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Q&A: Rebecca Schoenkopf, Publisher of Wonkette

After three years as an unemployed single mom, she became the proud owner of one of the best known (and rudest) political blogs out there. Here’s how it happened.
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The day after her 40th birthday, Rebecca Schoenkopf is tidying up her bohemian loft apartment in Downtown Los Angeles, and pouring herself a glass of wine.

“Look, my reader sent me this – a whole case!” she says. “And the other day my readers organized this thing on my comments. Someone said, ‘you guys, Rebecca’s birthday’s coming up, so we should all send her $40.’ In the end, they sent me $2000! They love me!”

They do. Since Schoenkopf took over Wonkette in March 2012, all the important numbers are up – “traffic’s up 65% on last year, we’re getting a half-million unique visitors a month, and 3.7 million page views.” Such popularity is no surprise to Wonkette’s fans of course - ever since its launch by Gawker Media in 2004 it has been the byword for bawdy political snark from the left. Since founding editor Ana Marie Cox left in 2006, two other editors have taken the helm, steering the brand through something of a rollercoaster – high times during the election of Obama, and then its sale by Gawker, before the financial crisis. But its brand of righteous invective has stayed true.

If anything, Schoenkopf’s Wonkette has been funnier, and more infused with its original sensibility – that of an ardent and scathing liberal woman (the previous two editors were men). Who else, after all, would have such a shameless crush on Joe Biden?

“I love Obama, but Joe I love in a different way,” she grins. “A very sexual way. I don’t like how he calls people ‘mom’, but they don’t seem to mind. They’re too captivated with his gleaming teeth.”

An LA native, and print media veteran, Schoenkopf went from interning at Mad magazine to working at the Orange County Weekly for 12 years. She rose to senior editor there, where she wrote several columns about politics, arts and nightlife, leaving in 2007 when New Times Media bought the Weekly out. She spent just under a year as editor of LA Citybeat, a rival weekly – it wasn’t the smoothest of rides but still.

But the real drama began when she left that job. The markets collapsed, and she spent the next three years unemployed – a single mother of a teenage boy, going rapidly broke in the recession.  How she emerged from that funk to becoming not just the editor of Wonkette, but the owner, is an extraordinary story.

How come it all went wrong after you left Citybeat?

I gave my notice Nov 1st 2008. Oh, it was ugly. Really bad. There was zero budget for lecturers, no freelance anywhere. I was unemployed for a couple of years, I went back to grad school, got my masters, then I was unemployed for another year after that…

How did you survive.

Just doing what I could. One of the people who kept me from being homeless was this guy from MSNBC who gave me ridiculous amounts of money to write stupid things and make dumb videos. I was getting a buck a word to write things like the “the eight people you meet in bars”. I was so grateful to that man.

Tell me about rock bottom.

I didn’t have one because I have friends who have taken care of me all these years. I did have a foundation that was paying my rent for a while. I actually qualified for their poor people assistance program.

So how do you go from foundation-rent to owning Wonkette?

OK, you ready? So the previous owner of Wonkette is this guy called Ken Layne. And I first met him in 1998 on a blind date. We had a great time, he’s very funny and charming, so I invited him to be my date the next night, but he never showed up. So I called him like 50 times. Then he called me and said, ‘you called me 50 times’. And we didn’t talk for a long time after that.

OK.

Nine years later, I’m at Citybeat, and he’s the owner of Wonkette, and we’re sending each other emails again. He was married, that wasn’t an issue, but we respected each other. I asked him to write a column for me. And he let me use all Wonkette’s material as my national political news for free. It was a great deal! But then I became unemployed for years. And last March, just before my 39th birthday, the doctors told me I’ve got inflammatory breast disease, which is the most deadly breast cancer ever. Basically everyone who has it dies after 18 months, even after you’ve had your tit chopped off, and you’ve had radiation and chemotherapy.

Go on.

So my mom is trying to figure out where she can board her dogs while she nurses me through my painful, vomitous death. And I’m at county USC because I had no insurance, and they’re telling me I have to pay anyway. So I’m like “fuck this, if I’m going to get in debt I’m going to Cedars Sinai!” When I go there, it turns out I’m eligible for their charity care, so I only had to pay 10% of my bills.

But wait – you still have tits.

I know! The head of the breast clinic there, who’s this tiny Jewish man, calls me on the day before my birthday and says, “it’s just an infection.” I’m not dying of breast cancer after all. And that’s when I get an email from Ken Layne. He says, “are you currently encumbered with a job?” I said no. He says, “well, I want to sell Wonkette, and I’m thinking you should buy it.”

B-but you’re broke.

The terms of our sale are confidential. But I don’t even need to give him any money up front, I just give him a percentage off the top each month until it’s paid off.

He’s a superstar basically. Did he know about your breast infection?

He might have checked my blog – I wrote this very overwrought letter to President Obama on my blog about lying on the gurney in county USC, and you know… Obamacare! But we signed the papers a week later. And then he showed me how to blog.

So he sold you the company, and then taught you how to run it?

Good story, right?

There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Everything changes in an instant. For years and years everything was awful, and one week later I was not-dying, employed, and I had the national platform that I'd always dreamed of. Also, if at all possible, buy yourself a job!

Isn’t it hard running a politics blog from LA?

No, you just wake up at 5:30am

Aren’t you supposed to be at the bars in DC picking up the scuttlebutt?

Even if I wasn’t getting up at 5:30, I still wouldn’t be out at the bar. I’m 40 years old. I’m tired. I have an 18 year old son. My sister’s 45, and she has more energy than me but her daughters are only seven. I think it’s how long you’ve been a parent, not how old you are.

How familiar were you with Wonkette at the time you bought it?

I started reading that site the day it started posting, I was so fucking jealous of Ana Marie Cox – I was like “I write a political column with dick jokes, what about me?”

Yes, your Commie Girl column at the OC Weekly. Where did the name come from?

I’m a liberal Democrat, and that’s the same as a communist in America. I got a lot of letters complaining about how many people Stalin killed. Well, I was personally responsible for it!

You’ve got no problem being partisan then.

None. I fucking love Barack and Michelle Obama. Does Barack Obama do shitty stuff sometimes? Yes he does. But then he gives a big speech and says “this is why I had to do the shitty thing”, and I’m like “sold!” I love that man, and my commenters love that man, and they kind of like having a place where we just love that man together.

Who are your counterparts on the right?

Right now we’re in a blog war with weaselzippers, but they’re really beneath us – they’re the ones who call Michelle Obama a She-boon, which is what you think it is. We also hate Breitbart and everything that he stood for. But I don’t think those guys consider themselves witty gentlemen. I think they consider themselves straight news. Which is hilarious.

Political humor seems to be fuelled by hate on some level, especially on the right.

I can’t say we’re not also trafficking in hate comedy. It’s the easiest way to write a post and get the reptilian brain clicking. We very rarely write posts that don’t have someone as an object of hate.

Do you relish controversy?

Not really. I think that’s what happened a couple of years ago – before my time - when we had that horrible post about Trig Palin. The guy who wrote it was fired, and we lost a large chunk of our revenues. We’re not just trying to get a rise out of people – we’re making fun of people who deserve it. But we’re also pointing out nice things along the way – we’ve instituted a policy of periodic nice time posts, where we just present something nice.

Before getting back to the serious business of hating things.

Exactly!

Any plans to expand?

I’d like to get a science vertical and an A&E [arts and entertainment] vertical. Like HuffPo basically but without the side boob and with paying people.

Presumably the arts stuff will have a political edge to it?

I think so. It always does, if you’re doing it right!

Tags: Media   Q&A