It’s 1 p.m. on the first Monday of October, and the Evanston sky is a dull shade of horrible. As students shuffle by the Rock on their way to class, they pass two of their peers discordantly singing along to alternative pop music. One of them, wearing a navy blue sweater that just says “HEINOUS,” stops mid-verse to yell at passersby: “Sherman Ave kissing booth!”
This is Joshua D. Razo, the editor-in-chief of Sherman Ave, Northwestern’s six-year-old satirical news website. And although he gestures to a table laden with kissable objects, where a gangly Uncle Sam garden ornament sits next to a group of celebrity photos ranging from Josh Hutcherson to Morty, this isn’t really just a kissing booth. It’s a publicity stunt to recruit new writers for Razo’s staff, which is working to re-energize and reorganize Sherman Ave two years after its founders graduated and the site began to decline. If Razo and his team want Sherman Ave to survive beyond their graduations, too, they’ll need to bring in fresh blood.
In January 2011, three freshmen, Stephen Rees (WCAS ‘14), Peter Stein (Comm ‘14) and Tom Meyer (Medill ‘14), launched Sherman Ave out of a Willard dorm room. They thought the site would get a few laughs, and maybe make them well known enough in town that Evanston restaurants would give them free meals if they promised to write a review.
But their satire’s reach surprised them. In 2012, before a Northwestern-Vanderbilt football game, Sherman Ave started a fake Change.org petition asking the Commodores to stop clubbing baby seals, with fake messages of support from Bruce Wayne, the Dalai Lama, and Jersey Shore star Pauly D (“Clubbing is great, but not with baby seals”). The petition got enough attention to garner 186 signatures and a write-up from The Huffington Post, clarifying that Vanderbilt “has never credibly been accused of baby seal clubbing.”
Rees says the history of Sherman Ave “can really be told in a history of power trips.” First, the founders celebrated getting 100 views in one day. Then 1,000 views a day. By Dillo Day their sophomore year, they had reached 200,000 views all-time on a campus with 8,000 undergraduates. At a Phi Delta Theta off-campus tailgate that morning, the founders power tripped hard. “All three of us had been drinking,” says Stein, “and we got in the middle of the party and started chanting, ‘200,000! 200,000!”’
By the time they graduated, the site had been read over 3 million times. They named Paul Riker (WCAS ‘15) editor-in-chief and left the site to the staff they had recruited.
“It’s like they left you this really beautiful house, but it was just like trashed inside,” says Riker. “Those guys were ridiculously good at creating the voice that has sustained itself throughout Sherman Ave, but the actual guts of the organization weren’t there.”
The next generation struggled to keep the site’s momentum going. Google noticed that Sherman Ave was asking its readers to click on ads to generate revenue, and permanently banned them from making money on Google Ads. Writers drifted away to other comedy groups, like The Blackout, NSTV or Mee-Ow. And Sherman Ave’s content grew steadily stranger. In 2014, they ran an article called “The Best Spices of the Decade So Far,” which listed nonsense terms like “nice spice,” “sporty spice” and “that’s a spicy meatball.” Readers were turned off.
“It wasn’t a sustainable editorial mission for a site that is supposed to be the Northwestern humor publication,” Razo says. “We had no money, no clear sense of what was in our future, and if you asked a lot of us, truthfully, we thought that Sherman Ave would have probably been over in a year.”
But last spring, Razo and co-presidents Danny Bar-Lavi and Devon Kerr hatched a plan to “relaunch” Sherman Ave and save the site. They found a way to make money again with ads from WordPress. They created weekly article and tweet quotas for writers. And they brought their focus back to accessible Northwestern-centric content that offers insightful and socially-conscious commentary on campus culture. At the beginning of the year, they ran a Freshman Guide to rejection, lampooning the absurd selectiveness of Northwestern’s student groups. In October, they ran a story with the headline, “University Report: Being a White Student at NU & Confronting Racial Issues is Uncomfy.”
“I’m not The Onion,” Razo explained. “I can’t write satire about gun violence or Black Lives Matter in the same poignant way, but I can play to my strengths and write stuff about how insane and silly the idea of going to this elite, private university is.”
So far, the relaunch seems to be working. Sixty-four people applied to join the Sherman Ave staff this fall, compared to 34 last year and Razo says site traffic is up.
“This was this baby that we had sort of horribly birthed into this world, so it’s cool that it still has some sway,” says Rees. “I’d be very proud if it was still a thing in 10 years, and I think it very much has the ability to do so.”