February was a record-breaking traffic month for Mother Jones. Three million unique users visited the site — a 420 percent increase from February 2010’s numbers. And MotherJones.com posted 6.6 million pageviews overall — a 275 percent increase.
The magazine credits the traffic burst partly to a month of exceptional work in investigations, essays, and exposes, its editorial bread and butter: real-time coverage of the Wisconsin protests, a Kevin Drum essay on the consequences of wealth inequality in America, the first national media coverage of that infamous prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. The also mag credits the traffic, though, to its extended presence on social media: Mother Jones’ Twitter followers increased 28 percent in February, to more than 43,000; its Facebook fan base grew 20 percent, to nearly 40,000; and its Tumblr fan base grew 200 percent, to nearly 3,000 followers.
In all, the mag estimates, a cumulative 29 percent of traffic to MotherJones.com came from social media sites.
But Mother Jones also attributes the traffic explosion to a new kind of news content: its series of explainers detailing and unpacking the complexities of the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Wisconsin. We wrote about MoJo’s Egypt explainer in January, pointing out the feature’s particular ability to accommodate disparate levels of reader background knowledge; that format, Adam Weinstein, a MoJo copy editor and blogger, told me, has become the standard one for the mag’s explainers. “It was a great resource for the reader, but it also helped us to focus our coverage,” Weinstein notes. “When something momentous happens, it can be hard for a small staff to focus their energies, I think. And this was an ideal way to do that.”
The magazine started its explainer series with a debrief on Tunisia; with the Egypt explainer, written by MoJo reporter Nick Baumann, the form became a format. The explainers became “a collaborative effort,” Weinstein says — “everybody pitched in.” And the explainer layout, with the implicit permission it gives to the reader to pick and choose among the content it contains, “just became this thing where we could stockpile the information as it was coming in.” It also allowed MoJo journos to “be responsive to people responding via social media with questions, with interests, with inquiries that they didn’t see answers to in other media outlets.”
It was a format that proved particularly useful, Weinstein notes, during the weekend after Mubarak had resigned in Egypt and when protests gained power in Libya and, stateside, Wisconsin. “All of this was happening at the same time,” he says — “none of us were getting a lot of sleep that weekend” — and “our social media just exploded.” But because MoJo’s Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook pages became, collectively, such an important interface for conversation, “we needed a really efficient way of organizing our content,” and in one conveniently centralized location. So the explainer format became, essentially, “a great landing page.”
The success of that format could offer some insight for any outlet trying to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of content and context. Explainers represent something of a tension for news organizations; on the one hand, they can be hugely valuable, both to readers and to orgs’ ability to create community around particular topics and news events; on the other, they can be redundant and, worse, off-mission. (“We’re not Wikipedia,” one editor puts it.)
It’s worth noting, though, that MoJo explainers aren’t, strictly, topic pages; rather, they’re topical pages. Their content isn’t reference material catered to readers’ general interests; it’s news material catered to readers’ immediate need for context and understanding when it comes to complex, and time-sensitive, situations. The pages’ currency, in other words, is currency itself.
That’s likely why the explainers have been so successful for MoJo’s traffic (and, given the outlet’s employment of digital advertising, its bottom line); it’s also why, though, the format requires strategic thinking when it comes to the resources demanded by reporting and aggregation — particularly for outlets of a relatively small staff size, like MoJo. Explainers, as valuable as they can be, aren’t always the best way for a news outlet to add value. “We still do the long-form stories,” Weinstein notes, “and this has just given us a place to have a clearinghouse for that.” For MoJo, he says, the explainer “is a way of stitching together all the work that everyone’s been doing. And we’re thrilled that readers have responded.”