A Brief History of Crunch

Crunchable’s editor guy on why he offered to take over the site four years ago, and where it goes from here.

The significance of Crunchable’s eighth birthday didn’t dawn on me until several weeks ago. Eight wouldn’t be a particularly noteworthy anniversary to celebrate, if it weren’t for an agreement I made in late 2005 with Chris Klimas, my old college roommate and the guy who created Crunchable in the first place.

“In a few months,” I told him over the phone, “I’ll have been editing Crunchable for longer than you have.”

“Oh, snap,” he answered after a moment.

“Yeah, pretty much,” I agreed. I didn’t know what else to say either.

Crunchable.net is, in a tremendously small and possibly unimportant way, an effort to keep original, personal and peculiar stories as a central part of the Web. We’re not out to save the world. (Beware anyone who says that he is.)

But we are out to tell you our stories, a more dangerous task than you might think. We are out to show you how we see the world. And we mean to do it in completely ridiculous and patently majestic ways.

—Chris Klimas, “Wherefore Art Thou Crunchable” (Crunchable’s first story; October 22, 2001)

It was around this time in 2005 that I mentioned to my wife, Stacey, that I was contemplating taking over Crunchable. I recall it being late in the evening, as we were getting into bed.

I’m fortunate that she didn’t immediately respond by whapping me with a pillow. In retrospect, I’m sure there are times she wishes she had.

I went to her even before I broached the idea with Chris, because I knew this decision would end up having a huge impact on my family life, and this was not a particularly opportune time to take on massive new commitments. Stacey had given birth to our oldest son just a month or two earlier (our second-born would show up in another 21 months). I was working insane hours at my newspaper reporting job. Also, I knew almost nothing about running a Web site.

But I also saw it as a phenomenal opportunity. I knew it was wearing Chris out to keep the site going, and that he was itching to move on to new projects — so there was a good chance he wouldn’t be opposed to me taking over. It would be a chance to be an editor again — something that had been my aspiration since I edited student publications back in high school, but which was (and remains) well out of my professional reach.

Crunchable would help me remember to keep in touch with all my friends from college, most of whom had written for the site at one point or another. It would also force me to learn Web programming languages, which might even give me a professional leg up if the Internet continued to become more and more important to newspaper journalism. (Boy, was I right on that one.)

But a kind of fear was also motivating me. I remembered brilliant writing on Crunchable that had echoed in my mind for years. If Chris were to abandon the site, there would be so much great work that might simply wink out of existence, never to be read again.

There was a bit of selfishness in that, too. I didn’t want my own writing on Crunchable to disappear either.

For all my bravado it was fear that made me want to start Crunchable. [...] I am scared that if I stop writing, I will find out I always have been nobody.

—Chris Klimas, “Read Me” (July 1, 2005)

For Chris, Crunchable had been an outgrowth of his days as a student editor, from when he had edited The Collegian magazine at Washington College, our alma mater. After he graduated, he didn’t think it made any sense that he should just stop editing and writing.

“I don’t really like the prospect of never doing something like it again,” he wrote in an August 2001 e-mail to a circle of friends and writers, most of whom had worked with him on The Collegian. “I don’t want it to be one of those amusing things you look back on and laugh wistfully, because I don’t want to be the kind of person who laughs wistfully.”

That note, which ended up serving as Crunchable’s first staff e-mail, found an extremely receptive audience. Crunchable thrived, especially in that first year and a half. We were all taking our first tentative steps into adulthood, trying to find new ways to channel all that creative energy that had found such easy outlets in college. We wrote about our jobs, about getting married and watching others getting married. We wrote about wrestling with our futures.

And then things started getting difficult.

Crunchy’s a word that a lot of people think can be used to describe messy situations; a lot of information that needs to be processed before it means anything; or even something just barely edible.

They’re wrong, and so are the people who think creamy peanut butter is better.

— Chris Klimas, “The Joy of Crunch” (March 30, 2002)

Crunchable has never been about chasing Internet trends; more often, it’s deliberately flaunted conventional Internet wisdom. For example: At the site’s six-month mark, Chris mentioned that he had no use for the prevailing thought that said writing for the Web should be short. “I’m a weirdo when it comes to that,” he said. “There’s nothing that makes me happier than to see the scroll bar of my browser shrink to a tiny nubbin as all kinds of words fill up the screen. Finding stuff like that — where halfway through you think to yourself, ‘I hope this never ends because it’s so damn interesting just to be here, inside this story’ — is my holy grail.”

