At this point, half of the Argo-bloggers have already sent me the latest Denton memo, and I imagine the other half have drafts ready to go. For now, I present it mostly without comment. A few selected nuggets are below the fold. Continue reading
From NY Mag’s profile of Nick Denton:
These days, Gawker Media’s blogs net up to 17.5 million U.S. visitors per month, making the company America’s 45th most popular online property, well ahead of nytimes.com (55) or TMZ.com (59). Gawker Media grew through the annus terribilis of 2009. It grew in 2010. The U.S. readership figures of Gawker (gossip), Jezebel (women’s issues), Gizmodo (gadgets), Jalopnik(cars), Lifehacker (geek advice), and even Kotaku, Denton’s relatively low-key gaming site, are each up by 30 to 60 percent so far this year. The audience of the sci-fi blog i09 has more than doubled. It should tell you something that the straggler of the group is the company’s sole porn blog, Fleshbot.
Classic news folks have this habit of being flabbergasted when they discover their audience members don’t understand a topic they’ve been covering. “But we did a big explainer on this two weeks ago!” they say. After the health care reform battle finally reached its climax – the signing of the bill – reporters said they were astonished by their audiences’ hunger for explanation of what had just passed into law.
They shouldn’t have been surprised. Having watched how content gets picked up, I’m convinced that the hunger for explanation is inexhaustible.
It makes logical sense. As headlines whiz past you, bringing news of more developments than you could ever keep track of, you start to sort of fake it. You pretend you’re following news on the health care debate, when really you’re just snatching random stories out of the ether, hoping for a snippet of comprehension that’ll get you by in conversation. We behave this way on issue after issue. When pressed, how many of us – even devoted news consumers – could tell you what was actually in that Arizona immigration law that got all the coverage?
The best bloggers picked up on this early. I’ll refer you once again to Nick Denton’s memo, where he says, “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” This is sound, sound advice. Even if you’re reporting a news development – an important bill passes another procedural hurdle – framing it as explanation (“What today’s vote means for the immigration law”) is an effective tactic for pulling in an audience that would ordinarily pass it by. There’s no shame in repeating yourself, which is why I say the word thrice: Explain, explain, and then explain again.
By this point, you knew an Ezra Klein shoutout was coming. Just savor for a moment this set of post titles: (1) “What is an excise tax, and can it save health reform?”; (2) “Explaining the excise tax”; (3) “Explaining the excise tax, part 2″; (4) “The five most promising cost controls in the health care bills”; (5) “The Baucus Bill: taxing insurers”; (6) “The excise tax and its critics” … I could have selected more, but I think the point is made. Klein created opportunities to explain this critical part of the health reform legislation, and he linked to those explanations incessantly. You couldn’t be even a casual consumer of his blog and not understand what the excise tax does.
A discipline of constant, redundant explanation helps our bloggers too. The more we explain concepts, the better we get at explaining them. Every time Klein explained the excise tax, his description got a little snappier – more nuanced yet more understandable – and he probably understood the concept a little better. And I suspect the redundancy didn’t hurt him with his devoted readers; every time he explained the concept, I understood it a little better as well.
(Flickr photo courtesy of user minifig.)
Just admit you read the title of this post and thought, “Duh.” Of course headlines are hooks. That’s News 101.
OK, fine, but headline-writing for the Web is enough of a distinct art that it must be re-emphasized: Great bloggers write great headlines. And that should be qualified: great bloggers write great Web headlines.
What distinguishes a good Web headline? Here’s an insight from Gawker mogul Nick Denton: “Imagine you’re writing a headline for a magazine (one with tight deadlines) rather than a newspaper.”
What does that mean? I think that the most successful Web headlines emphasize implications rather than events. Not what happened, but what it means. Take this headline from Wired.com: “Group posts e-mail hacked from Palin account.” Compare it to the headline from Gawker: “Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails.” The former headline focuses on the event – Sarah Palin’s e-mails got hacked. Gawker underscores the consequence – you get to read Sarah Palin’s e-mail!
Another example. Here’s a NYTimes headline: “Population study finds change in the suburbs.” Did your eyes just glaze over? Sweet, mine too. Someone studied the suburbs and found they’d changed, news at 11. The AP headline’s better: “White flight? Suburbs lose young whites to cities.” I expect the tinge of racial conflict in that title might draw a few clicks, although I wouldn’t recommend setting up a discussion that way. But once again, Gawker demonstrates mastery – “Suburbs: the new slums.” The rough trajectory of these headlines goes: What happened (NYTimes), what’s happening (AP), what it could mean (Gawker). That last version is what grabs our attention best online.
I once saw a marketing guru highlight what he thought were the top 12 most profit-producing words in marketing. I think you could do a similar exercise for great headline words. Here’s a quick take on it:
If you can frame your post with one (or more) of these words, you might just have a winner. Of course, you can write a terrific, viral headline with none of these words. Read Denton’s memo for some more thoughts on the matter.
Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein was musing today about what was driving the success of organizations like NPR and the Economist, who’ve seen solid growth in an otherwise troubling time for the news industry. In his musings, he delivers what I’d call a spot-on assessment of the market opportunity online:
My grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That’s left a lot of publications that either aren’t used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren’t suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.
Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That’s also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it’s hard to really break through in it unless you’re willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there’s actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that’s fundamentally what they’re doing. It’s not quite newsgathering, and it’s not straight opinion, though there’s occasionally opinion in there. It’s analysis. It’s how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.
I’d quibble with bits of this. (Not quite newsgathering? Tell that to Sorayya Sarhaddi Nelson or Laura Sullivan.) But I’m completely on board with his description of the unmet need in journalism right now.
There’s a bit of subtext here worth teasing out. Although he’s putatively talking about the rise of NPR and the Economist, Klein could just as easily be describing his own meteoric ascent to the Washington Post, where his blog is one of the site’s most popular sections. The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU included his blogging of the health care reform process on a list of the top 80 works of journalism from the 2000s. “He is a new paradigm,” Post editor Marcus Brauchli said, “one we would very much like to replicate.”
“As a blogger, he has more latitude than reporters to reach conclusions,” Brauchli added. “It’s inevitable we will employ more people who have that ability.”
You don’t need to read between the lines to understand that Marcus Brauchli is looking for Ezra Klein 2.0. And it’s not hard to understand why. In a future post, I promise to dissect some of Klein’s blogging techniques that I think really work. But for the moment, I just want to underscore his emphasis.
For several of the Argo topics, I think solid analysis will trump even breaking news, both as a hook for an audience and as a way to keep them engaged. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take Nick Denton’s:
We can take ownership of a story even if it isn’t a strict exclusive. In case of both Tiger and Peaches, other sites (the porn star’s site and Reddit, respectively) carried the original material. But we added context and packaged the stories up. [...]
When remotely possible turn news into explanation. Straight how-to and why stories — such as Kotaku’s excellent Farmville guide — obviously resonate. But you can turn a news story into an explainer, as Lux did with the sexting scandals.
Public broadcasting has built its reputation on offering context. Ezra Klein (and, unbelievably, some of the Gawker bloggers) have really advanced the art of doing this in the blog format. We can learn a lot from them. More on this soon.