The second week of April 2012 will go down in history as the week we acquired two things that would stick with NSFWCORP to the very end (and beyond). The first was a pool table, which I boughtfor $500 from a guy who was moving out from the Odgen and spent a week trying to figure out how to move nine floors to apartment 804.
The second thing we acquired that week was Mark Ames. Here’s how Mark remembers that week…
Paul: I want to go back to when you first heard about Not Safe For Work. I think, certainly, I first got introduced to you by Richard Nash, who had published you before.
Mark: Richard Nash published my last book, Going Postal, which is about office and school rage massacres, which is sort of a new American phenomena, a very fun subject. I love Richard because, not only was he a fantastic editor, but I first started on that project in 2001. I moved to Kentucky, I left Russia for the while. I started on it because I thought it was a huge thing, Columbine and all this stuff was a big deal, these rage massacres.
My editor at Grove Atlantic liked the idea a lot. My agent at William Morris at the time really liked it. Then 9/11 happened just as I was putting together my proposal for the publishers. 9/11 happened, and nobody wanted to hear about…
Mark: Americans killing Americans any more. I was like, “Is that real?” I was like, “Oh, shit.” I moved back to Russia and I had this proposal sitting around. I tried to push it again like a year or two later. It got angrily rejected, boom, boom, boom, one after another.
Mark: Then Richard Nash went, “I like this.”
Paul: I don’t care about Americans killing Americans. I’m Irish!
Mark: Exactly. I mean, that was the thing. I think being an outsider, he wasn’t as tied to the moment, deeply offended, kind of a little bit of distance. Myself too, I’d been living overseas for so long, you kind of start seeing the culture and the country a little bit as an outsider rather than an insider.
He was a great editor. One day, this was in 2012, late spring I think, 2012, just when I was going through a very…life disruption.
Mark: I’d rather not get into that, but it was not a particularly good time in my life. This is like that scene in the movie where the champ, except I was never a champ, gets an offer when he’s drunk and living in a card board boxes, that’s how I looked at it.
I got this email from Richard introducing me to you and saying, “This guy is starting up his satirical magazine and he was looking for satire writers and you’re the first person I thought of, actually, because there’s not a lot of satirical writers in this country.”
Paul: I’ve asked him to recommend someone, and he basically said the same thing. He said, “There aren’t, really. Everyone’s awful.” God, I know, we could have hired Alex Pareene. It was that bad.
Mark: They’re like joke tellers or quippers or something, they’re not people with satirical sensibility.
Paul: They don’t have any real anger, they have this fake Internet outrage.
Mark: He told me that you were starting this up. We got in touch. I have to admit, I didn’t believe it. I’m like, “No, this is too…” Maybe he is, but he is like a bunch of other people that would start something up and going to want me to do something. Then never really pay me or offer me 25 bucks and reputational currency.
Paul: Were you writing for Punch at that time or whatever it’s called, The Punch?
Mark: Yes, at that time, Punch. Somebody had bought the rights to an old British Punch magazine and it was making it as an iPad only magazine app.
Paul: Just as the original Punch founders intended.
Mark: At that same time, they asked me to write the first feature story for the new American iPad app. I did something on a movie about Joseph Smith. It was a weird movie about Joseph Smith, who was obviously the founder of modern religion. This was when Romney was becoming a presidential candidate.
I wound up doing it. It was actually not bad a piece. I wound up getting to know the guy who made this movie. He’s like a dissonant Mormon, and part of a whole movement of a clean comedy. [laughs] It’s very weird stuff.
Paul: Now, it’s being headed by James [sp] Casseti?
Mark: Exactly. They had an office here and everything. I knew the editor, old friend of mine. I thought, that one’s going to be definitely viable, Paul Carr have never heard of them. There’s no fucking way…
Paul: I like that there was a decision between me and Marie Shawn. You went, “Marie Shawn sounds trustworthy to be around.”
Mark: I worked for Marie but Marie had already lost it.
Paul: That’s right.
Mark: This is really like Jim, who used to be an editor of Vanity Fair. We knew each other way back.
Paul: I feel that’s bad.
Mark: Marie had already lost it. God Bless Marie.
Paul: Quite so.
Mark: I tried doing both, actually. I did the Punch article, it’s actually a shit ton of work.
Literally for this iPad thing.
I remember why it was such a problem even getting out the first quote on quote issue, because it was almost actually…even though this is the future, the way they had to lay out page by page to make it all very interactive-y and punchy and so on, it was literally like what I did on my high school paper, where you cut and paste in. I don’t know, that was how the technology worked.
