A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013

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.

Second, you want to become a node. And to become a node, you need to do things that inculcate trust from your readers, and you need to keep doing that over and over. In the digital world, we build the distribution networks day by day, and if you don't feed them, they shrink. So again, you need some basic level of posts.

Third, you need to do great stuff. But hell, you're posting all the time! How do you do great stuff? You find ways to optimize between speed and quality. Everyone has their own coping strategies. And it's always gonna be a tradeoff. In my view, you want to do the fast things as fast as possible so you can slow cook the other stuff. You trust your readers to know which is which (because they get it).

And where do freelancers fit in all this? Think about all these numbers. You are going to need dozens of successful posts, and because you can't control precisely what succeeds, that means even a small blog, with one person at the helm, is going to need, say, 100-150 posts a month.

If you've got $1000, that means you can count on paying 10 people $100. That gets you about 10 percent of the way. And now you've got to edit and handhold 10 people and (probably) take a lot of shit from people who think they are (and in fact, are) worth more than that. Run this same scenario with $3,000 a month. Or $4,000. (Perhaps you would decide, as we have, to hire another staffer instead of devoting $48,000 in freelance money to get 40 percent of the way to what you want.)

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