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Aug. 12, 2014, 12:08 p.m.
Audience & Social
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Mastering the dark arts: Facebook has been the key to Mother Jones’ growing popularity online

A new voice on social platforms helped Mother Jones beat its traffic records.

Mother Jones has been around since 1976, but it really put itself on the map, digitally speaking, in September 2012, when David Corn published the now famous video of Mitt Romney talking about nearly half — or 47 percent — of the American citizenry. The video set a traffic record for the website and grew their digital audience considerably, growth that was the main thrust of an interview the Lab did with publisher Steve Katz a year ago.

Recently, the magazine managed to break its one-day traffic record again, with 3.1 million viewers on June 30, the day the Hobby Lobby decision came down. Katz says big traffic days like that tend to raise the baseline for average monthly views. “Partly that’s good reporting — making good decisions about the right people to hire,” he says. “And partly it’s about doing our best to master the dark arts of social media and digital audience development.”

Mother Jones achieved the former in the mid-2000s, when the magazine opened its D.C. bureau and hired reporters and editors to build a daily news site. That office now has a staff of 16, in addition to 12 in New York and 55 in San Francisco. The latter — the dark arts of social media — has fallen into place more recently, thanks in large part to the hiring of engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss.

“Ben is a pretty amazing guy,” says Katz. “We’re really happy he works for us. He’s done really fantastic work in helping to develop strong patterns of engagement on key social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter. He definitely has his own voice, a different voice from Mother Jones, and we’re okay with that.”

Both Katz and Dreyfuss acknowledge that, while referrals from platforms like Twitter, Digg, Reddit, and Pinterest have grown, the greatest increase far and away has come from Facebook — and that was intentional. Asked what the biggest change he’s brought to Mother Jones is, Dreyfuss points to his decision to double down on Facebook.

“Refocusing energy onto that, instead of other social networks where I could spend a time with very little ROI — shifting the social resources of Mother Jones towards that has paid off a lot. I think that’s the biggest change,” he says.

Dreyfuss says that while other publications have been frustrated with declining reach on Facebook in recent months, Mother Jones is among those that have benefited from changes to the platform’s algorithm.

“From what we hear, Facebook is privileging certain kinds of content-rich sites. Mother Jones fits into that category,” Katz says. “As a result, partly through whatever machinery that algorithm is putting into play, and partly because Ben is really good at what he does, and partly because we take social audiences really seriously, our social media traffic and our Facebook traffic in particular has really taken off.”

For comparison, Mother Jones has around 829,000 followers on Facebook and 403,000 on Twitter. The Atlantic has 922,000 on Facebook and 531,000 on Twitter, while The New Republic has just under 100,000 followers on both platforms. Mother Jones averages 7 million monthly uniques, while The Atlantic averages around 16.6 million.

So what does Dreyfuss do? For starters, he takes the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to running Mother Jones’ social accounts, posting stories to Facebook and Twitter with captions aimed at getting attention.

Throughout the day, Dreyfuss monitors the success of these posts. If one does particularly well, or if a story is sagging, he might replace the original headline with a more social friendly version. The editorial team writes most of these headlines collaboratively over Skype chat. “I think it’s really improved our headlines a lot over the past year,” he says.

Dreyfuss also frequently contributes to Mixed Media, a blog where he shares aggregated video content and writes short posts about anything from wild weather to Beyoncé to selfies, plus a lot about books and music. When it comes to deciding what content and packaging will help Mother Jones to build audience, Dreyfuss says he uses himself as the bellwether.

“The stuff I end up blogging about is stuff I think our readers would enjoy. It’s stuff that I tend to enjoy personally,” he says. “I normally use me for the example of a lot of this stuff. I think a lot of people share my tastes on things like this. So, I normally choose myself as a barometer for it.”

