Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted

Ann Friedman gives her no-nonsense take on durability in modern-day journalism, reflecting upon the timely and the timeless, the ephemeral and the evergreen.

As reverse-chronological feeds replace static webpages, burying day-old articles beneath whatever happens to be “breaking,” it can be hard to distinguish between the recent and the relevant, the newsworthy and the merely new. What’s worse, it aggravates the tendency to treat the internet as a place for disposable rather than durable content. (What are all those servers for anyway?) Evergreen is a vague and shopworn buzzword, but it points to an issue at the heart of what writers write and publications publish. When analytics inform the mandates of magazines and newspapers, how do you drown out the noise and create something built to last?

Popular newsletterer, New York magazine columnist and former editor of GOOD magazine Ann Friedman brings us her take on the durability—and fragility—of content. Straight from the front.

Eli Burnstein — What makes content durable?

Ann Friedman — Are you familiar with the music critic Jessica Hopper? She just published a collection of her music criticism, and one thing I was struck by reading it is that the collection really spans all of these different platforms. (She’s been writing for a long time, both on her own blog and in some print publications that are now defunct, like Punk Planet.) And it was just really interesting to read in a physical, durable format articles that started in print and then sort of went away and then came back in the book or in various underground ways online.

I was struck by the gravitas that a book imbues that stuff with, even though I obviously found it very meaningful when I read it in these other formats first. And one lesson of that to me is that for work that is really meaningful to people, they will find ways to preserve it and find it and keep bringing it back. Stuff that first appeared in zines and gets translated to the internet and then gets published in a book is a great example of that.

Another example comes to mind from my own work. I wrote this article in 2013 about a concept that my friend talks about a lot called the Shine Theory, which is the simple idea that you should see people who have similar goals and career aims to you as potential collaborators, not competitors. And I wanted to write about this for The Cut, which is my weekly column home on New York magazine’s website. But in order to get my editors to sign off, I had to write what was kind of a timely lead about some pseudo-beef between Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé, which was a non-story even then. But what’s weird about that article is that it’s continually one of the most circulated things I’ve ever written. And the concepts, the heart of it is still important, which is why people keep circulating it.

And I’m just so embarrassed when I’m like, this is topped with a non-interesting, way-no-longer-relevant lead about Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland.

So I think sometimes the new part of news is less important than editors think it is online. I could have just written that with the goal of making it evergreen as opposed to with the thing that felt pertinent to that week in time, and it would have held up a lot better. And I would say that the real benefit to my editors has been the sort of ongoing, cumulative traffic over time. Not the traffic it gained that first week.

And I have to say for me, the longer I do this, the less I care whether someone has written about something or someone before. I feel like it matters much more to have the piece that is the most accessible or the piece that is the most lovingly written than it is to be the person who got there first. Everybody gets there at the same time now, more or less. It’s not about being there first. It’s about your unique take on things.

I think the conventional wisdom for a long time was that if you put something online, it lives forever. You can never escape it. It’s associated with your name. But once you put out a certain volume of stuff, or if that piece of content is about something that’s been well covered, or if you don’t link to it or preserve it by creating a history or a trail on your personal website, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

In a way, print is more ephemeral than online. I mean, yeah, it’s around somewhere, it’s going to be in someone’s physical archive maybe longer, but for the meaningful long-term for me I don’t have to claim it. So I think about that a lot. You kind of control what you want people to remember about you in this era.

In an article you wrote for the Colombia Journalism Review called “Why Serious Journalism Can Coexist with Audience-Pleasing Content,” you defend the lighter side of content against hard-news-only attitudes. How do you define content in a way that encompasses both?

It depends on what your particular editorial goals are. If your mandate as a publication is as broad as The New York Times, then it can encompass all of that. If you’re The Economist and you’re intended for businessmen trying to catch up on economic and political news on one transcontinental flight, you have a different mandate. It really comes down to your particular publication—or you personally, if you’re a freelancer.

It doesn’t make sense for some places to do things that are lighter. But the question of audience pleasing really comes down to the question of who your audience is. If your audience is coming to you 50 percent for “turn off my brain, just be entertained” and 50 percent for “stimulate me with smart ideas,” then that’s what your editorial breakdown should be.

I don’t really place a value judgment on serious vs. not serious. I think the notion of a publication having an editorial voice and really smart decision-making about this stuff is all the more relevant today. It’s not like everyone should just do listicles because listicles are a big deal. I mean that’s sloppy, and people can tell if your product is incoherent—if you’re just throwing those out without thinking about it.

In another article for the CJR you talk about the tension between giving readers what they want and telling them what editors think they ought to know. What’s the right balance between the two?

