For years, there was one good satirical news site on the internet. The Onion (now a sister blog of Lifehacker) had many imitators, none of them successful. Then the field opened up: Reductress parodied women’s media; Babylon Bee and Landover Baptist made fun of Christian culture; the Onion launched a weirder site called Clickhole. And The Hard Times, a seemingly niche site satirizing punk culture, blew up. The Hard Times and its gamer spinoff The Hard Drive recently attracted 2.3 million monthly readers.
The site’s operations are small and scrappy. The only full-time worker is founder and editor-in-chief Matt Saincome, who runs the site with his co-founder and managing editor Bill Conway. Other editors are all part-time. That’s because they prioritise paying freelancers, says Matt. In fact, their site’s backend is set up to automatically deposit a freelancer’s payment into their bank account the moment that their work is published on the site — a technology that Matt recently launched for other media sites, under the name OutVoice.
In an industry where major outlets like Vice, Out, Ebony, and Brooklyn Magazine have been publicly called out for delaying freelance payments—and where media platform Contently recently started charging its freelancers a 4.75% fee to withdraw their own wages — The Hard Times and OutVoice are a much-needed step back toward fair treatment. I called Matt and Bill to talk about running a site with a democratic punk ethos, writing satirical news in the shadow of the Onion, and the other Hard Times spinoff sites that didn’t survive.
LH: How long has The Hard Times been around, and what was it like when you started it?
Bill Conway: We just passed the four year mark in December. Matt had previously done a zine, a proto-Hard Times sort of thing, but he and I had met through a podcast where I had him as a guest. We stayed in touch, and one day I saw a post on Facebook like “I want to start a punk satire site. I said “I’m in,” and we got together and started brainstorming ideas.
Matt Saincome: We went from very small to somewhat large very quickly and we had to learn about all this stuff along the way. I’m actually pretty happy with our monetisation strategy at this point, but it took us quite a bit of time to get there.
BC: We came around just in time for online publishing to totally go into the tank.
LH: What was this podcast you had Matt on?
BC: Edgeland. I’m a straight edge guy and I talked with people who were also straight edge. We had some mutual friends and it was the first time we talked, and Matt came on as basically a character and was kind of a jerk for the first 10 to 15 minutes.
MS: The Hard Times has got its roots in the hardcore and punk scene. So we’ve definitely got some philosophies that followed us. Both Bill and I are straight edge, and we think about things a little bit differently. We have a DIY approach to things. Other people think “Oh, when is someone going to help me do this?” And we’re more like “Could we do this ourselves? What are the benefits and cons of working with someone else?” So we just started our own podcast network instead of getting a podcast onto someone else’s network.
But we’re lunatics; we’d rather hang out by ourselves and build invoicing solutions.
LH: How long was it just you two?
BC: The first couple months.
MS: When I had my zine I was part of the zine kid punk scene, where everything was collaborative. Like, “If you have a cartoon, send it to me and I’ll put it in my zine.” And we launched Hard Times with that attitude. But it was just Bill and me at first. And then it became very popular very quickly and everyone wanted to contribute.
BC: It was kind of odd for us when the first couple people reached out, like “How do we write for you guys?” I’m like I don’t know, how do you write for us? I guess come and hang out in this Facebook chat or something? We evolved from there. It was kind of weird for me at least just having people being interested in it, because I don’t think we expected anybody to actually read anything we were doing. It was just a creative exercise.
MS: I had built a team of music writers at SF Weekly, I was the editor over there. But that was smaller, and Hard Times became much larger very quickly. So I called up one of my old editors, Fred Pessaro, who was editor-in-chief of Noisey.
I was like “What do I do with this thing?” He put me in touch with the guy who runs BrooklynVegan. And he would let me talk to him on the phone for a couple hours, and I’d be like “What do I do here, what I do there?” Getting to know other publishers has been a real benefit. It’s a job where you feel isolated and siloed. But when you reach out and talk to other publishers, they’re pretty open and they like to help each other.
LH: As people started as you started having new people write, did that immediately start changing what you covered?
BC: Matt and I, both being straight edge guys, we have a limited world view of drug use obviously, since neither of us have ever touched it. There was one headline in particular where we just trusted the process: “Band booked at sober space makes another trip to the van.” We’re like “All right, they’re drunks, yeah, they’re gonna go to the van. That’s what people do, right?” Having more people come on and having different experiences definitely helped with that.
