In November 2006, Mignon Fogarty’s phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but rather than letting it go to voicemail, as many of us do with unknown callers, she picked up. On the other end of the line was John Sterling, the president and publisher of Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan. He’d seen a recent item in the Wall Street Journal about Grammar Girl, a hit podcast Fogarty had launched a few months prior that was already receiving nearly a hundred thousand downloads per episode. “He originally called me to talk about doing a book deal,” she told me. But she had already set her sights much higher.
Kyle Taylor knew almost nothing about blogging when, in 2010, he opened up a free Blogspot account. He just wanted a place to write about his attempts to make and save money.
Dan Acton remembers the exact moment when he became sold on A/B testing Facebook content.
Acton is the social media manager for DramaFever, a video streaming company owned by Warner Bros that uses a Hulu-like model to license and stream Korean and other Asian TV content for an English-speaking audience. Many (though not all) of these shows are romantic comedies. To promote the shows DramaFever licenses, Acton and his team produce short videos they then upload to Facebook. “Sometimes it’ll be clips from shows, or trailers and teasers for upcoming episodes.” he told me. “We also get a lot of original content produced from Korea, like shout outs from the actors or behind-the-scenes footage that nobody else has.”
It’s hard to blame Kameron Hurley for her wariness of Reddit prior to joining it. When non-users hear about the site, it’s often within the context of some recent controversy that originated in one of its communities. As a writer who often blogs about feminist and progressive issues, Hurley is likely aware that Reddit once hosted message boards known for posting images of underage girls and that it serves as a popular watering hole for the misogynist “men’s rights” and Gamergate movements. “I generally would stay away from Reddit,” she told me in a phone interview. “I wrote a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution, and Reddit is not known as a nice and happy loving place.”
For Quincy Larson, the lightbulb moment when he realized the power of Quora came during a trip to New York City in May 2015. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d encountered the QandA platform. That had come much earlier when he was working as a software engineer and, as engineers invariably do when they encounter problems they’ve never seen before, turned to Google to troubleshoot. Time and again he’d find himself landing on Quora articles (or rather, “answers,” as they’re referred to on the site) written by seasoned engineers and successful entrepreneurs. “I was impressed by how high quality the answers were,” he told me in a phone interview. “If you look at other question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers or Answers.com, their answers just seem very throwaway compared to Quora. People seem to put immense thought into what they’re writing, almost from a journalistic or literary approach.”
In December 2011, on the night the news broke that Christopher Hitchens had died, Nicholas Jackson was in an Austin hotel room. Jackson, then an editor at the Atlantic, had just returned from drinking scotch at the hotel bar and was “slightly intoxicated,” as he put it to me, when he read the news of the author’s death. He’d been following Hitchens’s work for quite some time and had been particularly moved by the pugnacious writer’s Vanity Fair essays about his battle with esophageal cancer. His passing had reduced Jackson to tears.
It was in this emotional and inebriated state that Jackson typed out a 400-word obituary and published it directly to the Atlantic’s website; no other editor had reviewed it prior to publication (he told me by email he’s “convinced it was read and/or edited after being published”). “Even as a very small [editorial] team, we had put in place different systems, but the speed and pressure to compete when you have to follow the news cycle like that quickly breaks them down, whatever your intentions,” he told me recently.
Jackson didn’t tell me this story to criticize the Atlantic, but to illustrate how much the internet has shifted the dynamic for how magazines approach content production. This philosophy of “publish first, amend later—if necessary” is a far cry from how the magazine has edited articles for most of its 159-year history. In its print-only era, a single piece would receive several rounds of edits and pass through the desks of multiple editors, fact checkers, and designers before it saw the light of day. Because issues were typically planned out months in advance, its coverage had only a tenuous connection to the news cycle. But starting in 2009, with the launch of a vertical called Atlantic Wire, the magazine signaled its shift to a high-metabolism publishing schedule, one that would allow it to aggregate and respond to the news at a blog-like pace. The strategy seemed to pay off; 2010 was its first profitable year in decades.
It didn’t take long for many magazines to follow suit. The general thinking was that monetizing content on the internet meant scaling web traffic to sell ads against, and the only way to achieve scale was to publish constantly. This is why you see New York aggregating celebrity news and why the New Republic fired its well-liked editor, Franklin Foer, and replaced him with Gabriel Snyder, the former editor of Atlantic Wire. Even the New Yorker, which has historically prided itself on ignoring the news cycle, has beefed up its web staff and is publishing more than a dozen items a day.
Yes, these magazines still publish the longform articles for which they’ve been historically known, but they’ve generally accepted the notion that curation — the fluff — is what will ultimately pay the bills. “My work at Outside is a good example of this,” said Jackson, referencing his year-long stint as digital director at the outdoors magazine. “There was nowhere else that I could take some of my digital money and send someone to live on base camp at Everest for a few months and report back by satellite phone. And that’s incredible. But to have that money I had to do a lot of ‘here are the 10 best backpacks to go hiking with’ and ‘here’s a short listicle about beautiful travel spots.’ That seems like an incredible deal for me, because at least I got to do good stuff that the other stuff paid for.”
But what if he no longer had to publish the “other stuff” — the listicles, the hot takes, the SEO-optimized “what time do the New York primary polls close” articles? It’s Jackson’s pursuit of this question that led to him leaving Outside in 2013 to join the staff of Pacific Standard, first as digital director and then, in mid-2015, as editor-in-chief.
If you’ve only recently become aware of Pacific Standard, that’s because it hasn’t been around all that long. Launched in 2008, it was originally called Miller-McCune, named after Sara Miller McCune, founder of the academic publisher SAGE Publications. She envisioned the magazine serving as a kind of bridge between the academic world and mainstream readers, a way for scholarly literature to be translated for the masses. Though it collected a number of awards and accolades in those early years, it wasn’t until it rebranded as Pacific Standard in 2012 that it began to receive wider recognition within the publishing world. Shortly before the announcement it hired Maria Streshinsky, a former managing editor at the Atlantic, as its editor-in-chief, and she immediately set about recruiting the editors and writers that would establish the magazine as an inimitable read.
