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Rolling Stone’s late start on McChrystal costs it comments

Rolling Stone has been widely criticized, and even made fun of outright, for sitting on Michael Hastings’ blockbuster profile of Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General.” The magazine’s logic: Create buzz (they sent promotional copies of the story to a variety of news outlets) and then enjoy the fruits of success at the newsstand. Instead, the story made its way across the web anyway. Politico posted a pdf of the story and the Associated Press ran a thorough summary. Rolling Stone didn’t get much in the way of traffic out of it. At 11 a.m. EST yesterday, Rolling Stone changed course, posting the story in its entirety on its site. The work day hadn’t even started yet on the West Coast — surely, the site could recover and take back the traffic and the conversation. Or could it?

After the piece ran, it started picking up incoming links, presumably driving tremendous traffic to the site. I checked in on the story today, exactly 24 hours later, to find that, despite the story completely dominating the news cycle — TV, blogosphere, Twitter, newspapers — only 16 comments had been posted to the story (not counting a couple dozen comments responding to those comments). When you try to view all 16, you get a 404 error message. No users had “shared” or “liked” it, according to the story’s social media meter. (Although that’s probably an error — I tried liking it and it still says zero.) In any event, that’s rough — the vast majority of the conversation is happening elsewhere.

Why? Of course the late posting was a factor. National security reporter Spencer Ackerman’s first post on the general’s apology, which went up several hours before Rolling Stone published, attracted 47 comments on his personal blog. Politico’s defense reporter Laura Rozen’s blog post on the AP’s summary of the story, which went up at 10:46 p.m. the night before the story appeared, has about twice as many comments as the Rolling Stone story itself. Twitter was buzzing with comments all day. There was no where to discuss at Rolling Stone, so the conversation naturally happened elsewhere.

But speed isn’t the only factor. The Huffington Post’s post on the story going live, which appeared almost half an hour after Rolling Stone published, boasts more than 2,700 comments. So maybe there’s something more to Rolling Stone’s problem. Try to leave a comment on the site. First, you have to register. A popup appears with required fields like your gender and your birthday, setting the bar high to leave a comment. (Note the non-registration required button that lets users “like” a comment has attracted hundreds of clicks — even though the ability to “like” the entire story seems broken.)

Of course, comment quantity isn’t the only thing that contributes to community. Gawker Media recently changed its policy, introducing a tiered system that made it harder for comments to be seen that, ironically, seems to have led to even more comments. Rolling Stone underwent a recent redesign, which included incorporating a paywall for archives (and, frustratingly, breaking nearly every past link to the site). Maybe they’re still working out their comment philosophy. Of late, Rolling Stone has mostly stumbled along on the web, forgetting to register its domain name in February. But its big miss here indicates it isn’t just speed that’s keeping commenters away — the infrastructure of community is important too.

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
Previously proudly without a homepage, the business site is trying to shift its email success to the web to build loyalty.
  • Ian

    Is there a problem here that Rolling Stone is not known for political reporting? So while it might have a lot of registered users, the visitors reading this story might not be one and the same.

  • Ted K

    Ever heard of Hunter Thompson??? He was at the 1968 presidential primaries and discussed CIA issues no one else wanted to touch. Matt Taibbi was kicked out of Uzbekistan (before he was at Rolling Stone) for being to critical of that country’s leader and covered the 2008 presidential race, and most recently (for Rolling Stone) covered the federal government’s wasted Billions on TARP. Rolling Stone arguably has better political journalism than many major city newspapers.

    Better re-educate yourself on Rolling Stone.

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  • Ian

    Oops fair enough.

  • Steve


    Cool post. I’m not so sure, though, that we should be measuring the impact of our journalism on number of comments left. I know, I know, it would be super cool to have hundreds of readers leave comments and feedback – but that can’t and shouldn’t be the way we measure success in our industry.

    The conversation started. And readers understand that RS began that piece. So the conversation is happening elsewhere – but it still exists and it is still healthy, right?

    We are not privy to the number of unique visitors or hit RS got as a result of that piece (let’s face it – there are more people reading our work than those who leave comments.)

    Nice work, but I’m not so sure I’d quit on the piece just because it received 12 comments.

  • Laura McGann

    Hi Steve — I agree. Comments are not the only way to measure good work. Maybe they aren’t a measure of good work at all! But what they can tell us, at least in this specific situation, is that Rolling Stone did not do everything possible to harness the potential of this story. It’s Rolling Stone’s work, why shouldn’t it get the financial rewards in terms of pageviews? (Commenters are likely to return to a site to check in on a thread..though, you probably know that if you’re reading this now. :)) I think the story was great for journalism in general, but probably not as great as it could have been for Rolling Stone.

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  • Ted K

    I’m not that huge a fan of Rolling Stone. Honestly, I don’t like glamorizing Lady GaGa wearing a pointy bra, or holding short automatic weapons by her tits. (If I want porn I’ll buy porn). Although teenagers probably don’t read Rolling Stone like they did when I was a kid (I’m in my mid-30s, and even my generation was starting to read “Spin” and “Grunge” or other type music mags) I think it sets a rather seedy example sometimes.

    BUT I do think Hunter Thompson was one of the better writers of the last 60 years, and I think Matt Taibbi has earned his stripes writing about TARP, as well as being booted out of a country (yes Uzbekistan, but it’s not always as easy as some people think to get thrown out of s.h.i.t.hole countries. I’ve heard many stories about western journalists from respected newspapers changing their stories based on the drinks and food they get at Russian hotels for free from the local governments, think Georgia and Abkhazia). And frankly I don’t see NYT reaching into their pocket to send a guy to hang out with McChrystal for a month. And I don’t see the ultra-phony Diane Sawyer spending a month yucking it up and drinking beers with Army boys. And yet what do we have??? Republicans like Lindsey Graham (speaking of phony… ) taking cheap shots at Rolling Stone for giving us the TRUE journalism we don’t see anymore.

    So why has journalism sunk to such lows??? Because the masses don’t ask for true journalism. Instead of spending $5 dollars to reward Michael Hastings for his hard work, they’ll go buy the DVD collection of “Desperate Housewives”. I read Michael Hastings’ story online, but I plan to buy the issue both as a keepsake and as a reward to showing RS we need more of this. But in the end, people get what they want. Each time people spend a dollar they are casting a vote. You cast a vote for garbage, you get garbage.

  • Ted K

    Check out this Rolling Stone story by Matt Taibbi on municipal bonds and the problems in Birmingham Alabama. This is REAL journalism. There is a bubble head blonde who works at NYT who sometimes cannot decipher the difference between swaps and derivatives. If she had written this story in NYT we would never hear the end of her accolades. Taibbi does it in Rolling Stone, and SEEMS only finance blog junkies now about it.

    By the way, a large number of households (you know “the average Joe”) have been investing in municipal bonds recently. See here:
    I wonder if NYT has sent up the alarm bells as effectively as Taibbi has??