Paul: Yes, because it was a fixed screen. It was unreadable, I couldn’t…
Mark: You saw it? I didn’t even have it.
Paul: No, I had the wrong iPad. I had an iPad that wasn’t the exact specs you needed. Every time I tried to open your article in particular, it just crashed. It was like a cosmic joke.
Mark: I remember that was a big problem.
Paul: You were like, “You should take a look at it.” I’m like, “I can’t. I cannot read it.”
Mark: Finally I think they just put the piece out on Alternet, just basic.
Paul: Then, people could actually read it.
Mark: They could actually read it.
Paul: It’s the future.
Mark: To my surprise, I wrote something for you and I was brought in to the…was it Yammer, then?
Paul: Yes. It was Yammer.
Mark: It was Yammer discussions. I was surprised by everybody. First of all, most people seemed like they weren’t Americans. They seemed smart and funny.
Paul: That was basically because I hadn’t hired anyone. I guess everybody had the same thoughts as you had, of, “I don’t know, I don’t trust this thing.” I was still trying to hire Americans, but I knew a bunch of Brits who had written jokes for me before. I staffed it with them and thought, “I’ll just edge them out.”
Mark: I actually liked that, once I saw it. Richard spoke very well of you. I looked you up and saw you looked like an asshole and I thought, “OK, that’s the kind of guy I could work with.”
Paul: Before we get too far ahead, because I want to just mention on the record, Richard sent me an email, which I probably will publish in the book, where he basically said, “You should talk to this guy, Mark Ames. He’s one of the best writers I know. Definitely, he’s what you’re looking for. But just for your information, he’s fucking crazy.”
Paul: Then he sends a link to the Vanity Fair profile of you and Taibbi. I look at it, and I’m reading this thing about you stirring Adderall into your coffee or speed into your eyeballs or whatever the fuck was in that piece. I thought, “This is going to be interesting.”
I’m reading your stuff. I had heard of “The Exile,” but I hadn’t really pieced together that was you. Then, I read the Vanity Fair thing. It’s, “Yeah, I’m basically obviously hiring a serial killer, who can write. The challenge here will be to just keep him as far away from me as possible, so that he just writes great stuff, I pay him, and he doesn’t kill me.”
We met…I guess you’re in San Francisco for some reason, because we met in some coffee shop or some restaurant.
Paul: We had lunch.
Mark: I came out at that time. I think Punch was already starting to fall apart by then. Fuck, why did I go out there? I think my wife kicked me out again or something.
Paul: For some reason. You were saying you were staying where you have family, or something. Maybe that was what it was.
Mark: Yes, I was staying down in the San Jose area with family, then going up to visit an old buddy of mine from Moscow who was in Marin County, yeah.
Paul: I remember having lunch thinking, “He’s hiding his serial killer really well. It’s like Patrick Bateman.”
Paul: It took me at least six months of working with you until I finally confronted Nash and was like, “What’s crazy? He’s obviously crazy like we’re all crazy, and angry like we’re all angry, but what am I missing? When’s he going to pull a knife on me?”
He’s like, “Oh, no, he’s not really that crazy.”
Paul: It’s like, “Fuck you. For six months…”
Mark: Sweating bullets.
Paul: “…Not wanting to turn my back on him in case he stuck a fucking knife between my shoulder blades. You’re like, ‘Oh, no, he’s crazy like we’re crazy.'”
Paul: I’m like, “Don’t say that in future.” Bear in mind, the baseline for me for crazy is so much higher.
If I was asking about you for a job at a fucking salon or something, then yes, you’re crazy. You’re not milquetoast, like those fuckers. You fit in perfectly well at Not Safe For Work. Even years on I’m still looking for this crazy that doesn’t meaningfully exist.
Mark: I’m a nice guy.
Paul: No, you’re a very nice guy. This is the thing. I remember when Sirota first came out to Vegas. I guess you weren’t in town.
Mark: No, I got sick or something.
Paul: That’s a man who was terrified about a lot of things, but he was genuinely terrified of meeting you. I remember thinking…
Mark: Damn, I wish I was there.
Paul: I know. He was really, “I’ve heard that he eats babies.”
Paul: I’m like, “Yes. You should watch out for that guy.”
Mark: Keep your baby away from him.
Paul: Anyway, I realized very quickly that you weren’t any bad kind of crazy.
Mark: Depends who you ask.