Jackson was one of those recruits. As digital director, he was charged with taking the bi-monthly print magazine and building a web presence around it that included a healthy dose of digital-only content. It was around this time that the magazine began producing some blockbuster articles that reverberated well beyond the publication’s Santa Barbara headquarters into the larger media world. Though I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of Pacific Standard, it was likely with the publication of “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Written by Amanda Hess, a longtime feminist writer who now works for the New York Times, the 2014 piece was one of the first to document the cavalcade of hateful messages often directed at female journalists and writers. It was especially prescient given that it presaged the rise of Gamergate and widespread debate on how social media platforms should address the vitriol and hate directed toward women and minority users. The article would go on to win a National Magazine Award in the public interest category, Pacific Standard’s first.
So how would you define Pacific Standard’s journalistic approach? First and foremost, said Jackson, he wants it to be viewed as a general interest magazine, one that you’d compare in quality to the likes of venerable publications like the New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Times Magazine. When I initially approached him about writing this article, I pitched it as a piece about how Pacific Standard has become the New Yorker of the West Coast, but he pushed back against this narrative. “I think a lot of the work we’ve been doing, especially in the last six months or so … is comparable to that of the New Yorker in many ways — pushing deep reporting, encouraging and allowing (and building the necessary copy-editing and fact-checking infrastructure) for long-simmering investigative work, being aggressive on digital in original (and non-aggregation-based) ways, etc,” he wrote in an email. “But, while all of us here are fans [of the New Yorker], we don’t really consider ourselves a regional version of that title. We’re building something new and, I think, better.”
Speaking to editors at Pacific Standard, I heard very little talk of web traffic growth, social media subscribers, or any of the other metrics you usually see quoted in press releases from other publications. Instead, their emphasis was on “impact.” “All of our stories have big consequences,” said Jennifer Sahn, the magazine’s executive editor. “Our tagline is ‘stories that matter,’ and I think that really cuts to the chase of what we’re trying to do here.” Deputy editor Ryan Jacobs is responsible for commissioning many of the pieces for the magazine, and he takes that mantra to heart when assessing a pitch. “Does it have the potential for impact on either public policy or at the community level?” he asked. “And does it serve the public interest? I think that’s something we think about a lot.”
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The bulk of Pacific Standard’s reporting falls under four pillars: social justice, the environment, the economy, and education. It covers these issues primarily through an academic lens. “Outside of academia and the ivory tower, I would bet more academic journals are read front to back in this tiny office I’m standing in than anywhere else,” said Jackson. When the magazine does focus on recent events, it’s usually to explain them through data gleaned from a think tank or academic study. An article concerning the Republicans’ steadfast refusal to hold hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, for instance, cites data from a judicial watchdog group that found a lack of professional diversity in President Obama’s judicial nominations. In pieces like this one, the news event merely acts as a segue to a discussion of the bigger picture. The closest the magazine gets to “aggregation” can be found in its “quick studies” section, which consists of brief summaries of recently-published scholarly articles, but even those take work. “We don’t do them unless we’ve read the study and we’ve reached out to the researcher,” said Jackson. “There’s reporting in our version of aggregation that requires a hell of a lot of time and legwork.”
Given that Pacific Standard stakes its success or failure on its impact, I asked its editors how they measure the impact of a particular article. Sometimes it’s through direct reader feedback, as was the case with its “Children of the Tribes” story where reporter Julia Scheeres investigated the exploitative labor practices and child abuse inflicted by members of the Twelve Tribes, a Vermont-based Christian cult. “We were getting letters from some of the people who had been Twelve Tribes members that said reading the story had brought back memories from when they had left,” said Jacobs. “And they were encouraging family members who were still part of the community to leave.” In other cases, a Pacific Standard article has led to direct action from a government body or corporation. In early 2015, the magazine ran a story on exploitative prison labor practices, and a few months later Whole Foods announced it would no longer do business with Colorado Correctional Industries, the company featured in the article. Issues that are first highlighted in Pacific Standard often drive further coverage in the mainstream media. “I think there are several cases where we’ll cover something and we’ll notice that other sites are starting to cover our coverage or cover it on their own,” said Jacobs. “I think that’s great. If we can cover things that are important and crucial to the public interest and another magazine bigger than us pushes the story forward, I’m all for that.”
Pacific Standard’s staff is small; Jackson said it has a headcount of 13 full-time staffers, most of whom work in editorial. He estimated that about 30 percent of the content produced for the website comes from the full-time staff while the rest is written by freelancers, some on long term contracts with the magazine. “I can run a newsroom that puts out 60 or 70 stories a week between the site and the print magazine, and I can do that all on [New Yorker editor] David Remnick’s salary,” he said (for the record, New York estimates Remnick’s salary at $1 million).
One obvious question for any magazine launching in the 21st century: why bother with a print version at all? Many of the most high profile journalism outlets to emerge over the last decade have been digital-only, and the costs of building a print apparatus are not insignificant. “We’re trying to make print something that lasts,” said Jackson. “There’s no reason to be in print if you’re not trying to create a keepsake, a coffee table object that you’re inspired to share with other people and pass around. Because you want to keep it and display it it can influence a much greater number of readers than a page load on a site can do. We put a lot of thought into that. We want something that lasts longer than a moment.”
It seems clear, however, that the magazine is still trying to figure out its print strategy. It started out with the goal of generating 100,000 subscribers — with the idea that such an audience would attract advertisers — and took the traditional route of buying up subscribers from shuttered print magazines like the Wilson Quarterly and US News & World Report. But recently Pacific Standard switched gears by shedding many of the subscribers it had purchased and focusing on organic growth. “We wanted to clear them off and say even if our subscriber list is 3,000 people, we want to be in a space where those 3,000 people found us in the market and decided they wanted to subscribe to us and submitted their money,” Jackson explained. “We’re not advertising subscriptions anywhere. They have to come to us and give us their money.” In some cases, the magazine still engages in distribution, like when it provides free copies in airport lounges and on Capitol Hill. He estimated a circulation of about 50,000.