The motivation behind Dreyfuss’s strategy is to bring new audience to Mother Jones content — a younger readership, people who might not be familiar with the Mother Jones brand but could one day become subscribers, or at least regular readers. But the Internet-native tone Dreyfuss uses to draw these new followers in doesn’t always sit well with the more traditional Mother Jones readers. For example, on a post called “Here Is a Video Of a Crane Destroying a Truck,” one reader comments:

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 6.43.11 PM

“There have been instances where my voice and my style have gotten pushback from some of the longtime followers,” Dreyfuss says. “There’s regularly people who are upset with either the light stuff I do or the snarky tone. I understand that, but there’s always pushback when there’s editorial change. I remember the first time that there was a ‘Fire Ben Dreyfuss’ movement. It was in October, and it was a post about vaccinations. I do remember seeing all of the angry comments and being mortified. I was like: Am I about to get fired?”

Here’s another, more recent threat, and the response from Dreyfuss:

Clearly, Dreyfuss is still around, which suggests that the attention his posts and tweets and headlines draw is what Mother Jones was looking for in hiring him. “Sometimes he’s out there on the edge there a little bit, but that’s okay. It works for that kind of setting,” says Katz of Dreyfuss’s voice. “We’re not going to do something completely off the wall, but I think the definition of what that means is more open than what it might have been in the past. We’re a little less locked down.”

But there’s more to Dreyfuss’s strategy than making a splash. Attention-getting posts and headlines bring in little bursts of traffic, but that’s not Mother Jones’ end game. The light content is meant to keep the audience in place so that when a heavily reported series or investigative story is published, there’s someone there to read it. It’s sort of the reverse tactic of organizations like BuzzFeed that started out silly but are moving into traditional news content.

“You gain more eyes with all this stuff that people want to read because it’s candy, and then, once you gain their readership and their following, you can give them the more healthy thing,” Dreyfuss says. “Our most shared stuff is never the candy stuff, it’s not the dessert. It actually ends up being some of the magazine stories, some of the things we’re really proud of, as opposed to being silly things.”

And indeed, it was the extensive reporting that went into the magazine’s Hobby Lobby package that broke their previous traffic record. Unlike the 47 percent story, the Hobby Lobby decision didn’t have a scoop to rely on — every outlet in the country got the news at the same time. But the reporting investment Mother Jones had put in ahead of time paid off, and was assisted by the editorial team’s enhanced social skills.

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.03.12 PMSays Katz: “When the story broke, there were several stories posted in the 24 to 36 hours right after that, number one. Number two was, when people came to the site and they read one story on that page, it links to other stories we had done…which led to more traffic on the site. The third thing was putting on top of all this editorial work — we really were testing which kinds of stories, which kinds of headlines, would work best for a social media audience. There was one story in particular, “The 8 Best Lines From Ginsburg’s Dissent on the Hobby Lobby Contraception Decision,” that just went through the roof. People started sharing it like crazy.”

The increase in traffic at Mother Jones has been mirrored by increases in philanthropic giving and in ad sales, according to Katz. The magazine plans to further expand its staff, starting with the sales team — they might even venture into sponsored content, though Katz says that’s “a tricky issue for Mother Jones.” There’s also a redesign underway that includes an ambitious overhaul of the CMS and backend, work that will be both complicated and expensive. Events are another possible growth area that Mother Jones’ public affairs team is looking at for expansion.

Dreyfuss acknowledges that it’s risky to rely on one social network for the bulk of your traffic. “Assuming that the growth would be anywhere near what it’s been is probably a faulty assumption, just because they make changes all the time,” he says.

But Mother Jones has a few natural advantages online. The content’s political nature is guaranteed to have emotional reverberations on the Internet, though Dreyfuss says he tries to limit the outrage. In addition, the magazine’s content makes for a natural identity play on social.

“People really like to share things that demonstrate who they are as a person. One of the things we like to do is give them the opportunity to do that,” says Dreyfuss. “You might not live in a state that legalizes gay marriage, but you are a person who supports gay marriage, and that’s how they end up liking and sharing those things.”

Photo of Peter von Laer’s “Magic Scene with Self-Portrait” by Shih-Chi Chiang used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2014, 12:08 p.m.
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