There’s a big difference between “fake news” and fake news, and Matt Saincome thinks he’s cracked the code on the latter.
With his punk rock satirical news site The Hard Times, Saincome—along with co-founders Ed Saincome and Bill Conway—has found success writing what he knows best—comedic news stories taking on the likes of Minor Threat and Henry Rollins. This might seem like pretty niche subject matter, but the numbers for the two-year old site don’t lie. Since its inception The Hard Times has reached a monthly readership within the millions and has from the little punk site that could to the next big thing in satire.
Saincome might not have the most traditional background in comedy- writing, but the 26-year old’s impressive journalism background—he’s written several features for Rolling Stone and Vice as well as serving as Music Editor for SF Weekly—and lifelong dedication to the straightedge punk lifestyle makes him the perfect man for the job.
I spoke with Saincome about starting his own website, going toe-to-toe with The Onion and dolphin sex.
Hard Times is heavily focused on the punk rock scene and punk lifestyle. How has growing up in that scene influenced you?
I grew up in the Bay area punk scene and had a band called Skull Stomp. I’ve been into punk music since I was in elementary school, because I had an older brother that got me into it really young. But I had a pretty weird entry into it. I was talking about NOFX a week ago and I mentioned how I never really dug deep into their discography and my friend was shocked. The thing is, is that my older brother went through a lot of those phases, so when he introduced me to punk, he was already showing me these heavier bands like Minor Threat and skipping over the other stuff. As far as how it shaped me, running a business is very similar to running a band. If you’re a DIY band, you have to book your own tours and market yourself and all that. So, the idea of DIY definitely shaped into who I am today.
Going off of that DIY idea, do you find that the self-starting aspect of the punk scene has helped you adapt better to being a freelancer or starting your own company?
I feel like if you played in a punk band—a successful one at least—you have this sort of vibe about you where you understand how to get things done for a really little budget or no budget at all. You have to learn how to scavenge and do things yourself. If someone’s capable of getting four of their fucked-up, stupid friends to Japan for a week to play a bunch of punk shows, you know they can get things done. I always look for people with music backgrounds because a lot of them are self-starters.
You have a pretty extensive background in journalism, having written for Rolling Stone and Vice. What made you want to drop all of that and start your own satirical news site?
The short answer—dolphin sex. I know that sounds strange, but it’s actually the truth. I was an intern at SF Weekly and my editor said, “Hey Matt, I got an email from this guy who says he wrote a book about having sex with a dolphin. Maybe you should interview him. It sounds like it might be kinda interesting.” I read his email and it sounded so bizarre and I thought to really get the details about how weird this guy actually was, I should probably go meet him in person. So I met him in person and interviewed him and it went completely viral around the world and back. My boss came up to me saying, “You did such a great job. It was the most viewed article this year,” and everyone around the office was raving about it. And I thought about it and it hit me—I only got paid like $35, which didn’t even cover the gas and parking it cost me to do this thing. I thought to myself, if it’s gonna be my comedy that’s going viral, I should be the one owning the company. So that’s pretty much the idea behind Hard Times. I realized that it was the comedy aspect that was making my journalism articles do really well and that’s what people expected and wanted from me. I think I’m a good journalist. I’ve done some real reporting and it’s definitely super rewarding in a different way and I do really miss it sometimes. But sometimes you just gotta lean into your strengths.
Did you have any training in comedy writing or were you always just a pretty funny guy growing up?
I never really thought about getting into comedy writing. I was just always kind of a goofball and knew how to write, so those two things just sort of blended together. But I’ve never taken a comedy writing class or read a comedy writing book. I think the best way to learn things like that is to surround yourself with people that are better than you at whatever you’re trying to learn. We get applications all the time and one of the main ways to make sure your application is gonna get rejected is by saying “Hey, my name is so and so and I’ve written for McSweeney’s,” which is this fancy person comedy brand or whatever. Usually whenever someone mentions that, their pitches are not my taste. My co-founder is a guy who sells electrical equipment, so it’s usually more about that DIY, punk stuff rather than people who went to comedy college.
One of the things that first drew me to Hard Times was the level of quality. There are tons of small satirical news outlets out there that don’t ever hit the quality of some of these bigger sites. What do you think helps Hard TImes stick out compared to these other satirical outlets?
I think for a lot of the smaller sites, quality control is an issue, but a lot of times, it’s just run by people who legitimately aren’t good at satire or comedy. I’ve been learning a lot about the comedy world and the world of standup comedy and I see some people who go up on stage and I wonder, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re funny,” ‘cause I don’t even think you’re the funniest person out of your friend group, let alone should you be getting up and demanding attention from an audience. But, I’m not quite sure why people start satire sites when they’re not good at it. One thing that’s really helped is my journalism background and understanding of how to run an editorial department. It’s really hard to satirize things if you don’t understand it in the first place. Some of these people don’t understand the news-writing style. But, I definitely do think quality control is a big issue at a lot of these places. People have a mentality of, “Let’s put it out and see how it does,” as opposed to putting something out that improves our brand and letting people know that we care. I’m happy that we’ve been able to gather some writers and create an editorial system that pushes some great content out.