At the same time, Jackson is trying to chip away at the print-digital divide practiced at many publications. Traditionally, a magazine reserves its longform feature articles — as well as all the time and resources that go into producing them — for the print version while relegating shorter pieces to the website. “We ran an online 6,000-word deep dive a couple weeks ago, and it was never discussed as a print piece,” said Sahn. “The key is to be nimble and look at the material and to understand what kind of editorial life the piece is asking for, how quickly it needs to get out there.” In some cases, Jackson said, they’ll run an online-only piece through the same fact-checking process applied to print stories. “Even with our quick stuff, we do have a process by which everything is looked at by two editors before it goes live.”
Of course I haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Pacific Standard is a nonprofit, and it doesn’t produce enough revenue through the magazine to be self-sustaining. It’s funded mainly by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which contributes most of its $3 million annual budget to the magazine. Jackson said the magazine brings in some revenue from subscriptions and is about to launch a live events series, but it doesn’t have a full-time ad sales staff and he didn’t make it sound like breaking even was a huge priority at this point. A skeptic would say that it’s easy to turn your nose up at “fluff” content when you have a large benefactor bankrolling you, and all the editors I spoke to acknowledged they don’t face the same pressures found at most publications.
But we do seem to be entering a “post-clickbait” era where publications are experimenting with doing away with commodity content. Writing for Medium, Verge co-founder Joshua Topolsky argued that digital media companies “built up scale in digital to replace user value. We thought we could solve with numbers (the new, seemingly infinite numbers the internet and social media provides) what we couldn’t solve with attention. And with every new set of eyeballs (or clicks, or views) we added, we diminished the merit of what we made. And advertisers asked for more, because those eyes were worth less. And we made more. And it was less valuable.” New startups — from the Information, to Stratechery, to Wirecutter – are experimenting with premium content that isn’t monetized with traditional ads. In a recent interview for Digiday, New Yorker web editor Nicholas Thompson explained how his team attempts to apply the same level of quality control to the website as you’d find with the print magazine.
With ad blocking adoption on the rise and display advertising rates continuing to plummet, media executives are being forced to reconsider what kind of value they offer their readers. And though it’s not always easy to figure out what that value is or what it should be, adopting Pacific Standard’s mantra — “stories that matter” — as cliche-sounding as it is, seems like just as good a place to start as any.
William Berry always knew he wanted to work in entertainment. For years, he had aspirations to have a career as a professional wrestler and even began to train for it, but the wrestling scene in Seattle, the city where he’d grown up, was small. There was, however, a strong local hip-hop community, with artists like Macklemore, Grieves, Blue Scholars, and Grayskul reaching national fame, and in the early 2000s Berry found himself working behind the scenes at recording studios and live events. “I wasn’t really trying to be another white rapper,” he told me recently. “I was working with all these guys and we’d go out to these shows and then people started getting me in on their songs because they thought I was funny. It was just something I enjoyed, so I went with it.”
Berry adopted the rap moniker of Billy the Fridge — a reference to his 500-pound frame — and began producing his own music, starting with a mixtape in 2009 and then an actual album in 2012. He built something of a name for himself in Seattle, even getting local radio play, but his brand didn’t extend far outside of the city. That all changed in late 2012.
“Mostly just me and my friends ran out with some video cameras and started filming in places we thought were funny,” Berry said. “We had a budget of next to nothing. It was very do it yourself.” They were shooting a music video for “Just a Bill,” a song from his recent album. Using a remixed version of the classic Schoolhouse Rock song of the same name, the video for “Just a Bill” is a paean to Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a district that was settled by gays in the 1960s and later hosted a vibrant musical culture that exists to this day. Despite its low budget and amateur production, the video is immensely watchable, propelled primarily by Billy the Fridge’s talent as a rapper and the hedonism of his on-screen character.
Berry posted the video to YouTube, and it wasn’t long before Reddit users stumbled across it and began submitting it to the social news site, where it made it to the front page of r/videos, a subreddit with over 9 million subscribers, on three separate occasions. The video’s views ballooned to 50,000 views and then 400,000. Finally, after reaching the front page again last July, “Just a Bill” passed the million view mark.
Almost immediately, Berry began getting recognized on the street, even outside Seattle. “I was in the middle of Indiana at a White Castle one day at 3 a.m. and someone there knew who I was,” he said. “Once the video blew up, anytime I’d go out I’d run into someone who’d call out, ‘Hey Billy, what’s up man?’” More importantly, his phone started ringing. “I’m getting shows booked everywhere. People are hitting me up for TV spots, and I got booked at the Whiskey a Go Go,” the famous West Hollywood nightclub that served as a launching pad for everyone from Metallica to The Doors. His album almost broke into the top 100 for hip hop on iTunes. Berry’s videos continued to do well on YouTube, with several having passed the 100,000 view mark.
With thousands of new submissions every day, it’s not easy to make it to the top of Reddit, but several artists who’ve found their work featured on the “front page of the internet” are seeing their careers blossom as a result. According to its about page, Reddit receives over 230 million unique visitors a month who generate 7.5 billion pageviews on the site. Making it to the top of a default subreddit — most of which have millions of subscribers — can drive upwards of half a million outbound views, and it’s quite common for content featured on Reddit to then spread across Facebook, Twitter, and news websites. For instance, a humorous video arguing that Daniel, the protagonist of The Karate Kid, was actually the villain of the film, reached the top of r/videos and then was later embedded in over a hundred news articles and blog posts, eventually reaching over 5 million views.
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Given the size and influence of Reddit’s audience, it shouldn’t be surprising then that it has the power to thrust a previously-unknown artist into the national spotlight. In 2014, a YouTube user named Jake Dietrich uploaded a cellphone video he’d recorded in the New York Subway of a trio of musicians calling themselves Too Many Zooz. After it made the front page of Reddit, the band’s Facebook page ballooned up to over 200,000 followers, and it recently completed a successful Kickstarter in which it raised over $100,000 to fund a new album. In an episode of Upvoted, a podcast hosted by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, a musician who calls himself Smooth McGroove detailed how his acapella renditions of well-known video game music were embraced by the Reddit community. He now makes his entire living from his YouTube videos through a combination of advertising and Patreon subscriptions.