Matt and I are not experts at anything. People probably expect us to have this encyclopedic knowledge of all hardcore going back to 1980. No, I know a specific era of Boston hardcore from 2002 to 2006 and that’s all I listen to. So that’s all I’m going to know. But we’ve been to shows, it’s not like—well, Matt’s a poser, I’m not.
Lifehacker: And you pay writers as soon as they’re published, with the OutVoice system. How does that work?
MS: It’s pretty simple. It’s actually a plugin, it attaches itself to what we hope to be one day any CMS, but right now it works on Wordpress and Drupal. So anyone with a Wordpress blog can use this technology.
Most of the time, writers and editors have a previously agreed-upon price by the time the article’s in the CMS and being published. So I felt like the invoicing step and tracking down editors, and walking the invoices down the hall to accounting, and getting a check lost in the mail... I felt like all that stuff was super old school and inefficient. I was raised in a time when you went out to dinner with a bunch of friends you didn’t even use cash and you certainly weren’t, like, writing checks to split the bill. It was all PayPal and Venmo. I wanted to create a way where writers could be paid in that easy a manner.
So that’s why we built OutVoice, and Hard Times has been integral in that. Bill and all the other editors have been constantly testing it and giving us feedback and helping us fine tune it. So now I think it’s intuitive to the point where you don’t need to be tech savvy. You can just be anyone in a CMS.
BC: Yeah, it’s very dummy-proof. Select a name, put in the price of the article, hit publish and pay, and it’s done.
MS: It takes a lot of time and wasted energy out of the whole organisation. The freelancer, the editor, and the publisher—and the accounting team—used to all have to do these manual tasks. What used to take maybe an hour now takes a couple of seconds.
It’s not like our freelancers are jumping up and down saying like “Oh my god, invoicing is so great!” But they just they just act like it’s a fixed problem. We don’t think about it because the money is literally transferred into their bank account after they write their articles. I think that we have a better invoicing system than the New York Times.
BC: And a lot of times with the Hard Times, it’s a person’s first freelance writing job. It’s a punk kid that might have a funny idea. So they don’t even know there was a problem. So if they do get a freelance job somewhere else, they’re gonna be like “Wait, why the hell am I doing this now?”
MS: I was that kid doing my first freelance writing, and the things I was experiencing were so fucking antiquated and unusable. I didn’t want anyone to have that same experience that I did. One of our writers was just interviewed on this podcast, Setting the Record Queer, and he was talking about all the things that he enjoys about writing for us, and he was actually listing all the things that I had set out to do. We’re spreading OutVoice into different publications. We just put it on a new one Thursday. So things are going well.
There’s another thing I wanted to change from my personal experience. As a freelancer I always felt isolated, I didn’t know what my editors wanted me. I didn’t know where the magazine was headed, I didn’t know what our goals were, or what our upcoming projects were.
So we decided to run our publication in a radically different way, where we have a Facebook group. Instead of pitching an editor’s inbox, you actually pitch the entire publication, and the entire publication gets to vote on the headlines. That’s not a final vote. But the ones that get the most votes get put in the editorial meeting, and they get discussed and decided on there. So there’s a democratic aspect to it.
Also we use the group to communicate really openly about the things that we have coming up. We have a book coming out at the end of the year. At a normal publication, many of your freelancers wouldn’t know about that. But at this publication they knew about it the minute we signed the papers, and they were contributing ideas along the way, and they’re excited about it and they’re going to be a part of it.
We actually built quite a nice community. There’s meet-ups of writers all across the country in different cities. It gives writers an opportunity to network, which is something that I didn’t get the opportunity to do when freelancing. They can meet creative people and hopefully create their own projects. I would love to see people use Hard Times as a springboard. We’ve had a writer, Sari Beliak, write at the Onion, and had writers go to IGN and a couple other places, and say Hard Times is the reason they were able to do that.
We’ve had a couple of people start their own publications. None of them have taken off yet, but when they do I’m sure I will be singing their praises.
LH: I feel like until a few years ago, I still wasn’t aware of any successful satire sites outside of the Onion. It feels like it’s a field that for years people had ceded to only one publication, and finally writers were realising, “There’s enough room here.” Now there are multiple sites doing this kind of thing.
MS: I was a journalism student in college when all those articles were coming out, those media reports about Vice, being like [doing a voice] “Vice is so cool, they do things differently, they’re alternative!” And I looked at the Onion and I was like, there’s no Vice Onion! That’s pretty weird because it’s like this legacy institution, and their characters are these old white guys with lawns to mow and kids to feed.
