane Marie) helming The Hairpin, a popular website for women that treats all the usual lady subjects with edgy wit and knowing grace. But like its sibling/parent site The Awl (officiated by legendary duo Choire Sicha and Alex Balk), The Hairpin defies easy genre pigeonholing. Here’s a lot of shop talk, how-to website wrangling, and yeah, that Captain America story.

How did The Hairpin get started? Did you contact Alex and Choire and propose the idea?
It was the other way around. It was the best thing in the world. They were spinning out the sister site, and they were given a chunk of money to do that, and they came to me, which was cool

Do you have a sense of why they chose you in particular?
I had written a column for them for a couple of years. Really, really not regularly, it was totally sporadic. I think there were maybe 4 or 5 installations. And then I was writing at the time for New York magazine’s entertainment blog, Vulture. I was kind of surprised that they were interested because the things I was doing for Vulture had nothing to do with (at least in my mind) writing much longer stuff that I would have to be doing. They sort of took a leap of faith I think. It was a sort of sensibility they knew from the stuff that I had written for The Awl and the ability to just do the daily grind.

When you were at New York, did you write just for Vulture or for the magazine too?
I wrote one thing for the magazine, and it was so excruciating that by the time it was published, it was like "Okay! Now I’ve written for the magazine!"

Why was it excruciating?
I felt like such an asshole because it was this concept I had pitched at a Vulture meeting, and then one the editors (because we would have crossover meetings where some stuff would be magazine, some stuff web) who is really sweet and really nice to me, was like "Oh, Edith that’s a great idea! Maybe you could do it for the magazine! How about we do it like this! And maybe we could reformat it like this!" And I was like "That’s brilliant!" And so he had this whole idea, and then he flushed it out, and was like "How about we arrange it like this?" And I was like "Great! Great!" So I wrote it, and then they had to edit it. So basically it was like a thing I hadn’t even written, and they did a million drafts of it. I mean, I know that’s how it works, but I was like "Ach!"

Always painful the first time that happens.
Yeah, but it worked out well, and I was really proud of it.

You mentioned the stuff you were doing on Vulture and on your own blog was shorter than what you thought you’d end up doing at The Hairpin. Those shorter things seem to be kind of more your deal though — short humor pieces, small jokes, and the like.
I really do like to do short I guess. A lot of the time things I write have started out much longer. So I invented this amazing process of editing myself!

Tell me more!
Um, no. Most things I usually just delete quickly. Anything good there, I try to keep it.

Very good instincts. So what was the very first meeting like with Choire and Alex?
I didn’t meet with them until the whole thing was set in stone. It was mostly [former Awl publisher] David Cho I was dealing with. I was friends with Alex from before, and I was email friends with Choire. And then it got started, and then finally I did have a sit-down with Alex about the site, because I was freaking out because this all happened to incredibly fast. I was just afraid of embarrassing myself. I was like "What do I do? How do I do this? Oh my God!" And they gave me few pointers, but for the most part they didn’t give me any help, which at first was incredibly scary, but now I’m really grateful for that. Because if I had been waiting for everyone’s approval on everything, I would have never have become confident in my ability to put it together.

So there’s not a whole lot of oversight from the mothership at this point?
No, there really never was. I mean, there totally was if I did something horrible. I was always bugging Choire about which pictures were legal to use and stupid shit like that. But the idea is that I would do whatever I wanted, and if it worked it worked, and if it didn’t …

Let’s get the lady website comparisons out of the way. Lots of people mention The Hairpin versus Jezebel or Jane in terms of readership. But I was actually more interested in how you perceive the audience in terms of the commenter population as opposed to the readership at large. How would you compare Hairpin commenters to Jezebel commenters, for instance?
Hmm. I don’t read Jezebel — and there’s a reason for that, I don’t want it to come off sounding like "Oh, I don’t own a TV" or "I couldn’t be bothered to read Jezebel." I love that site, I think it’s fantastic. It’s totally part of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. But it has to do with one of the two pieces of advice that Alex gave me when we had that sit-down before the site started. One: "Be as weird as you can, just so it stands out. Because who needs a new website?" Two: "Stop reading all-women’s sites, just so whatever you do isn’t even obliquely referenced or influenced by things you read elsewhere." So I just don’t read any of them at all, which is a very easy way to answer your question. I mean I’ve totally been on those sites, and I know what they’re like.