But musicians aren’t the only artists who have built their audiences on Reddit. One of the more popular subreddits, with over 400,000 subscribers, is r/comics, and while it’s common for it to feature already-established comics like xkcd, Cyanide & Happiness, and The Oatmeal, many of its most popular submissions come from relative unknowns. And some of those unknowns, because of their success on Reddit, are no longer unknown.
Chris Grady launched his web comic Lunarbaboon in the midst of what he described as “not quite a midlife crisis.” “I was bored,” he told me. “And so my wife and I had this idea that as a way to communicate better I would draw a comic from my point of view every night for an entire month and she would do the same from her point of view. And then we would share our comics with each other at the end of the month to see how we were looking at the same issues from different points of view. So I started doing it and she decided she hates drawing and didn’t want to do it anymore.” Grady, an elementary school teacher in Toronto, built a Squarespace website and began posting new comics to it.
At first, Grady’s viewership was virtually nonexistent, limited to friends on Facebook, but then he noticed that on the share button Squarespace automatically generates for each post there was an option to share to Reddit. “I was like, ‘What is this Reddit thing?’” he recalled. “So I started submitting it there.” This was about three years ago, and his earliest submissions garnered only a few upvotes, driving little traffic. But as he began to get accustomed to the community and what it wanted, he began to see some traction, first on the smaller r/webcomics subreddit and then later on r/comics. “I remember the first time it had maybe a hundred upvotes on r/webcomics. That led to 1,000 views that day … Once it started doing well on r/comics, then traffic got out of control.” On a particularly good day, he would see upwards of 100,000 visits, and while that traffic was fleeting at first, he began to grow a recurring, loyal audience as Lunarbaboon consistently did well on Reddit. And when Grady began monetizing his work, through both Patreon and Kickstarter, that audience ponied up. His first Kickstarter project, for a printed collection of his best comics from that year, generated $44,000 from backers. The second Kickstarter raised over $64,000.
Most of the artists I spoke to for this piece, while grateful for the attention Reddit has given them, have focused on diversifying their readership across multiple platforms so they’re not reliant on one website. Shenanigansen, the pseudonym for the person behind a web comic called Owl Turd (he asked that I not use his real name), hosts his comic on Tumblr and has grown it to 180,000 subscribers. He also has 30,000 fans on Facebook and 9,000 followers on Twitter. “Most people in my comics circle try to be on every viable platform,” he told me. “I don’t know if I’d recommend using Reddit as a primary platform. It’s not easy to navigate someone’s submissions in their profile, at least not as easy as what you’ll find on WordPress or Tumblr.”
Of course, making it to the front page of Reddit is only half the battle. Many who do only see fleeting fame; it’s those who are able to ride that momentum and continue producing quality work who see lasting benefits. Billy the Fridge, though he experienced a career boost from his Reddit exposure, hasn’t put out a new video in over a year and expressed at least some regret to me he hasn’t done more to capitalize on his own web popularity. “I’ll be out on the street and a certain group of people will say, ‘Oh wow, Billy, I saw your video on Reddit, it was freaking awesome.’ And then at the same time a lot of people I work with in the city, they’re not Reddit people, so they don’t know anything about it. The internet messes with me. I’m doing something that I love to do and would do regardless. Anything extra is icing on the cake at this point, but maybe I should get out more and start throwing cake in people’s faces.”
To understand how J. Matthew Turner ended up creating a viral YouTube essay arguing that Daniel LaRusso, the young hero of the 1984 film The Karate Kid, was actually the villain of the movie, you first need to know the story behind the video he posted to YouTube a month before that one. For years, Turner, a video editor from New York, harbored a conviction that the movie Mortal Kombat was so similar in plot and themes to the Bruce Lee cult classic Enter the Dragon that they were virtually the same movie. “It was in the background of my head for a long, long time,” he told me recently. “And for whatever reason, I happened to think of it again last year and I suddenly saw how it should be done.” He had always envisioned a 15-minute video in which he would methodically build a case for his thesis, but he knew it would be difficult to keep viewers entertained for that long. “But now I realized that I should just show all the shots side by side and then try to explain the plot of both movies as one movie at the same time.”
The end result, a video that’s barely over a minute long, took Turner only a day to edit together. In it, he uses a split screen that simultaneously displays scenes from both movies while the narrator, Turner himself, briskly walks the viewer through the plot. The similarities, piled up in such rapid succession, are almost overwhelming, and it quickly dawns on you that, no matter how improbable, these movies, shot two decades apart, are exactly the same. He submitted the video to Reddit where it quickly amassed 3,000 upvotes. Within a week, the video had attracted over 100,000 views. “That blew my mind,” he recalled. “My immediate reaction was that I wanted to follow it up with something else. I was trying to think what else I should do, and that’s when I thought, ‘Hmm, I always thought Daniel was kind of asking for it, so maybe I should do something about that.’”
Daniel, of course, is the pugnacious teenager from The Karate Kid who forms a rivalry with a local bully named Johnny and, under the tutelage of his mentor Mr. Miyagi, eventually defeats that bully at a martial arts competition. But in Turner’s video, which he released a few weeks after his first video took off, Daniel is the bully and Johnny is the flawed hero. The argument is, of course, absurd, but Turner does such an adept job at piecing together his thesis that you finish the video doubting every assumption you’d previously made about a movie that had been a staple of your childhood.
Though the Mortal Kombat/Enter the Dragon essay was a veritable success, this new video was a viral blockbuster. Within hours it was posted across hundreds of news sites and it collected over 5 million views. Irate viewers, unaware that the video was tongue in cheek, flocked to the comment section to argue with its conclusions. “I thought it was pretty obvious that it was a joke,” Turner said. “Apparently it wasn’t.”
Turner didn’t fully realize it at the time, but by creating these videos he was contributing to an expanding genre that has become especially popular during the YouTube era: the video essay. Though the approach varies, video essays almost always feature a narrator who presents a thesis via a series of still images, animations, and video clips. Nearly all of them involve some sort of cultural criticism, and many of the most popular within the genre focus on film. Sometimes, as is the case with the “Honest Trailers” produced by a YouTube channel called Screen Junkies, this involves criticizing a single movie with the same approach that you might see in a text review in a newspaper or magazine.