So I thought I should start the “Vice Onion.” I went out and wrote some of the early articles. Everyone thought it was a bad idea and I got discouraged and I actually never released it. It wasn’t till years later I met Bill, and Bill believes in the idea and helped me fine tune it and redirect it. And then we launched it and it was immediately a success. So there was a hole in the marketplace.
I think Reductress found another hole, that there’s a lot of magazines out there that speak in a degrading way to women even though they’re marketed to women. And they’ve been able to satirize that voice perfectly. There’s Babylon Bee for Christian people.
BC: Babylon Bee might be bigger than Hard Times and Reductress as far as audience. How much satire is out there directed towards the Christian folk of the world?
MS: It’s like how Christian rock bands are bigger than the most popular bands in pop culture. I think Babylon Bee, last time I checked, they’re at like they’re like 2.6, 3 million uniques, and Hard Times is at like 2.2, and Reductress at like 1.2 or 800,000 or something like that.
It’s been a fun, interesting thing to see the other sites and how we all operate and what our priorities are. You have your core product, your headlines, and that’s keeping the lights on. What do you do around that? Hard Times puts on concerts, and Bill hosts a monthly live show in L.A., and we built [OutVoice]. Babylon Bee has a paywall subscription, where you can go into their pitch group and become a pitcher if you pay. Reductress seems to be focusing on education. So they put on classes on how to write satire. We’ve all found our secondary products.
LH: And each of these extensions is so clear. It’s very obvious why The Hard Times would do concerts. And why Reductress would help more women get into the male-dominated world of comedy.
You mentioned when you were starting, even before you brought Bill on, you had gotten discouraged from some negative feedback. What was it, did people just not think that there was room for another satire site?
MS: They thought I’d get beaten up.
I’ve toured the U.S. in a DIY punk band, I slept on floors and squats and stuff like that. So I have connections to various elements of the punk scene, not all of which are super savoury. There’s a popular phrase in our subculture, “talk shit get hit,” and there’s a lot of very serious individuals and crews and gangs and such.
And the notion that we were going to poke fun at some sacred cows ... it hadn’t been done before in a way that didn’t cause immense drama. And you have to remember that I hadn’t done anything successful yet. So people didn’t believe in me. There’s a weird transition in my life where it used to be, I would throw out ideas and people would tell me to shut up. Now—sometimes people I’m close with, Bill still tells me to shut up—but a lot of other people, if I have ideas they at least listen to me now.
BC: Yeah, I’ve stopped listening to Matt at this point.
LH: So do you have any really vocal critics?
MS: There was something that happened that I wanted to talk about ... Do you remember, Bill?
BC: I mean the only time was that one infamous phone call that I got...
MS: Let’s just say we’ve been threatened by elements of the punk scene.
But one time we ran an article that was “Fun Date Night Ideas You’ll Never Experience Because You Date Band Dudes.” This band came to town and we were booking their concert, and they were pissed. They were flipping our live events guy off, they were being very standoffish, and eventually one of us had to go “Guys, what’s going on, why are you being dicks?” They said “Well that article just came out, and our girlfriends all shared it in their group chat right before we went on tour. And they’re all pissed at us now.”
BC: Very reasonable on their part.
MS: It’s like, be a better boyfriend! That’s not my fault!
LH: How many freelancers are you working with?
BC: In our pitch group, we have like 300 people. Some people just write one article and they disappear forever, never to be seen again. And then there’s people that are super into the process, and that’s, say, 50 to 100 in a month. Hard Drive is probably another hundred. Gaming’s just bigger in general, so maybe they have a bigger pool to choose from.
MS: A year and a half ago we expanded out into a new gaming vertical called Hard Drive, and now it’s as popular as Hard Times. I’ve been in their meetings, and they have more like, one guy who writes seven headlines. They have some heavy hitters. I think we’re the only site outside of the Onion to successfully launch a new popular vertical that’s self-sustaining and has its own audience.
LH: How many full-time people do you have?
MS: About ... one.
BC: That’s a rough estimate.
MS: We’re really desperately clawing this year to get Bill full-time as well. Last month we had a little dip to 1.8 million. Bill and I have been talking, and when we get to 2.5 million unique users each month, we would have enough to bring Bill on. But it’s kind of a Catch-22, because to get to that point our team would need to spend more energy, but that energy is spent at their day jobs.