Paul: The same people would tell you that about me. Don’t worry. I’m trying to remember what the first piece you wrote for us was. It wasn’t the McFaul thing.
Mark: No, it was…I don’t know why I chose this subject, but it had to do with the whole Colonel Jessup mentality and everyone running around telling you, “You can’t handle the truth!” All these…
Paul: That was for the pilot issue.
Mark: …Hardened realists and stuff. What amazed me was, there’s very little outlet for satire here. In fact you really can’t do satire here. You can do very loudly telegraphed parody. Everyone here says, particularly in the business, let’s say, not the audience, says, “I love The Exile, I love satire,” but no one wants to run it. No one wants to do it. They’re all scared of it.
Paul: It’s just Charlie syndrome. “I am Charlie, but I wouldn’t do any of the things that they did, nor do I support any of the things they wrote, nor would I…”
Mark: Exactly. “I would attack you…”
Paul: “…Even acknowledge…”
Mark: “…If you did until you’re dead, and then I’ll be first at your graveside.”
Paul: “But I’m going to use this hashtag. But I do want the credit for acting like I’m a bad ass.”
Mark: Exactly. It took me a couple years to realize that. It turned out just the most effective way to fuck with power was actually doing more straight journalism. Which is all right, but I find it boring as a reader, in a way, too.
Basically, I was surprised, first of all, that I wrote it and you paid me. That’s pretty rare.
Paul: Those two things did happen.
Mark: I know.
Paul: Let the record show, you did write it and I did pay you.
Mark: That was a real serious big moment for me, though. Honest to God, when you said you would pay me x amount, and it was good pay, and “Deliver this,” and you liked it. Then you very coldly, which I also really appreciated…we did the first issue and you solicited audience responses, your own responses, our responses. You really polled everyone in a very properly cold, not ego-y way, and found out what people liked and the problems that people found with it. You confronted that right away. I was really impressed with that.
I just kept thinking, “Wait a minute.” I forgot that it could be done like this after having done The Exile all those years. It was almost too good to be true. I still didn’t really believe it was going to happen. It really took me a few months to really believe that it could happen.
Paul: This is actually a thing.
Mark: That you could be paid. I could believe that somebody could good taste and want to fuck with power and do satire and have a satirical outlook on things, but then I couldn’t match it up with somebody who was actually willing to pay for it rather than screw you over.
Paul: It helped that the whole initiative, our big investor was Tony Hsieh, who knew nothing about media and didn’t really understand what he was getting into. It helped that we had that. At that point, I think we only had a hundred thousand dollars with that, it’s not Omidyar money, by any stretch. Mike Arrington obviously put in like 25, I think.
We had $125,000. It wasn’t by any stretch, we had a lot of money, especially by media standards. But it did seem to me that if we were going to spend money, it should be on the stuff that’s on the page, because everything else doesn’t matter. We didn’t have a huge tech team.
It took me a while before we launched to realize that. I was talking to all these incredibly expensive New York publishing people. We’re sitting in Union Square. The coffee shop place that is over there, I met with about four or five people who are from things like “The New York Times” or worked at various Condé Nast publications, who are serious, big-P publisher people.
I remember one person who wanted to basically head up the commercial side. I was like, “I need a commercial person,” which, arguably ultimately we did need a good commercial person.
Paul: I remember this person saying, “I have kids in private school,” blah-blah-blah, and “I’m going to need to be making $350,000.” I’m like, “We don’t have that much money at all.” As in, “We don’t have it to pay you,” we don’t have it.
Mark: Is that satire, or is it…
Paul: No, sadly it was…I thought, “OK, I’ll hire that person. Then they’ll have nothing to sell.” Very quickly we were on the other way. It’s like, “Let’s just put as good of stuff on the page, get Josh Ellis to build a bare bones way of getting on the page.” But it never occurred to me that the writers shouldn’t be the best-paid. That was the thing.
It was too good to be true for some people. When I talked to Yasha, he brought this up. He said there was a moment when the initial Not Safe For Work tone changed. We were trying to figure out what it was. He said it was a moment when…because I think if you look at your Jessup piece, it could have been published at the beginning, the middle, or the end. You were the first, really, to identify, even before I did, what Not Safe For Work should be. But if you look at some of the other stuff we published around that time, it was jokey.
Sarah Lacy said not that long ago, “You’ve got to stop saying it was the future of journalism with jokes. It may have been the future of journalism, but there were no jokes, by the end.”
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