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So What Do You Do, Richard Lawson, Senior Writer for The Atlantic Wire?

The best TV recapper in the biz discusses his process

- May 30, 2012
In the hands of Richard Lawson, the online TV recap takes on an almost Shakesperian quality. The rebellious daughter of a New Jersey Housewife becomes "Bouffant," a star of the New York franchise turns into a cicada, and Ryan Seacrest? He's secretly in love with (or being haunted by the corpse of) an ousted Idol contestant. At one point, his posts for Gawker were racking up a whopping 2.4 million page views a month, making him the most popular scribe at the site.

It all started when Lawson was working in Gawker's ad sales department and began anonymously commenting to stories during his off hours; he was outed when The New York Times tracked him down for a story about blog commenters. "They interviewed me for it and I sort of revealed myself. I was already there on the payroll, and the Gawker editors were kind of tickled by it," he remembers. "So, they had me do a weekly post for the site where I would award little stars to the best comments of the week."

Eight months later, Lawson was using his theater background to write full-time, an overnight success story by editorial standards. Now at The Atlantic Wire, Lawson says he's taking news a little more seriously but always keeping that sense of snark in his arsenal. Just in case.

Position: Senior writer for The Atlantic Wire
Resume: Staff writer for Gawker (2008-2011), staff writer for (2009), senior writer for The Atlantic Wire
Birthday: May 31, 1983
Hometown: Boston
Education: Bachelor's in theatre and English from Boston College
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV shows: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and House Hunters (foreign and domestic)
Guilty pleasure: "I don't really have one. I think everything has value. Like, I love Mad Men but I also, for some reason, have watched every episode of Once Upon a Time, ABC's fairy tale show. That's a secret but I guess it's out now."
Last book read: A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
Twitter handle: @rilaws

Did you intend to get hired at Gawker or was it just a stroke of good luck?
I'd always written as a student, and I had no ambitions to write for the Internet because I wasn't that savvy at the time. But once I started working for the company and reading the site, I realized it's a fun, interesting form of writing. The commenting was just a free space to react to news, but, at a site like Gawker, I was able to be kind of creative and a little silly in my comments. It felt like little bouts of writing workshop-y things, and it was an opportunity to write without much consequence.

Would you encourage unemployed folks or recent grads to find similarly unconventional ways to get jobs?
When I was commenting on Gawker, it was a certain moment in time for that site. There was a pretty small amount of commenters, so it was kind of communal. The site has gotten a lot bigger, but if you can find another like it with a really engaged commenter community, it's a good way to get to know the people who are writing for the site. Those are connections that are always worth having. I think basically the trick is whether you're commenting, have a Tumblr or Twitter, or whatever it is, the more you interact with people you'd like to be your peers, the more you'll become their peer. You're basically putting your name out there so they know who you are.

"The trick is, the more you interact with people you'd like to be your peers, the more you'll become their peer."

You often take a germ of a real plotline and turn it into literature. How did you come up with your style and what's your writing process like?
I wanted a space to be more creative. Writing news stories was something I learned to do over time, but it was never quite a perfect fit for me. I mean, I'm still doing it, but I also want to write fiction and stuff like that. So, I like to write the recaps because if you're not breaking any news, it's OK to kind of be weird with it. Everyone's presumably watched the episode. I figured it was a good space to do that sort of wandering a bit. The style is inspired by randomness. A guy who lives in Houston has a series of YouTube videos where he's narrating the entire first Harry Potter movie. He doesn't stick to the plot at all. He does all kinds of crazy, silly things, but really creative and well-worded. I had been listening to that around that time, winter '08. So it's like if he can do this for the Harry Potter movies, like craft this whole other extra narrative, then why can't I do it for Gossip Girl or Real Housewives?

The Atlantic is known more for its serious, long-form pieces, not the fluff of reality TV. Why did you decide to leave Gawker and why The Atlantic?
It's the Atlantic Wire, their news blog, so the format is kind of familiar, kind of blog site posts. But I'm also with one of my old Gawker editors who I've always worked well with. I think, like you said, it's known to be a little more serious but, after a while, the Gawker snark -- for lack of a less heavy word -- can get a bit tiring. I think it's great and I think it has its place, but I felt like I wanted to be a little more mature, I guess. I love all of the writing at Gawker still, but just for myself, I'm getting a chance to do more serious movie reviews and stuff I think wouldn't have necessarily played out well on Gawker. So, yes, it just seemed like a new, different opportunity. The cool benefits of working on the lighter [side] are the various opportunities that pop up. You can kind of jump around a bit and experiment with styles and formats, and I think I was ready to make one of those jumps.

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Since your recaps are so colorful, have you ever thought of just becoming a TV writer?
Yes. Coming from a playwright background, dramatic playwriting is in my mind somewhere. I've had a couple nibbles of interest here and there, and I've submitted a few things here and there, but it's a very different style of writing, obviously, and I don't quite feel I have the sort of hustle required right now. But somewhere down the road, if I got inspired and wrote some pilot script or something, I would love someone to read it. To have a TV show on the air would be amazing.

There are countless entertainment blogs and a lot of pop culture content online, but very few stand out. What do you think most entertainment writers or aspiring recappers do wrong?
I think there can be a tendency to kind of carry the party line. I think that once an opinion is formed about a certain culture property, it's easy to jump onto that. I'm not saying be contrary for contrarianism's sake, but take, for example, HBO's Girls. A lot of people just right off the bat decided together that it was going to be this one narrative about it and it was kind of offensive. In truth, if you watch the show without listening to all that noise, it's quite different. So, in general, I think the best thing to do is not be afraid to have your own opinion. Seek out new angles and new jokes. I think we start to make fun of the same thing in the same way. I see the same joke kind of repeated across all of these websites, so try to tweak the thinking and you'll certainly stand out.

"The best thing to do is not be afraid to have your own opinion."

It's been over 10 years since CBS debuted Survivor and over 20 since MTV launched The Real World. Do you think reality TV is here to stay?
Yes, I definitely think it's here to stay. I think it's just going to continue to take on different forms. Obviously Survivor is still going, but they've had to modify as they go. I think we're probably past the era of all of that VH1 celeb-reality stuff with Rock of Love and I Love New York, which were fun and had their moments. For whatever reasons, people seem more focused on other iterations of the genre. There are all of these shows now about people working and people making things. We still have the Kardashians, but I think reality viewers are getting smarter and more serious.

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Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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