News Leadership 3.0

October 22, 2009

At Slate, small is the new big

Editor David Plotz sees a future with a smaller, highly engaged audience for the online magazine

I took heart from a talk this week by Slate editor David Plotz, who suggested a viable revenue future for his online magazine lies not in its approximately seven million unique visitors but in about 500,000 loyal, engaged users who want quality, long form journalism.

Plotz spoke at the Missouri School of Journalism, where I am a Reynolds Journalism fellow this year. Missouri awarded Slate an Honor Medal this year.

More sophisticated ways of measuring usership and engagement will change focus from mass audience, Plotz believes, and that will make journalism better. Raw numbers create “pressure to produce one kind of story” that will draw hits. New metrics of engagement and behavior offer a “tremendous opportunity for Web journalism to escape the traffic” trap. He believes that will liberate Slate to “make a magazine that recognizes those dedicated readers.”

“Until now we’ve been selling to the mass audience. Now once you have this abiltity to target you can really target your core audience… This creates strong incentive to create durable journalism,” Plotz said. “That one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader. The person who makes a commitment to your brand, if you’re a quality brand….. if you can get those readers, a smaller set of readers, who come to you three or five or 10 times a week, you don’t have to go after that huge other set of readers.”

So forget celebrity and outrage stories. For Slate, this focus means a commitment to long form journalism such as a recent series on the American dental crisis, which Plotz estimates was read by 400,000 people. Slate has started a “Fresca Fellowship” that requires each reporter and editor to spend a month each year on a long form journalism project. Advertisers have begun to sponsor specific projects and they are paying for themselves, he said.

“Advertisers want to be around some ambitious project more than they want to be around some snarky political column,” Plotz said.

While excited about this new opportunity on the Web, Plotz cautioned Missouri journalism students that they face a career path that will require them to know more than journalism: social media, audio and video production, even some coding and fluency with content management systems. The new journalists may have to fight for time away from breaking news to focus intensely and develop projects.

Plotz thinking about a smaller engaged audience is similar to what could emerge in local news markets as news organizations pay more attention to small, under served advertisers. Serving up big numbers of unengaged users won’t ultimately help these advertisers. Developing loyal, engaged user communities holds more promise.

What do you think? Are mass metrics on the way out in your news organization? What are you measuring as an alternative?



Unique visitors are even more problematic at a regional site like MinnPost, because so many are passersby coming from around the nation and world through search or a blog link, and the chance they’ll become regular visitors is very low. Regular visitors and repeat visits are far more important to us, both journalistically and for making our nonprofit business model work. Unfortunately, we are still searching for the best metric(s) for those readers—everything I’ve found tells a piece of the story but leaves a lot out.

How does Slate determine the number of loyal and engaged users? Was it done by survey or can that be determined through crunching raw numbers?

The metrics are hard to quantify, but this pretty much matches the conclusion we’ve come to with TidBITS more generally - that loyal, committed readers are worth a lot more than drive-by readers who don’t even realize where they’re reading a particular article. In our case, the loyal readers are more likely to contribute directly and to purchase our series of electronic books as well. I wrote about this recently when we published our 1,000th weekly issue (TidBITS is, as far as I know, the second-oldest, Internet-only publication, after the Irish Emigrant News).

See for the full article.

One problem with Plotz’s conclusion, which I tend to agree with: a high volume of drive-by readers are still good for one thing—recruitment.

A relatively small, devoted audience may be valuable to sponsors, but it may also be harder to sustain. Seems this would be especially true for a general-interest site like Slate that builds its demographic around a certain rich-kid sensibility rather than a specific community of interest.

That’s just a hunch; I’ve never seen the data.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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