Quality vs quantity online

February 12, 2012

At about the same time that Michael Kinsley’s hilarious response to a blog post of mine hit the web, The Atlantic also uploaded to its website Kathleen McAuliffe’s excellent story about how parasites shape our behavior.

McAuliffe’s 5,873-word feature was written for the magazine, and went through multiple layers of commissioning, copy-editing, top-editing, fact-checking, and the like. It’s not, by any means, an easy read; it includes quite a few passages like this.

The neurotransmitter is known to be jacked up in people with schizophrenia—another one of those strange observations about the disease, like its tendency to erode gray matter, that have long puzzled medical researchers. Antipsychotic medicine designed to quell schizophrenic delusions apparently blocks the action of dopamine, which had suggested to Webster that what it might really be doing is thwarting the parasite.

And yet, within 36 hours of being uploaded to the Atlantic’s website, the story had already amassed half a million pageviews — and was “well on its way to becoming the most visited piece ever” in the history of the site, in the words of Alexis Madrigal.

Meanwhile, earlier in the week, Salon editor Kerry Lauerman had revealed some traffic stats of his own:

We ended 2011 on a remarkable high note, with over 7 million unique visitors for the first time, without any giant, viral hits that could be outliers. And now we’ve finished January in similar fashion, at 7.23 million.

There are concrete reasons for this… We’ve — completely against the trend — slowed down our process. We’ve tried to work longer on stories for greater impact, and publish fewer quick-takes that we know you can consume elsewhere. We’re actually publishing, on average, roughly one-third fewer posts on Salon than we were a year ago (from 848 to 572 in December; 943 to 602 in January). So: 33 percent fewer posts; 40 percent greater traffic.

All of which would seem to imply that Kinsley is right, and that there’s something amiss with my more-is-more thesis of online journalism. Have we really — finally — reached the point at which quality is asserting itself in the form of monster pageviews? Especially given the fact that the New York Observer, the subject of my original post, is getting fewer pageviews now than it was in its much more assiduously edited days at the end of 2007.

If we have reached that point — and I hope that we have — it’s a function of the way that the world of the web is moving from search to social. Companies like Demand Media were created to game search — to take what people are genuinely interested in, and then exploit those interests to get undeserved traffic and ad revenues. Gaming social media, by contrast, is much harder: people tend not to share things  they don’t genuinely like.

The one thing that Kinsley got undeniably wrong in his piece was his assertion that I find the “more is more” formula to be “a wonderful development”. I don’t. Yes, I said that the Observer threw out the old and did something brave and new; I also said that I preferred things the way they were before.

What I do find to be a wonderful development is the way in which social discovery engines like Summify and Percolate surface much more relevant and much higher-quality content than search ever did. (Although I do worry, a lot, about the way in which Twitter seems to have bought Summify just to shut it down.) The more that we share stories and use such tools, the better the chance that great content will get an audience commensurate with its quality — even if it doesn’t have a web-friendly headlines like “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy”.

That said, the downside to publishing subpar content is certainly shrinking. Once upon a time, if you read a bad story in a certain publication, that would color your view of the whole enterprise. That’s no longer the case: in a world where websites are insatiable, there are precious few publications of consistent excellence. As Kinsley says, almost no one achieves good writing most of the time — but once upon a time, editors could and did simply spike material which wasn’t good enough. Nowadays, less-than-great copy tends to get published anyway, since websites have no space constraints and the old excuse about how “we ran out of pages” doesn’t hold water any more.

The real cost of publishing dull content is not that readers will be put off your brand. Instead, it’s an opportunity cost: rather than getting Norman to churn out ill-informed blog posts on ostrich farming and fracking, might it not be better to put him to work honing and editing the work of someone else, helping to create the next viral story about how your cat might be turning  you into a schizophrenic?

The economics, however, still don’t add up. For reasons I don’t fully understand, high-quality edited journalism is not a little but rather a lot more expensive than more-is-more blogging. McAuliffe probably got paid somewhere in the region of $1.50 a word for her piece, which works out at $8,800; by the time you add in the cost of salary and benefits for everybody who worked on it, plus the expenses involved in flying her to Prague to report it, you’re talking enough money to get a thousand blog posts out of Norman. Ex post, McAuliffe’s article is worth it. But it takes a bold cash-strapped publisher indeed (and all publishers are cash-strapped, these days) to choose a single heavily-reported feature over a thousand blog posts.

We still live in a world where the brand value of a venerable print publication has clout on the web. McAuliffe’s piece would never have garnered 500,000 pageviews in 36 hours had she published it on her personal website; instead, it both benefited from and helped to burnish the reputation of the Atlantic more generally. That’s a nice virtuous circle. On the other hand, a boring blog post which would never get attention on a random blog can get a decent four-figure number of pageviews just by dint of being published on the website of a print publication like the New York Times or the New York Observer. As a result, such publications are faced with a constant temptation to put up as much content as they can and monetize those pageviews, even if doing so slowly erodes their brand. Immediate cashflows, these days, tend to trump impossible-to-measure concepts like the degree to which brand value might be going up or down.

My expectation, then, is that we’re likely to see a lot of more-is-more journalism from established names like the Observer, even as the most successful online franchises, such as the Atlantic, increasingly invest in expensive, high-quality content. It’s the difference between managing decline and managing for growth. In an industry which is undoubtedly in secular decline, the former makes a lot of sense. And the latter, if it doesn’t work, can be incredibly expensive.

So while I’m extremely happy to see high-quality journalism reach a very large audience online, I’m far from convinced that we’re about to enter a golden age where publishers get rewarded for spending lots of effort and money on commissioning, editing, and publishing extraordinary content. The web is still a mass medium, and cats-make-you-crazy stories are hard to scale, while commodity content is much easier to replicate. If you want to get to half a million pageviews, you’re always much more likely to get there with a thousand blog posts than you are with a single swing for the fences.


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