Subsequently, Crunchable has resisted nearly every Internet trend. Even as multimedia possibilities kept on expanding, the site remained almost obsessively dedicated to the written word, usually not even publishing photographs with the stories we wrote. When an occasional photograph did turn up in the site’s first few years, Chris always tinted it to a monochromatic blue — ostensibly to match the site’s design at the time, but I suspect it also reflected (maybe unconsciously) a world view in which images in the readers’ heads should always to be more vivid than those on the screen.

Equally anachronistically, Crunchable has remained committed to being, in essence, an online version of something like The Collegian magazine. For most Web sites, the path to success involves finding an area of specialty and then becoming the expert, the go-to resource in that field; Crunchable, however, remains a sort of omnibus repository for various types of creative nonfiction. It’s also firmly in the Web 1.0 model, from the days in which the idea of “publishing” stories on the Internet was still current and hadn’t been supplanted by the idea that everyone can collaborate and contribute to the creative process at once without any sort of top-down editing.

Over the years, we’ve flirted with updating this approach and tried to find better ways to help readers interact — but, to my great frustration, no parts of that have ever resonated deeply with our audience. In late 2004, Chris reworked the whole site so that it would run on blogging software and would let readers chime in with comments about what they were reading; but with a few notable exceptions, we still get almost no comments on any stories. (It doesn’t help when we inadvertently cause technical problems that make it impossible for people to comment. Sorry about that! Please let us know when that happens!)

I added links to Digg and Delicious on every story, so that readers (and our writers!) could spread the word about Crunchable on social bookmarking sites. Almost nobody uses them. I’ve created a Twitter feed and a Facebook page; neither one has attracted much of a following.

But the biggest, most consistent difficulty hasn’t changed in roughly the past six years of Crunchable’s existence: Finding enough material to publish.

We still sometimes attract excellent new contributors, and some old friends of the site continue to do great writing for us — but even so, we’re usually left scrambling for enough stories to fill each monthly issue. We’re all busier now with our grown-up lives. Many of us have been fortunate enough to find jobs or careers that take advantage of our creativity — which means there’s often not enough creative energy left for a Web site that’s read by less than 2,000 people per month and doesn’t pay its writers.

Most of us who are writing on the Web have all sorts of other, newer projects that demand our energy and attention. Chris has started a slew of other sites since moving on from Crunchable. Our contributing editor Kevin Brotzman runs three other sites on his own. A great many Crunchable writers have started blogs, abandoned them, and started new ones in just the four years I’ve been running things here.

And yet Crunchable’s still here.

I was talking to a girl I barely knew [...] and I was telling her about Crunchable, how hard it was. I didn’t tell her I was scared. I told her I was frustrated instead, that I was thinking of just calling it quits.

Maybe Crunchable just needs to change to fit what everyone’s become, she told me.

—Chris Klimas, “Read Me” (July 1, 2005)

Maybe this is just stubbornness, but I’m not done with Crunchable yet. It still has things to teach me.

As frustrating as running the site often is, it’s helped me achieve all of those goals I had for myself when I took it over. It prompted me to teach myself how to use HTML and CSS and some rudimentary PHP, which has proved exceptionally useful in my work at the newspaper. Crunchable has kept me in touch with friends who otherwise would exist to me only as Facebook status updates. It’s continued to force me to stretch myself creatively — in my writing, in my graphic design, and even in my photography.

But there’s also something to be said for adaptation.

I’ve been talking with Crunchable’s contributing editors — Kevin, Stacey and Molly E. Weeks — about things we can expand and enhance here on the site in time for 2010. I’ve also brought Chris back to work with me on a new project that I hope will become the new heart of this site. I won’t say more yet, because we’re still weeks away from even having something to beta-test, but I’ll be posting more about it in the months to come.

We’re all evolving, and Crunchable is evolving with us. And I hope you stick around to see what happens.

Have your own ideas about what Crunchable needs? Please, leave us a comment! (It’s working again! Really, I checked!) And while you’re at it, be our fan on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and tell all your friends when you see a story here that you like.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck