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.