In 1995, Josh Quittner had big plans. He was launching his new site, Netly News as part of Pathfinder, Time Inc’s heavily trafficked web portal. He wanted it to be big. Like change-journalism-on-the-web big. He certainly had the experience. Quittner was one of a few journalists familiarizing themselves with a new spirit of digital publishing. And he had gotten his start writing for Hotwired.
Hotwired was produced by Wired magazine as a way of connecting with more readers. After briefly considering building a portal on AOL, Andrew Anker (then VP and CTO) decided instead that Wired would have a website. He quickly gathered together a group of journalists and designers and cobbled together a new kind of publication, one built specifically for the web. In October of 1994, that team launched Hotwired.com.
Not restrained by the schedules of print news, Hotwired was updated frequently and produced content exclusively for the web. Hotwired itself was divided into editorial sections: news, the arts, etc. Each channel hosted different content, and was represented by unique iconography. Of course, this had another purpose. Hotwired was one of the first websites to experiment with commercial advertising. And editorial channels made it easier to target these ads.
Hotwired was positioned at the center of what would soon become a movement of so-called “web zines,” online magazines that embraced the constraints and freedom that publishing on the web provided.
While Hotwired sprung up in California, journalists Stefanie Syman and Steven Johnson created a zine of their own, Feed magazine, in New York. They believed Hotwired was preaching only the “good word” of the web, and wanted to counter-balance that with a more thoughtful, in-depth spin on many of the same issues. Syman and Johnson coded and launched the site themselves, taking some funding from friends and family, but mostly relying on a growing talent pool of writers hoping to cut their teeth on the web.
Quittner was plugged into this growing “zine” scene. When Hotwired launched, he had written a manifesto for them titled “The Birth of the Way-New Journalism.” So when he was planning out Netly News, together with co-founder Noah Robischon and graphic designer Adam Moore, he knew where to look. It wasn’t long before the team came across Suck.com. They were immediately blown away.
Suck was in a class of its own. It’s design was stark but direct, a single narrow column of black text that left most of the design up to the browsers to interpret. But what was really special was the tenacity and energy of the content. Each day, Suck would replace it’s homepage with a new article, something snarky and playful, typically poking fun at pop culture or the tech scene. Their wit was dry and their audience was loyal. Followers of Suck came back day after day to wolf down the latest banter, and eventually grew to include writers like Heather Havrilesky, who started her Ask Polly column at the magazine.
Quittner and his team knew that Suck was on to something, and began working on prototypes for Netly News, many inspired heavily by the layout and direction of Suck.
What the team didn’t know is that Suck co-founders Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff where watching them. They were watching all their server logs actually, and caught more than a few requests from the Pathfinder servers. The two of them did a little digging, and soon came across the wide-open, unprotected staging server where Quittner and his team were hosting their prototypes for Netly News. They immediately recognized the similarities to their own site. And they were not happy.
Retaliation was swift. Anuff and Steadman published links to the prototypes on Suck.com, and called out the Netly News team for their lack of originality in design and editorial direction. To top it off, they titled their article “Way Lame Journalism,” a dig at Quittner’s Hotwired manifesto.
Quittner pulled the prototypes down (substituting it with a not so friendly image) and started asking around, hoping to find out who was behind Suck. He wasn’t out for blood, he just wanted to talk. It didn’t take long. It turned out that Steadman and Anuff also worked at Hotwired.
Before founding Suck, Steadman was brought on to Hotwired as a production director in 1995. When he started, his big push was to remove the site’s registration system that required users to sign up for the site to view any content. Steadman was able to prove that removing this barrier would increase traffic, so it was removed. When he joined up, Steadman hired Joey Anuff as his assistant.
The two felt stymied by Hotwired‘s efforts. Like Feed, they thought Hotwired focused too much on an idealist view of the web, without embracing its weird and more sardonic side. So they started Suck in their off-hours. To launch the site, they grabbed one of Hotwired‘s tech staff, and set up their very own servers right in the server room of their employer. Not long after that Quittner first stumbled upon the site.
Despite the assault from the Suck team, Quittner was able to get Netly News off the ground. But it’s success was short-lived. The site launched and ran until 1998, when it was folded back into Time Warner’s larger web offering. Quittner still hung around and wrote for Hotwired after that.
Meanwhile, Suck fared slightly better. Hotwired found out about the rogue server and site they were hosting… and they were thrilled. So much so, they offered to buy the site. Working at Hotwired, but focusing on Suck, Steadman and Anuff kept the site going until 1999, when they began to run into a bit of trouble keeping the site financially afloat.
It was time to give Feed a call.
In the intervening years, Feed had gathered its own following But like Suck, they found it hard to make money while still staying independent. The two sites settled on a bold move. They would group their two sites together, hoping to attract more advertisers with the strength of a unified brand. In 2000, they formed Automatic Media, which absorbed Suck and Feed and eventually launched more sub-sites like Plastic.com
The timing was regrettably poor. While the 21st century was still in it’s infancy, the tech bubble burst, and the financial well for the web dried up. Without access to funding, Automatic Media closed by 2001. Many publications took a huge hit at this time. Not even Hotwired survived. They had become essentially an advertising hub by the early 2000’s, with no original content.
But the essence of these zines were not lost. The writers and editors of these sites have dispersed all across the web, and continue to influence web publishing to this day. And thus, the circle of zine continues.
If you’re interested in the kind of content Suck.com put out, there’s a newsletter (Suck, Again), that sends old Suck.com articles to your inbox.