Then the digital transition came. The ad market, on which we all depend, started going haywire. Advertisers didn't have to buy The Atlantic. They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us. And besides, who knew how well online ads worked anyway? I mean, who knows how well any ads work at all? But convention had established that print ads were a thing people paid X amount for, and digital ads became something people paid 0.10X for.
So far, there isn't a single model for our kind of magazine that appears to work.
And while advertisers paid less, there was always more stuff for people to read. All kinds of writing poured onto the web. The median post was much worse than a random story plucked from the top tier of magazines, but the best stuff was and is as good as anything. Drawing on that huge base, there is always a lot of "best stuff" to read now.
The main way to sell ads is to go "cross-platform" pairing digital with print and whatever else (events or video, say). This is what "the marketplace" is asking for. So you need ad inventory online. In some cases, like ours or Wired's, you need a lot of ad inventory online. It is a little more complicated than this, but that means you need page views, and if you want page views, you need people coming to your site. You need unique visitors.
If you can show me a way that this can be reversed for a large general-interest magazine, I would love to hear about it. So far, there isn't a single model for our kind of magazine that appears to work.
Seriously, though, what's a magazine like The Atlantic (or The New Yorker or The New Republic or Harper's or The New York Times Magazine) to do then? Could the print model -- smallish editorial staff, large writer pool paid by the word -- work online?
Let me give you this hypothetical. You are a digital editor at a fine publication. You are in charge of writing some stuff, commissioning some stuff, editing some stuff. Maybe you have an official traffic goal, or (more likely), you want to be awesome, qualitatively and quantitatively. A lot of people in this business are driven from the inside out, and you almost have to be given the daily demands. You have to want to be jacked into the Internet all day long, every day. This is not the life most journalists imagined when they were looking at 1970s magazines. In any case, you want to crush, as I would call it.
And your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?
Here are some options:
1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It's someone else's content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)
Don't laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.
Myself, I'm very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let's say you do, too, and throw them out.
That leaves three and four, which I want to discuss here.
Let's stipulate two things: 1) I want people who want to make a living writing to be able to do so. 2) I do not think it is very easy to make a living writing freelance for digital-only publications for the reasons described below.
Most sites -- save the NYT, Drudge, and a handful of others -- can't send massive amounts of readers to stories. Traffic causality runs the other way: Individual stories live or die out there in the social world and that brings readers to theatlantic.com. A post has to succeed on its own, although a bigger brand, with more social tools and bigger homepage treatment can give it what I call "activation energy," the necessary but not sufficient first push into the web.
This is actually a great argument for long form and other quality pieces of analysis or reportage. People share them because they are definitive or delightful or interesting. And that brings good to the site.
But here's the weird thing: While the top six or seven viral hits might make up 15-20 percent of a given month's traffic, the falloff after that is steep. And once you're out of the top 20 or 30 stories, a really, really successful story is only driving 0.5 percent or less of a place like The Atlantic's monthly traffic. But that's the best-case scenario. In most cases, even great reported stories will fizzle, not spark. They will bring in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 visitors. You'd need thousands of these to make a big site go.
I can already see some old-school journalists tearing up. This poor kid, he looks at the numbers and ergo, that's all he cares about. "Traffic," they spit. And I get it. The word has been used to bludgeon you into dumb shit. To put great stories on the shelf to build slideshows. To give up on quality and focus on quantity. I do get all that. But that's precisely why we (journalists) must understand the numbers! The business side of any publication knows them inside and out. If we don't understand how to tell good stories with our own data, who do you think wins any argument that involves data, which they all do? You can know money is important without succumbing to the idea that cash rules everything around you.)
Let me try to convince you of this: We can have binocular vision. We can understand these numbers. And we can know that the mission of a place like The Atlantic is to bring moral purpose, interesting ideas, great arguments, and excellent reporting to the world and to drive these stories as far as they will go into the public consciousness.
Furthermore, looking at the numbers teaches you about the social reality of the Internet. In a very real sense, unless you look at the numbers, you do not know what (the dynamic sociotechnical space that is) the Internet looks like. Your view lets you see its boulevards and parks, but it is like a photograph from the 1850s when the exposure times were too long to capture moving people. Your Paris is empty.
OK, sorry, I will wipe the spittle off my screen now.
What do the numbers mean for an editor's strategy?
Here are the basics:
One, you gotta take a lot of shots. Hypothetically, let's say you devote an entire month to one single story, betting the house on it. In the very best circumstance, a viral hit heard round the world with a big traditional media push, you'd do maybe 800,000 uniques. And then you'd have to do the same thing the next month. In practice, no one can do this. Because you can't predict that viral hit. While the best stuff tends to do far, far better than average, it is not always the best stuff that hits virally. You can't control all the variables of the world's attention and some dudes at Reddit who really like stories about legalizing pot seeing *your particular story* about legalizing pot. In practical terms in the social world, there ain't no levers to pull! We write, we hope, we pray, we tweet. And that's it. So, you need to post frequently to make luck more likely to strike you.