When Bill Conway and brothers Matt and Ed Saincome started The Hard Times—a fake, Portland/Bay Area-based punk news site heavily inspired by the Onion—in 2014, they knew they weren’t working with the most accessible concept.
“We kind of just figured 10 friends would like it, and then 10 other people would try and kick our asses,” Conway tells me. “[Originally], we never put our names on the site because we figured some New York hardcore dude was going to have someone read an article to him, and he would be like, ‘Are you fucking making fun of my life?’”
The Hard Times quickly outpaced its founders’ expectations. “I remember we launched with six articles, and one of them was ‘Henry Rollins to Start Third Black Flag,’ because [Keith Morris had Flag, and Greg Ginn had Black Flag],” Conway says. “I remember seeing a friend of mine from back home share the article, thinking it was real, and saying, ‘Henry, we don’t want this.’
“I think within two weeks, Ron Reyes [of Black Flag] shared an article and we were like, ‘Wait, this is actually reaching people? This is just for us and our stupid friends!’”
For Conway, the days when The Hard Times was merely a goofy bedroom hobby are a distant memory—three years since its inception, he’s the managing editor at a legitimate media organization.
“We have a lot of other contributors now, to the point where I basically just edit everything,” he tells me. “It’s mainly me doing all the drafting and editing and shaping into The Hard Times voice—the division of labor has changed for sure.”
The subject matter of the site’s content has also broadened. You don’t need to own a “Terror” patch to appreciate the caustic satire in “Bill O’Reilly Leaves Fox News to Harass Women Full Time” or “FBI Releases Thousands of Emails Gary Johnson Thought He Was Googling.”
A Portland comic notable in his own right, Conway—a Massachusetts native—relocated from San Francisco around three years ago. And while he stresses that there aren’t many Hard Times articles that poke fun at Portland’s music scene specifically, a few hit pretty close to home.
In 2015, the site published an article titled “‘This Is an All-Inclusive Space,’ Says All-White, All-Male Audience”—a biting parody of slacktivist bro grandstanding in the punk scene. (“‘We don’t discriminate,’ said volunteer Chris Smith, who showed us medical documents to prove that he is in fact colorblind. ‘All fans matter.’”) Accompanying the article was a photo of a show at Portland’s very own Laughing Horse Books—one of the most polarizing venues in town—before shuttering in 2014 and being a replaced by a hair salon. (The ultimate fate of every legendary punk venue.)
“The progressive politics of Portland lend themselves to the high ideals of, ‘This is an all-inclusive space, says all-white, all-male audience,’” Conway says. “Those are great intentions, but what else are you doing aside from saying something?”
But The Hard Times has more or less been embraced by the scene it relentlessly skewers, disproving the myth that punks have no sense of humor. After all, Conway is a punk, too. “When you start going to shows when you’re 13, it bleeds into your everyday life,” he says. “It’s just ingrained in you, and I think that’s part of why the site has been able to do so well. This will sound arrogant, but none of us are poseurs—it’s not like we started listening to punk or hardcore within the last year because we saw a gap in the satire market.”