But many of the best video essays go beyond mere reviews and take a much more academic approach to cinematic criticism. For example, consider a recent video published to the YouTube channel The Nerdwriter, which is helmed by a former MSNBC producer named Evan Puschak. Titled “The Evolution of Batman’s Gotham City,” it walks us through the various incarnations of Bruce Wayne’s metropolis, first introduced in Detective Comics and then later expanded upon in television series, cartoons, video games, and, of course, films. “When the Adam West show failed,” argues Puschak, “Batman writers brought a darker tone to the stories. They brought an extended continuity, and continuity meant that individual locations in Gotham gained importance and the city itself began to breathe as a character.” He then guides us through the gothic luridness of Tim Burton’s Gotham, the garish portrayal of the city in the horrible Batman and Robin, and then finally the hyperrealistic New York City depicted by Christopher Nolan. “A Gotham that resembles our own world,” says Puschak, “can be even more terrifying when it’s shown to be fragile in the face of a violent disregard for the established order.”
While this essay certainly would have worked in written form, Puschak’s use of still images and video adds an entirely new dimension to his argument that makes it much more arresting. It’s because of this more engaging format that video essays are much more popular than their textual counterparts. Of the dozens of videos produced by Puschak, on topics ranging from the emotional theory in Inside Out to what it means when people say Seinfeld is a show about “nothing,” three have amassed more than a million views and many others have at least a few hundred thousand. Though it’s impossible to know how well he’s monetizing the YouTube channel, he’s raised over $2,400 per video on Patreon, which, given that he produces about one video per week, means he’s pulling in north of $120,000 per year. Most newspaper film critics don’t make half that.
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The Nerdwriter isn’t the only YouTube channel focused on video essays to have achieved this level of popularity. Every Frame a Painting. Wisecrack. Screen Junkies. Red Letter Media. The School of Life. Each has amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers and many millions of views.
Though the video essay’s popularity is a recent phenomenon made possible through the advent of YouTube, one can argue that the medium predates the internet. In a paper titled “Film criticism, film scholarship and the video essay,” Dr Andrew McWhirter, a lecturer of media and communications at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, says that the form fits within the larger genre of remix culture and harkens back to what the filmmaker Hans Richter coined as the “essay film” in 1940. “Remixed footage has been part of experimental cinema and contemporary art for a number of decades,” wrote McWhirter, pointing to several decades-old political mashup videos posted to a YouTube channel called politicalremix. A 1984 video titled “Death Valley Days: Secret Love,” for instance, uses a mixture of news footage and the Shangri-Las song “Leader Of The Pack” to reframe Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s relationship as a romantic one.
McWhirter also argues that the video essay’s antecedents can be traced to the audio commentaries from directors and actors that are commonly included as “extra” features on movie DVDs. The Criterion Collection pioneered this form of commentary with the 1984 laserdisc release of the original King Kong movie. Film critics and historians like Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer recorded audio commentaries for famous films, and indeed McWhirter notes that this tradition has carried over with some of today’s traditional critics, although many have yet to dip their toes into the medium. “Two major impediments to the continued growth of the video essay are the lack of appropriate skill sets … and the various legal complexities concerning the repurposing of intellectual property,” he wrote.
Of course, not all video essays are about film. The YouTube channel The School of Life began initially as a school in London that “taught classes which have a practical application of philosophical ideas,” said John Armstrong, a former philosophy professor living in Melbourne, Australia who now writes scripts for the organization’s YouTube channel. Though it was founded and still operates a brick and mortar school (it’s gone on to open campuses in a dozen cities spanning from Sydney to Istanbul), School of Life began to experiment with propagating its philosophical teachings online, first in the form of text-based essays published at a website called The Book of Life. “We accumulated a large number of essays that are relatively short and each tries to deal with a significant issue,” he said. “And then we began adapting some of those topics to a video format. The idea of presenting things visually has always been a big ambition. I remember years ago discussing with [School of Life founder Alain de Botton] the idea of making books with lots of images where the intellectual content and the images would play off each other very strongly so that it would be a visual experience as well as a reading one.”
Initial videos uploaded to the organization’s YouTube channel were merely recorded talks and lectures, similar to what you’d find in your average TED Talk video, but a video published in September 2014 was distinctly different. Titled “How to Save Love with Pessimism,” it uses a combination of animation and narration to argue there’s no such thing as a perfect mate and it’s only through a healthy dose of pessimism that we can accept someone’s flaws and settle on a significant other. Like most video essays, it could have easily been rendered in text form — all you would need to do is publish the narration as a standalone article — but doing so would subtract from the richness afforded by animation. It also likely wouldn’t have attracted over 150,000 views as a piece of text.
Since the publication of that initial video essay in 2014, The School of Life channel has steadily grown, with over 800,000 users now subscribing. Armstrong is responsible for writing each video’s script and then sends it off to a team of freelance filmmakers and animators to create the visuals. The channel now produces upwards of three new videos a week on topics ranging from the joy of sexting to what makes a country rich. Unlike many of the other video essayists I’ve mentioned in this piece that rely on already-existing footage from films and pop culture, The School of Life produces much of its visual imagery from scratch, either with animation or even paid actors.
For Armstrong, the video essay is merely an evolution of its textual counterpart, a way to breathe new life into a literary tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. “I think that we’re certainly bringing ambitions that were formed by the history of writing, by the history of the essay,” he said. “We see Youtube as offering a better artistic medium for what we’re trying to do. I certainly think it’s comparable to, say, the invention of the paperback in the middle of the 20th century, which changed people’s access to reading and changed the kind of writing that went on.”
For years, traditional newspapers have been laying off their film critics, and other forms of art criticism have become even more scarce, at least in mainstream publications. Yet combing through dozens of YouTube channels that specialize in the video essay, it seems apparent that pop culture criticism is thriving to a degree heretofore never seen. Millions of YouTube users, many of whom are Millennials, are subscribing and tuning in to an art form that was once relegated to film snobs and art enthusiasts. “The huge intellectual challenge is how to get the ideas you’re really interested in and think are important to really work in this new form,” said Armstrong. “And that’s the big opportunity and we feel very much like we’re at the beginning of exploring.”