There’s a real distinction between a satirical headline and just a straightforward, mean statement. What do you think makes a good satirical headline?
I don’t think real, true anger is funny in satirical form. There are comics that do that really well like Lewis Black. But, when it comes to actual satire, the tone that works best is more of a smart, above the fray style that points to obvious intellectual gaps. That’s really where I think satire shines. If you’re just the type of person who’s absolutely pissed about Trump, but you can’t do anything other than talk about it, maybe satire isn’t the right tool for you. I don’t think that’s what the true purpose of satire is. The true purpose of satire is to show the ideological faults of something by elevating their flaw, which is a more subtle skill than just going, “Local Fucking Idiot Votes for Trump.” There’s a lot of that out there and it just sucks.
You’ve mentioned in the past how The Onion is similar to publications like Rolling Stone, in that its this legacy-type, but there isn’t a true alternative satirical news site like there are alternative news sites such as Vice. What made you think there was a larger audience waiting for a satirical punk news site?
There’s that classic idea of writing what you know. When I was in college, I thought a lot about the media landscape in general and noticed there was a hole in the market and this desire for millennial, alternative music-based satire. I looked around for examples and found some twitter pages, but never anybody who tried to make it into an article. So I told my friends about it and they were all like, “Na, don’t do that. It’s stupid. No one will care,” so I didn’t do it for a couple years. When I finally started making it, it immediately took off. So, the reason I decided to focus on that is: A.) It’s who I am and B.) Because I didn’t see anything else out there like it. I lay awake at night thinking about ideas that are oftentimes outside of my expertise, but writing about punk was something I knew I could do.
Your site has a really interesting pitch process in that you have a community of writers on Facebook who work under the “like system,” where a story gets chosen based on its reception in the group. Why did you choose to build out this community of writers who sort of bounce ideas off of one another?
I’ve been a freelancer at a lot of publications and I always felt a disconnect from the rest of the team. So when I was building Hard Times, I wanted to try to fix a lot of the problems I had and one of those issues was that freelancers were always totally in the dark about what they were doing and where they were going and there was no sense of community. With Hard Times, I was thinking about how to make this the best place for writers, ‘cause if you make it the best place for writers, your writers will be happier and contribute much better content. And if you’re trying to compete with these huge competitors that’ve been around for 25 years like The Onion, you’re gonna need some killer content. Really, the writers are the engine of the whole operation, so keeping them happy is the main priority.
The site has had some pretty successful spinoffs like Hard Drive and Hard Style. But one that never really took off was Gut Check, which focused on wrestling. What about Gut Check do you think didn’t necessarily work?
I don’t think wrestling is ripe for satire. I thought it would be when we tried to do the wrestling thing. But I think the suspension of disbelief is actually a core tenant of wrestling fans, which makes it a really hard thing to satirize because they’re not actually being serious. So if you’re pointing to the falsehoods with a fake fight, it almost makes you seem like a jerk who thinks it should be real or something. There’s an interesting problem with doing satire about those kinds of topics.
I’ve noticed a lot of bands and musicians you poke fun at have started sharing your articles and have even said things like, “I’ve been Hard Styled!” Does it ever get kind of crazy seeing some of your heroes taking notice of your work?
Some of the people who like our website is honestly amazing full circle stuff to me. I learned drums by listening to Operation Ivy, and then I see the guy from the band retweeting our stuff and coming to our shows. I was at Punk Rock Bowling and Brian Baker from Minor Threat and Bad Religion came up to our tent to see say hi ‘cause he’s a fan of the site. This is a guy whose made some albums that’ve legitimately changed my life. So, to be a fan of someone’s music for that long and have them compliment our work is a pretty cool feeling. It’s a great feeling to get this recognition from community that I’ve been a part of for such a long time.
We’ve mentioned The Onion a lot, and obviously as your company starts to gain traction, some of these larger companies will start to take notice. Do you think Hard Times has had any impact on The Onion’s music coverage over tha past year?
I actually met with some of the editorial staff over at The Onion and these are people whose work I really admire. I don’t think they’re scared of what we’re doing, but I do think that when you’re a big company and a little site who basically stole your entire business model is doing something successful, you start to take notice. I do think they’ve had an uptick in the music coverage they’ve been doing, but we’re doing something they’ll never be able to do, which is they’ll never have our perspective or our lifestyle. You just can’t mimic it. They can add more music satire to their site, but they can never be us.
The site started as mainly punk rock satire, but has evolved over time, now covering politics and other topics. What has the evolution of Hard Times been like and how do you see the site growing in the future?
I get a lot of messages from people saying how their grandparents or their mom shared a Hard Times article—just random articles about a moms texting their sons or something like that that isn’t necessarily punk-related. We come from this sort of underground basement world where there are no rules and I hope we take that same perspective and instead of just focusing on our own little punk bubble, we apply that to the rest of the world. Since we started, we started covering the news and politics, but we do it from this unique perspective, and I think—in that way—we’ve gone from this alternative satire site, to an alternative to The Onion. I think we’re getting closer and closer to being on a level playing field every day. If you look at the growth of the site, we’ve been growing every month, our content is getting better and we’ve been diversifying our coverage. I think a couple punk kids are about to catch up pretty soon.