But there’s a difference between going to a site occasionally and assuming that as part of your job.
Yeah, so I actually really couldn’t answer you honestly about the commenters and how they’re different because I just don’t read them anymore.

How do you feel about your own commenter population on The Hairpin? What do you think of those people?
They are so incredibly funny and smart and thoughtful. It’s awesome, it’s so cool, and it’s incredibly gratifying and intimidating. I was always too intimidated to comment very much on The Awl, and I have to remind myself that it’s I’m the editor and they can’t make fun of me too hard on my comment book. Like I go back and check to see how many thumbs-ups my own comments get, and they almost never get any because they’re not very funny.

Do you find that awareness affecting what you’re writing or particularly commenting about? Like being concerned about the reception it gets from that particular audience?
Totally. It’s difficult because you have to remember that the 40 extremely vocal people speak for about 1% of the people that are actually reading and responsible for your site succeeding or not. But yeah, I pretty obsessively check the comments to see if people like me.

That’s good. It always makes me suspicious when someone responsible for site content says, "Nah, I don’t read the comments." It’s not even elitist neccessarily, it’s just willfully ignorant.
The comments also are just so funny. They’re a delight to read. Although, it’s officially gotten to the point where I just can’t read all of the comments anymore because some posts will get 300 in a fairly quick stretch, and every so often I feel like they get away from themselves.

So the chief danger in this line of work is getting burned out from the grind.
Yeah, it got pretty grim. Relatively grim. Jesus Christ!

You can say "grim," it’s okay.
It was tricky, because it was such an adrenaline rush and so exciting at the beginning, because it was like this could be the worst and it could be really professionally embarrassing for me if this just sucks. For the first few months it was like really, really long days but not because I felt I had to, but just because there was no other option. That was the only way to do it. I was just compelled to do that. And there was just not very much sleep, and there were a couple spots where I was feeling really tired. And it was just coming out in my writing, I could hear it, and I was annoying myself. I didn’t like anything, which is a drag when you’re supposed to be writing 10-15 things a day and making people interested in things that you find interesting, and I just didn’t give a shit about anything, and I was tired.

How many items were you doing a day at Vulture?
At Vulture, I was writing about between 10 and 20 little posts a day. So it would be like a YouTube clip with a title and one-liner. Totally doable. But then I was trying to write longer stuff for The Hairpin.

And it’s all you — it’s not just the faceless blogger and the news cycle bullshit.
And editing other people’s stuff. So I got kind of burned out, but now everything is perfect because Jane and I both do it. That was life-changing. I have to remember what other things I do — I finished at 3 and I have no idea what else to do with myself.

Well, now you administrate, you supervise.
I go to the gym, I have hobbies and stuff. I have no idea.

Was this the kind of job or path you saw yourself on when you were interning at Esquire?
Oh God, I have no idea. No. The answer is no.

You completely had no idea back then?
No, I mean sort of. I had no idea about anything when I started as an intern because I just saw myself in some cool office at a desk, my hands sorta of just "da da da da" typing and being a writer somehow. Although, I figured out that working at magazines doesn’t mean you’re a writer. And I had no idea — I still don’t know what I want to write about. So, yeah, Esquire lead to actual jobs at magazines, which lead to website writing, which is what I decided is what I liked much better, which lead to — I mean, each year is a different thing I didn’t even imagine existed.

How many things are you writing on the website, as opposed to editing other people’s work?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I guess I write about 10 posts a day, but some of them are really, really short. I’m writing a lot less than I used to, because I got really tired of not having anything to say. And I would rather say nothing than that. And I like editing. I edit in the mornings and in the evenings, and then during work hours I’m usually just writing or looking for things to find.

Do you have time to work on other things outside of The Hairpin?
I’m having trouble balancing freelance writing, which I want to do more of because I got kind of a taste of it and was like "Oh yeah, not everything is all mine! People read stuff!" I did a little freelancing for Elle and Glamour, and I have a piece that’s theoretically coming out in Maxim later, and I’m working on a piece for The New York Times Magazine, if I don’t totally fuck it up and have them kill it, and it’s going to be pretty long. I’m doing that.