Caroline Crampton isn’t lacking for an audience. A longtime political journalist, she’s been a web editor for the New Statesman, the 103-year-old British political and cultural magazine, since 2012. In addition to penning articles for the magazine, she also co-hosts a pop culture podcast with her colleague Anna Leszkiewicz. She has an active Tumblr blog, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and even occasionally appears as a commentator on mainstream news programming.
Yet every week Crampton sits down to write So far, I’ve had no complaints, a newsletter she sends out each Friday. With most issues clocking in at about 1,000 words, So far, I’ve had no complaints is broken down into several eclectic and mostly unrelated sections — “Things to read,” a mixture of blockquotes and commentary on what she considers the best journalism published that week; “Things to listen to,” a roundup of podcasts she recommends; “Things to watch,” assorted web videos; “Compulsory medieval thingamabob,” a strange image that I can only infer came from a medieval painting or illustration; and “The guest gif,” which is basically just an amusing GIF to close out the newsletter.
Crampton launched the newsletter in 2014 after noticing how newly-popularized link aggregators that focused on highlighting serious, in-depth journalism — Longform, Longreads, The Browser — were rather homogeneous with their selections. “They were patrolling the same beat where everything serious or good coincidentally happened to be written by men about men,” she told me in a phone interview. “And this made me so cross because there are so many other great things out there on the internet written by all kinds of people doing all sorts of things.” She’d complain to her colleagues about this but they always replied with the same solution: “They said, ‘If you care so much about this then why don’t you point people toward things that you think are great?’”
Crampton used Tinyletter, a simple newsletter platform owned by Mailchimp, to distribute So far, I’ve had no complaints, and she initially sent it out to about three dozen people she knew in real life. She didn’t do much to promote it on her other channels, but she began to see an uptick in subscribers as readers passed it around; occasionally the newsletter would experience a sudden spike when someone influential recommended it on Twitter. Today, it has several thousand subscribers, and it’s consistently, if slowly, growing. “I just logged into Tinyletter for the first time in a couple weeks and saw that several hundred more people signed up,” she told me. “I have no idea where they came from.”
Though it seems absurd in some ways to talk about an “email newsletter resurgence” in 2016, especially given that they never actually went away, there’s a certain kind of newsletter that’s seen renewed adoption in recent years. Though they served as a vital medium for independent writers in the late 1990s, the advent of Web 2.0 resulted in many would-be newsletter scribes launching blogs instead. While brands continued to leverage email in their marketing — and publications provided options for readers to subscribe by email — there were few high-profile newsletters that launched as standalone entities. During this time blogs served as a vital counterpoint to the mainstream media, and we saw the emergence of powerful independent voices who went on to build sizable readerships and influence: Josh Marshall. Andrew Sullivan. John Gruber. Michael Arrington.
But by the end of the decade the web had fundamentally changed. Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter became viable stand ins for casual blogging while popular bloggers either decamped to high profile traditional news jobs or tried to scale their websites into viable media companies. The blogosphere no longer felt like a cohesive, anti-establishment community, and it became quite common to see headlines proclaiming the “death of blogging.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was around this time when media watchers began taking note of a newsletter renaissance. Writing in the New York Times in 2014, the late David Carr observed that “email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march.” While the piece focused primarily on newsletters operated by mainstream news organizations, others highlighted the growing number of email newsletters that had no official connection to an existing media entity.
This trend was made possible, in part, by Mailchimp’s acquisition of Tinyletter in 2011. Previously, most major newsletter platforms cost money to use and, with their robust functionality, were intimidating to novice users. Tinyletter was free (at least until you had amassed at least 5,000 subscribers) and had stripped-down offerings similar to what you’d find with your average blogging CMS. As a 2013 Fast Company profile of the company put it, “TinyLetter is to MailChimp what Tumblr is to WordPress: It’s newsletters for dummies.” The simplicity made it that much easier for new entrants to dip their toes into the medium. “I went with Tinyletter because it was free and it provided the least distance between my writing and me getting it out there,” said Nick Quah, who writes the podcast industry newsletter Hot Pod. As of late 2015 there were over 141,000 Tinyletter accounts with a combined 14 million subscribers.
It’s tempting to merely argue that the recent crop of newsletters are what came to replace the independent blogosphere of the mid-aughts. But I actually think its antecedents stretch back further to the zine culture that thrived in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
Though media historians disagree over who published the first zine (some would argue that pamphleteers like Thomas Paine were early zinesters), their current iteration came into practice in the 70s as a form of promotion for the burgeoning punk scene. With names like Sniffin’ Glue and Maximum Rock & Roll, these zines covered what mainstream music publications wouldn’t, and their counter-culture vibe rejected the established norms for how magazines should be presented. “Often they are odd sizes,” wrote zine enthusiast Kirsten Anderberg. “Zines are characteristically unconcerned with a glossy presentation, often handwritten, and xeroxed. There is a homemade charm to zines.”
Similarly, many of the newsletters I reviewed for this article seemed to purposefully reject the standard approach for how an article should be presented, and they eschew what many journalism practitioners would consider web “best practices.” Your average news article totals about 700 words, has a clear thesis (in the form of a lede or nut graf), and presents a linear procession of facts that form a narrative. Many newsletters feature a hodgepodge of unrelated sections, images, and GIFs, and they take a distinctly informal tone in their writing. Journalist Ann Friedman’s eponymous The Ann Friedman Weekly starts off with an almost stream-of-consciousness paragraph linking to her favorite web content and then presents a hand-drawn pie chart, a “GIFspiration,” and even a classifieds section.
Or consider a slate of recent headlines from Gawker, Vox, Business Insider, and Buzzfeed, respectively: “Why You Should Care About Apple’s Fight With the FBI”; “Why one woman stole 47 million academic papers — and made them all free to read”; “Many parents are increasingly terrified to feed their kids Nutella”; “This Trainer Gained 70 Pounds So He Could Lose Weight With His Client.” Each is optimized for clicks and written with the sole intention of grabbing your eyes as you’re scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.