Our monetisation strategy is pretty good, but our traffic isn’t completely steady. One month we’re at 2.2, the next month we’re at 1.8. If we could get to 2.5 and we could stay that high, we could bring on a second full-time person.
You need to remember, we started with 800 dollars. We have no institutional backing, no investors.
BC: People still think we’re owned by the Onion or Vice for some reason. People will tweet at us be like “Hey the Onion, hire me for real punk news!” Nope, two totally separate things—not even close, man!
MS: Everyone here is paid; editors are paid a monthly stipend and freelancers are paid a fee per photo or article, and they’re paid very quickly. But we haven’t been able to build a true full-time staff. It’s a goal of ours and hopefully we’ll accomplish it this year.
BC: If we didn’t pay people, I could be full-time. So maybe let’s just quit paying control! We’ll live high on the hog and exploit everybody’s labour! That’s what online publishing is all about, right?
MS: Bill has a good point about our priorities. We paid people very early on, maybe before we should have been able to. I sometimes whipped out my credit card. We probably could have convinced people to write for free, and maybe we could have more full-time people, but.
BC: I saw something funny the other day. Somebody tweeted at us after an article like “Time Travelling Punk Pleas With Younger Self to Sell Out,” and the guy was like “I grew up in the punk scene, and that’s given me a lesson in hating money.” And Matt and I kind of have that. We have to take care of other people first, because fuck it, we can keep grinding and keep working and eventually it will come around, but it’s never been an “us first” situation. It’s always been a community situation.
LH: Structurally, how does The Hard Drive fit into the Hard Times? And what platforms are you using?
MS: We have Slack, with a whole bunch of channels. There’s an editor channel, there’s a Hard Drive channel and a Hard Times channel, a channel for the book, a channel for the podcast network. We also use Facebook groups to pitch articles to each other. We use email for some outside submissions. When we first started this thing we actually used texts, which was pretty annoying.
BC: Matt and I early on were probably texting each other every five seconds with updates. My wife, my girlfriend at the time, was like “You cannot have this fucking phone when we’re eating dinner. I swear to god I will fucking kill you.”
MS: I think there’s some sort of psychological thing going on at the Hard Times. Bill and I have done creative projects that no one cared about. And this is the one that everyone cares about. So it’s super addicting and we’re total workaholics about it. Because all of our favourite musicians like this website, and people talk to us about it, and they send us fucking love letters and stuff. So we care really intensely. I think that energy back from the audience is how we’ve been able to sustain it. I quit a full-time editorial job to do this, Bill still has a day job. We had somewhat easier lives before this came around!
BC: I need like eight hours of sleep a night or I’m a zombie. I wish I was one of those people who could sleep for four hours a night. But I’m like “God damn it, here comes sleep, I’m about to fucking lose a bunch of time.”
LH: Let’s talk about the podcast. What’s the editorial process for those?
MS: Our podcast is pretty simple. Bill has a lot of experience with podcasting, and we wanted to talk to musicians and comics and creators inside the Hard Times universe that we admire and respect. Coming out soon, there’s Lars Frederiksen from the band Rancid. He told a lot of crazy stories, about getting stabbed—.
BC: Popping out a friend’s eye. He was 11 years old when he did it. And he was high on PCP.
MS: Talks about trading a bag of guns for a bag of PCP. Lars is constantly an interesting character.
The podcast right now is just Bill and me hanging out and talking to people. We have another show about Super Mario, and we’re launching a third show pretty soon I think. We’re demoing it. And I think that one’s going to have Keith Buckley as the host, from [metalcore band] Every Time I Die.
LH: Are those also something you have to keep an eye on and say “Is this earning its keep?”
MS: Podcasts are really cheap to produce. I have two things that I keep in mind. Is it earning its keep, and am I asking someone to do something that’s for their benefit? I feel like it would be improper to ask someone to continue to do something that was not helping them. So we’ll have to keep an eye on them, but so far so good. We’ve had a really great reaction from our listeners and from advertisers. So it’s definitely sticking around.
LH: What does the business model look like for the podcasts?
MS: Well right now it’s Bill and me, so it’s simple.
BC: And we have our editor, Liam Senior. He does the heavy lifting.
MS: We have a Patreon. Before we started it, we came up with a document that described how we would chop up the earnings, and everyone involved gets some money. Any project we’re doing, everyone gets some money. I think that’s why we have such a good community vibe. Although there’s not a lot of money to go around, it feels very fair.
