There's a terrible stereotype about Web editors, that we just care about traffic. Page views, unique visitors, clicks, hits, eyeballs, drivebys, furtive peeks, longing glances and everything in between.
And it's true!
Except I'm here to tell you that there's no easy trick, no gimmick, to draw people to read your Website. Trust me, we've tried.
A few years ago, as Salon (like all publications), tried to right our ship in deeply troubled recessionary waters, we followed the familiar script of other sites -- we laid off terrific staffers to lower our costs; we brutally pared down our expenses; we revamped staff priorities so that writers could simply produce more; we experimented in a fair amount of low-calorie aggregation. And yes, there's that word: Aggregation, the most inflammatory (and sometimes, hilarious) in our industry. So let me explain exactly what I mean by it: Short (a few hundred words) summaries or explainers about a major news event covered more in depth by somebody else. In its best form, we wrote short little decoders of a big story, and tried to link generously to the original source. At its worst, we monitored Twitter and Google for trending topics, and dispatched an intern to cobble together our own summary, posted it quickly, then prayed to the Google gods that the effort would win, if only briefly, their favor.
I'm not proud of that last approach, a mandate from above, which we were able to quietly scuttle after it was proven to have absolutely zero impact. But a terrible, pernicious thing has happened to journalists in the past decade, that's had us second-guess everything we know. Sometimes that's led to brilliant new reinventions of the form. Other times, it's just led to self-doubt, something I see in the sea of job applications of fine mid-career journalists every time we post for a new position.We've been trained to rethink everything, even if it leads to producing useless information at the behest of people whose only contribution to the marketplace of ideas has been to sneer at it, shrink it, and dumb it down.
But a funny, delightful thing has come out of it all. 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. First, as I think I've mentioned before, our founder, David Talbot, returned as CEO, and having the person who founded the whole shebang suddenly come back holding the purse strings has been enormously liberating -- he's encouraged me to run an editorial team that unambiguously pursues a progressive vision of Salon at a time of populist upheavel and party alienation. We've also -- 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.
It sounds simple, maybe obvious, but: We've gone back to our primary mission and have been focusing on originality. And it's working.
We'll be doing more of the same, as the year continues, and we sharpen our campaign coverage (more on that in a future post), and have carved out a bigger budget for high-impact, important stories from freelancers -- experienced and brand-spanking new, who have important information to share. (And if you're one of them, I hope you'll pitch us here.) The state of our union is strong!
The business side of things? We're still, like most of our peers, trying to figure that out, especially post-recession. But we have a ton of confidence that our team -- including our whiz sales team and our renewed Salon Core membership program -- will develop big things.
Open Salon? Ah, that's another story entirely. After a painful year migrating the backend of Salon's technology (which did free up server space for Open, and make it much faster) we have plans for a bigger revamp to Open in the months ahead, with an improved registration program, better social tools and improved integration within Salon (and hopefully a few other ideas generated on Open) high on the priority list. I founded Open, so it's my great blue hope, and I'm still consistently dazzled by the writing and thinking here. So much so that I'm going to start blogging here weekly, just to keep you posted on Salon events, and OS news, as I have it. If you like it, I hope you'll give me thumbs up -- and if not, take me to task in the Comments!