Now take a look at the subject lines for several of the newsletters I mention in this article: “Seasonal Pods, NPR One, Hazlitt, A Spreadsheet”; “Trimmed for Space”; “You’re so well-preserved”; “Anthropology, Artichokes and Aftermaths.” They’re almost begging you to not click on them. Any web editor who plugged these as headlines into a CMS would be summarily fired.
Zines, with their shoe-string budgets didn’t have massive distribution channels, nor were they easy to follow. They relied mostly on word-of-mouth and chance discovery. Typically, you stumbled across one stacked at a record store or at a science fiction convention. Zine creators pushed issues on friends and acquaintances. If you were lucky there was an address printed somewhere within an issue’s pages so you could subscribe, although it was difficult to know whether a new issue would ever be published.
Speaking to newsletter writers, it struck me how attracted they were to the newsletter’s inefficient means of discovery. Unlike articles, videos, and images, it’s difficult for a newsletter to go “viral” since it doesn’t live on the open web. “I intentionally made it hard to find,” said Nick Quah of his Hot Pod newsletter. “I don’t find value in virality. I don’t want people reading me because something went viral. I want the right people to read me.” Quah told me he likes when people unsubscribe each week because it’s making his distribution list more “dense” and weeding out uninterested subscribers.
Ernie Smith launched his newsletter, called Tedium, last year because he expressly wanted to escape the pressures of virality. Smith has spent most of his career working as a graphic designer at newspapers, both regional and national. He launched the ShortFormBlog, a daily aggregator of links and content, in 2009 when he was in between jobs, and after he migrated it to Tumblr it took off. Buzzfeed featured it in its list of top Tumblr blogs of 2011. Time quoted it in its print issue. Over its six-year lifespan, ShortFormBlog amassed over 160,000 followers on Tumblr.
But by 2014, Smith was feeling burnt out. “Because it was a news site, everything that I did on it had a short half-life and by the end of the day it was basically dead,” he told me. “It didn’t last the test of time.” The thrill of seeing a post go viral also wore off. “I really wanted to see if I could create something that focused on an evergreen approach and also allowed me to do things that were a little bit riskier,” he explained. When he announced Tedium on ShortFormBlog, it almost seemed as if he were daring his readers not to subscribe. “I’m going to try to find the most obscure, boring stuff on the internet and throw it in your inboxes,” he wrote. His goal was to find subjects that no other writer had thought interesting enough to pursue. True to form, recent issues have focused on anodyne topics such as mattresses, the history of the salad bar, and the sauce packets you get at fast food restaurants. Don’t expect these issues to be discussed on a CNN panel anytime soon.
Yet despite all this, Tedium’s readership continues to grow. A web version of the mattress issue got featured at the top of Hacker News and eventually attracted tens of thousands of views. Smith convinced more established outlets like Atlas Obscura and Neatorama to syndicate it, and it has an open rate north of 40 percent, which is well above the industry average. Last year, Smith sent a survey to subscribers who frequently opened Tedium. “Many of those readers really enjoyed what they were getting and found the subject matter was interesting,” he said. “That made me realize I was on the right track with this thing.”
So why are readers responding so well to these newsletters when they seem to fly in the face of everything we’ve learned over the past decade about what web users want? It could be that, like those within the zine community, newsletter readers enjoy feeling like they’re in some sort of exclusive club. Sending a newsletter seems more like a private, intimate conversation compared to when you write for the open web. “I feel more connected to people in the private space because I’m able to be a little bit more authentic or more honest,” said Quah. “If you say something you believe might be controversial on Twitter, and if you have a big enough following your mentions will become a fucking disaster. It’s one thing to be able to manage that at a very public level, and it’s another thing entirely to manage it in an inbox.” Crampton also liked producing something that wouldn’t be chewed over by social media users. “Only the people who’ve opted in actually receive it,” she said. “It’s not sitting there on the internet for any drive-by random person to have a go at it. That’s the appeal of it.”
The question is whether that appeal will persist as newsletters continue to gain in popularity. Lena Dunham recently debuted a for-profit newsletter, called Lenny, and partnered with Hearst to deliver ads. The Skimm, a popular newsletter launched a few years ago by two former NBC journalists, recently hit 1.5 million subscribers. Every day we hear about another traditional media outlet debuting a morning newsletter. As our inboxes grow more crowded, the high engagement typically seen with email (which has an average 25 percent open rate) might fall down to the levels found on Twitter and Facebook (where only between 1 and 5 percent of your followers will see your post). Any anti-establishment medium that becomes sufficiently popular eventually gets adopted by the establishment. Given our renewed obsession with Inbox Zero and the general feeling that we already receive too much email, it might soon become harder for new independent newsletters to break through the noise.
For years now publishers have fretted over Facebook’s increasing emphasis on native content and what it means for the outbound referral traffic they’ve come to rely on. Back in 2012 I noticed that publishers, rather than pasting a link that would auto-generate a headline and thumbnail for their articles, were instead uploading a photo natively to their page and then including a Twitter-like headline and link. Here’s an example of what I mean:
The reason? They had noticed that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm favored native photos over embedded links and would expose the native posts to a greater percentage of followers. The practice became so prevalent that Facebook eventually rolled out a major update to its algorithm to encourage publishers to go back to embedding links.
Recently, Facebook has introduced two new native content products that have caused no small amount of consternation among publishers: video and Instant Articles. Once Facebook implemented auto-play for videos, page owners almost immediately noticed a huge disparity between the newsfeed exposure of native vs third party video players. An experiment carried out by Search Engine Journal found that native Facebook video is exposed to double the number of users compared to posts linking to YouTube videos.
Meanwhile, some media watchers have gone so far as labeling Facebook Instant Articles the final death knell of the news industry. By favoring Instant Articles over outbound links, this thinking goes, Facebook will eventually force all publications onto its platform, at which point they will have lost any remaining leverage they had and would now be trapped in Facebook’s playground. Writing for the Awl, John Herrman argued that it “will have transferred economic competition into an environment managed by one other company [Ed: Facebook], which is itself engaged in a separate economic competition.” To bolster these arguments, critics point to recent data showing that Facebook referral traffic to top publishers has fallen drastically in the last year.