What’s been your favorite sponsored post on The Awl so far?
Skinny Cow! Skinny Cow beat me at my own game. They were like, "We want to do a sponsored post. Give us some ideas." We were doing a bra awareness thing; they wanted two boob-related posts, and they thought that, because we have this one woman who writes about the 17th century — they said, "We like this. What about she writes about the history of bras in the 17th century." And I was like, "That’s amazing." And she just knocked it out of the park, and it was one of our biggest stories, and they had their little branding in the corner, so they looked awesome. And they did another one where they just wanted her to gather images of bras in art. So it was just this huge gallery of cool art. It was so good, it just came together, and it was their idea, so I had nothing to do with it.

The Awl sites have done sponsored posts really well in terms of making the appeasement to the advertiser while doing something fun.
Yeah, it’s really a cool way to advertise I think. Because — well, really I have to say this, but — if I were a reader and I saw Skinny Cow did these things, I’d think that they were cool and really straightforward. I would buy your product, because someone on your team came here and thought that we were a good fit, and I appreciate it.

So who do you like on Tumblr these days?
There’s a blog called Awl Commentators, which is like holding a mirror up to a mirror. They just find funny things. They create weird little layers of inside jokes from the two-site zone. It made me feel really cool when I found it. I was like "Oh my God, there’s these people talking about talking about it!" Because they do stuff with Hairpin comments sometimes too. I always follow The Daily What. He’s a friend of mine, or an acquaintance of mine. I always say that aloud. I realize I want to brag about knowing him. Bobby Finger is hilarious. I like Best Roof Talk Ever. Erie Basin has the prettiest vintage jewelry. Yo Is This Racist is very good, very hilarious.

How do you find new talent or new writers that you really like?
They just write in. It’s amazing and they’re hilarious and it’s great. Or where I’m friends with people, and I think they’re really talented and cool and I bug them about what would be the right fir or them. Like, I knew that Jolie Kerr was obsessed with cleaning and had funny things to recommend. And she loves cooking and stuff. And I’m not trying to take credit for her cleaning column, but I think if you go back into the emails that we were exchanging six months ago, it would be like, "Jolie, oh my god, you should write a cleaning column." And she was like, "Oh my god, I want to write a cleaning column!" [Update: Wait, no, it happened because of Tyler Coates, and I wasn’t actually involved at all!] I don’t really solicit as much as I know people who are talented, and I want to smush them into the right fit.

Why does a submission get rejected from The Hairpin?
It would be something that was way too navel-gazey — you know, "Let me tell you about the time I spilled coffee on myself in front of a hot guy." Or, "I found my childhood diary, can I transcribe it for you?"

Any big plans for the site?
Yes and no. We want to get bigger. It’s basically where I wanted it to be now. So the next step is to come up with a cool new concept and try to get there, which I don’t know what it is yet. I don’t know what the next level is, because I don’t think we’re going to increase posting rate, we just want more features, maybe higher quality stuff and also maybe …

Slideshows?
Yeah, no. More sponsored giant things. And we want to do programs where we have a topic, and you get a lot of people to write about it, and then run it all as a package — instead of "here’s my one story about this," we’ll get 10 stories about that for a week.

How did you feel about the Observer’s "Meet the Mollys" piece awhile back, where you were mentioned?
Oh, it was so stupid. I mean, it was really funny and it’s flattering to have anyone thinking about you and typing your name anywhere at all. But that was straight up the stupidest thing. I mean it was funny, which is fine …  It was an article about three women with the same name and how that was sort of interesting, and then to demonstrate that it was like a cool premise, they took another woman with a different name and just said that she was one of them. And not only that, Choire had already written about it, except just about Mollys.

I found that whole thing very puzzling.
And they didn’t even ask me to comment. They had all the Mollys though. So then I wrote immediately to Daniel D’Addario, the dude who wrote it, and I was like, "Oh really, the Molliest of Mollys doesn’t get asked to comment on your stupid article." And he was like, "Fair point, do you have anything to say?" And I was like, "No."

Makes sense. Anything else you want to address?
Did you want to talk about the Chris Evans thing?

Not really. Did you?
No.

 

EDITH LIKES: The Brooklyn Inn, NYC