LH: It definitely seems like something that’s become more regular at independent sites.
MS: Yes. It’s hard to tell what other people’s situations are, to make any sort of inference. But there have been situations where I can see very directly that people could be paying people and they’re not.
But this is really important to me and ingrained in me, that people who contribute stuff get paid. Hard Times isn’t a cash cow, there’s no real money to go around, but you’re gonna get paid. And if it’s a sponsored post you’re gonna get paid more. We don’t always talk about it too much and we don’t want to rag on people. But we paid people way sooner than larger institutions, way sooner than our contemporaries.
BC: I think our system is what pushed other [sites] of our stature to start paying people.
MS: Now [some sites], even if they do pay their people, first of all they had to beg their audience to give them money or whatever. And then if they paid people I’m sure they’re paying them net $US30 ($42) or some shit.
LH: Can you tell me about the advertising side? I’ve been involved with a few small publications, and it always seemed really hard to make enough money when you’re too small for giant advertisers to treat you as a single account. What are you doing to make that work?
MS: I needed to really dig in and figure out how to make a business. I went to Joseph Fullman, he’s the VP [of Marketing] at the Onion, and he talked me through a lot of stuff. We’ve spent a long time building relationships. But we rely heavily on programmatic advertising, and we have enough of an audience where that works okayish. Mix that in with native advertising, like [“Around the Web” link platform] Taboola, which doesn’t pay amazing, but at the end of the month they cut you a check for five grand, and it helps.
We haven’t often been able to grab big advertisers—even though I feel like Vans, Converse, Ray-Ban, Red Bull, I feel like they’re messing up by not advertising on our website.
But regardless, we’ve been able to get some medium sized brands or some music festivals. We’ve made relationships with the owners of several music festivals—one company owns a whole bunch of music festivals—and we’ll sell them a combination package, ten thousand dollars or something like that, and it will be the podcast, banner ads, sponsored content, all the ad products that we have.
Once you get a couple of relationships like that, you can patchwork it together. Programmatic, native, five grand here, three grand here, and you piece it all together. Then intellectual property deals, like we got an advance for our book. We do merch, and we do some live events, and we promote other people’s events. We’ve tried to diversify our revenue streams as much as possible. We had a TV show project that we were working on. We have this podcast network, which is already an early moneymaker. You piece all of that together and you can keep the lights on. You can’t buy a yacht.
LH: Podcast ad sales, are they pretty similar to the site’s ad sales?
MS: Nah, they’re way easier. I guess people are really turned against banner ads. Because we have millions and millions of eyeballs [that are hard to sell ads for], but then I have a podcast, which is I guess the new hit thing, and every advertiser I was hitting up was jumping onboard ASAP. I’m happy that they are involved.
One of our early podcast advertisers was a tech company called LANDR, and they’ve turned into not just a sponsor, but they bought sponsored content, so they’re now an editorial sponsor as well. So I’m trying to mix and match and create little packages with people. It is a lot of work. I do a lot of grunt work that’s not [what people think]. “Man, you work your dream job! You write jokes all day!” Not quite.
LH: I talked to this couple who started a bookstore. They knew that people think you’re just going to be wandering around and chatting books. No, you’re giving yourself a retail job, you’re going to be on your feet all day. But when you’re doing it for something that you’ve started and you’re also driving the vision, it’s very satisfying.
Even while we spend more of our days staring at screens and do more of our shopping on Amazon, book sales are actually rising at independent bookstores.
Novelist Emma Fusco-Straub and her husband Mike opened Cobble Hill shop Books Are Magic in 2017, and have drawn customers in every day since, with a charming children’s room in the back, a trim and trendy adult collection up front, and nightly readings, signings, and other events. In the video below, we talk to Emma about how to make a local bookstore a community gathering spot.
MS: It’s incredibly satisfying. I get to communicate with the world. When I was in my bands—I don’t remember if I had anything important to say—but no one would listen to me. And now, through our jokes, I think that they do. And that’s worth the hustle. I really do feel like there’s going to be a lot of people who get their start at Hard Times who, I’m gonna be like fifty, and I’m gonna point at the TV and be like “That person wrote at Hard Times first.”
BC: That’s what I’m banking on, is being the personal assistant of one of our best writers some day. I’ll be like “Whoa, I’m glad I was nice to that guy!”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.