But there’s been one native Facebook offering that’s received considerably less attention: its revamped Notes tool. A vestigial, long-neglected leftover from the days when status updates had strict character limits, Facebook gave Notes a facelift late last year so that it now has the same basic functionality of a blog. Though the press covered these new offerings upon their launch and even ruminated over whether this would result in more longform blogging on Facebook, I haven’t encountered much follow-up coverage, nor have I spotted many Notes in my Facebook newsfeed.
Unlike those who argue against “digital sharecropping,” which is when you build a following on a platform you don’t own, I’ve long been an advocate of uploading native content to platforms that allow it. Back in July I argued that you should crosspost every blog post to LinkedIn and Medium, and since implementing this practice I’ve seen a dramatic increase in readership for my articles. A recent profile I wrote on Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, for instance, received 4,000 views on Medium and 35,000 on LinkedIn. It received nowhere near that level of exposure on my own blog.
So needless to say, I was pretty excited when I heard about this new functionality and eager to find out whether uploading my articles to Notes would provide me any kind of home field advantage not afforded to me when I simply link to my articles elsewhere. So starting in January I began uploading every article I wrote to Notes. I have my personal profile that’s set to public and has around 600 friends and followers, and I also run a professional page with an additional 300 followers. Thus far I’ve published three articles to Facebook Notes. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:
Should you publish Notes to your personal profile or page?
One question I’ve always struggled with is whether to place more emphasis on promoting my personal profile or professional page. Back when Facebook only allowed mutual friendships on personal profiles, the professional page seemed like a no-brainer, but then Facebook began allowing users to follow personal profiles without mutual friendships (similar to how the follower relationship works on Twitter), so I’ve constantly faced the dilemma of how I should manage the two differently.
At first glance, it seemed like the Notes tool wasn’t available for pages, thereby forcing me to first publish the article to my personal profile (which, again, is set to public) and then from there share the article to my professional page (to understand what I mean, here’s an article I published to my profile and then later shared to my public page).
But then, after noticing that the Guardian had somehow published a Note to its page, I investigated further and found out that you could publish a Note to a page if you knew the specific URL. Here it is: facebook.com/YOURPAGEUSERNAME/notes
After I made this discovery I published my next article to my professional page and then shared that note to my personal profile.
So which is better? I don’t know! My first article I published to my personal page received the most engagement and views compared to all subsequent articles, but that may just be because a source I tagged in the article then went on to share it to his network. I think moving forward, however, I’m going to continue publishing the notes to my professional page.
If there’s a home field advantage to Facebook Notes, it’s small
The main question I wanted to answer with this experiment is whether my content would see an explosion in Facebook engagement. Typically, my articles haven’t performed very well on Facebook, and given that it’s by far the largest social network I certainly would have welcomed some sort of boost.
If there was a boost, it was slight. For the month of January, my articles on Medium and LinkedIn collectively received 60,000 views. On Facebook, they received a paltry 263 views. I also didn’t see any indication that they were being shared outside Facebook, whereas my Medium and LinkedIn articles are often widely shared on Twitter and other platforms.
That being said, if I had instead simply embedded the links to the articles published elsewhere I doubt I could have driven 263 clicks from my Facebook page and profile, so there may have been some advantage. But it certainly didn’t have the snowball effect I was hoping for.
You can’t run a Facebook Note as a targeted native ad
Occasionally I like to boost my Facebook posts with between $25 and $100 in targeted advertising. Results have been mixed, but I’ve seen this lead to a substantial number of organic shares if I’m targeting correctly.
But Facebook doesn’t give you this choice with articles published as Notes. When you’re in the Facebook ads manager, it won’t even acknowledge that your Note exists. I found this to be a real bummer since a paid boost would have given me the opportunity to really take Notes on a test drive and see what happens when they’re exposed to a larger audience. It’s hard to tell whether this was a conscious decision made by Facebook admins and if this functionality will be made available in the future.
The blogging functionality is similar to what you’ll find on Medium or LinkedIn
I first heard about the revamped Notes tool months before it was actually released to the public, and I was immensely interested in what kind of blogging functionality it would contain. Facebook has long eschewed hyperlinks, for instance, and has restricted how you can present photos. Would Notes operate like a true blogging CMS and allow for more flexibility?
Yes, it does. While the slick look and feel is very similar to Medium, I actually think a better comparison would be to LinkedIn’s blogging platform. Notes prompts you to input both a cover image and headline (Medium encourages both but requires neither). It allows you to include hyperlinks as well as basic font modifications (bold, italics) to the text. You can blockquote sections and provide bullets. It even allows you to use right and left alignment as well as captions for photos.
It doesn’t appear that you can edit with HTML, however, so it doesn’t have the same level of functionality that you’d find on, say, WordPress. For instance, what if I wanted to embed a widget that would allow you to sign up for my newsletter without clicking out of the article? I can easily do that on my WordPress blog, but doesn’t appear possible on Notes. It’s still not even clear to me whether I can embed a YouTube video into a Note.
Analytics are sparse
Facebook will give you a basic count for how many people viewed your Note (as well as the number of comments, likes, and shares), but that’s pretty much it. Compare that to LinkedIn, which will show me an industry and title breakdown of members who viewed my articles, or Medium, which tells you how many people read to the end of the article as well as referral sources.
Of course none of this compares to what I get from Google Analytics on my website blog.
I think it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from this experiment. For one, I’ve only published three articles so far, which is a tiny sample size. Also, I don’t have a huge following on Facebook, and it would certainly be interesting to test out Notes on a page with tens of thousands of followers (that being said, I didn’t start out with a huge following on LinkedIn and yet saw a pretty sizable impact from publishing there).
Ultimately, I still plan to continue publishing content natively to Facebook. I don’t blame publishers for growing wary of the walled garden Facebook has created and the increasing stranglehold it has over the open web, but at the same time I want to bring my content to where the people are rather than attempting to corral them back to my own website. As much as I’d love for you all to hang out on simonowens.net, I know you all have better things to do. No hard feelings.