It’s a blend. There’s a famous Diana Vreeland quote—she was an editor at Vogue and at Harper’s Bazaar in the mid-to-late 20th century—and her whole thing, and I’m paraphrasing, is that people don’t know what they want until you give it to them [“Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted”]. People aren’t very good at saying what they actually want. That’s true to a certain extent. When it comes to, “hey, lots of people clicked on this thing, we should try and make another thing just like it”—this idea that people like something and therefore we’re going to make more of it can sometimes pay off, but you also need to take some risks. Sometimes you don’t even know what kind of appetite there is for something until you do it.

I mean, I make these stupid little hand-drawn pie charts, and if I had gone to an editor before I had published any and said, “Hey, will you pay me to make hand-drawn pie charts that are kind of jokey and kind of personal essayish and kind of messy?”—basically if I described what I was doing, they’d say, “No we will not pay you for that. That sounds stupid. Who would like that?” And so there’s a little bit of just producing what you find funny and interesting. If you do it consistently and it doesn’t find an audience, then let it go. But if you do it consistently and it’s something that has any kind of traction, I think that’s good proof that you can drive readers a little bit.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of audience analytics?

I think it’s a good thing to consider among many other factors, especially the question “are we coherently producing what we want to produce and meeting the editorial goals we set for ourselves in terms of voice and the type of content we want to produce?” I mean, at a certain point, if you’re like “wow, we’re really producing exactly what we set out to do, and none of it is trafficking,” then you have a more fundamental question to ask yourself.

As a freelancer, I don’t look at any metrics. I maybe pay attention to how many people open the weekly newsletter, but it’s not like I track individual links. I have no idea which pieces I’ve written in the few and a half years I’ve been a freelancer have been the highest trafficking. I have no idea how much publications sell ads for against what I write. That is the privilege of not being on staff.

I think that one of the harder things about being an editor is trying to take that information and balance it with all of your other goals and see it not as the metric but one of many metrics. Because the idea of the number of people who clicked on something as an important financial measure is going to go away. I mean CPMs, the web-advertising rates, are continually dropping, and more and more places that are going to advertise want to be in front of a certain audience or around a certain type of content. And so if you’re just watching the numbers I feel like you’re not really playing a very long-term game.

You’ve made the point that, despite our increased ability to respond to audience behavior, editorial judgment is more important, not less, because “consumers need help to find what’s important and relevant to them.” How so?

I think that everyone suffers a little bit from information overload. People ask me all the time: “How did you find the three best things you read this week?” Curation is too simple a word for it. People are like, “I only have limited time, I care about these issues and these hobbies or niche topics, and short of being on Twitter all the time, which I don’t have the appetite for, how do I find a couple good things to read each week?” Or “what is the website I should go to while I’m eating my lunch at my desk?”

Sometimes I want to read the three most popular things on The New York Times website. I got an email from the Times that was like, “Algorithmically, here are the articles we recommend for you,” and I thought, “Damn it, they’re so right on!” So sometimes that can help. But most of the time you become that website people want to go to on their lunch break or you become that person who directs people to the stuff they want to read based on judgment, not based on what the most number of other people have clicked on.

I think that algorithms can help with that to a certain extent. But, you know, I’m a human who likes or is interested in some Kim Kardashian news, but not what she wore to buy a latte. I’m interested in the dynamics of her relationship with Kanye. Those are distinctions that a bot doesn’t pick up. A bot just sees if you clicked on a Kimye article. It doesn’t understand that I clicked on a smart Kimye article. You know what I mean? Maybe we’ll get there some day, but you’ll still need a human to say that this is the way we deal with the Kimye story at this publication.

In your interview with Newscred, you mention that you subscribe to the “garbage in garbage out” philosophy with respect to your newsletter, and I was wondering what you meant by that.

I like the idea of there being some accountability for what I consume. And having to catalogue, “Ok, this is what I processed and this is what I put out for the week” is my way of doing that. I think “garbage in garbage out” is when you don’t read any news and you just watch back episodes of The Simpsons every night before you go to bed. You’re not really going to have the most interesting thoughts about what’s happening that week. But if you read some interesting things you might be able to process it and make new connections. I think that ideas are the number one currency—certainly when you’re a freelance journalist, and probably when you’re a journalist at a digital publication or a magazine as well. You don’t get good ideas by not interacting with other ideas. You have to interact with things to come up with your own take.

How do you think publishers can be convinced to ease up on their concern with short-term metrics?

I think that the best argument you can make is that focusing on how many people clicked on a certain thing this week, and only looking at that, and killing a thing that didn’t perform well after two weeks, is really beholden to this CPM, ad-based model that is going away.

Really, the only way to play a long game is to pay attention to what gains audience over time and is able to build a viewership. People talk about this a lot as it relates to TV. Seinfeld is one of the examples of shows that had a dud first season or two that turned into an incredible powerhouse due to sheer stamina and probably also improvement over time as the staff got used to working together. This problem is not unique to journalism, because stuff gets canceled after one season all the time on TV and other media that are too beholden to short-term metrics. Being so numbers-responsive is basically playing a short game and probably hurting yourself in the long term.

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