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Feb. 7, 2012, 9:30 p.m.

What Charlie Sheen taught Salon about being original

The online magazine shifted its emphasis from aggregation to original content and saw its traffic jump.

There’s a reason why The Onion’s recent HuffPo-tweaking satire‘Huffington Post’ Employee Sucked Into Aggregation Turbine / Horrified Workers Watch As Colleague Torn Apart By Powerful Content-Gathering Engine — resonated with so many reporters. “It’s because nobody wants to feel like a cog,” Salon editor-in-chief Kerry Lauerman told me. “I think it’s our fear as journalists that we’re turning into cogs of a machine.”

Lauerman referenced that Onion piece in a Tuesday blog post that outlined a simple yet fundamental shift in Salon’s approach: publish less, and focus instead on producing original, high-impact journalism.

The value of original reporting might be obvious, but Lauerman says he was shocked how dramatically this new strategy appears to have increased Salon’s traffic in December and January. In an industry that has at times begrudgingly hailed aggregation as essential (even central) to attracting the eyeballs and SEO necessary for journalistic survival, Lauerman found the opposite could also be true.

“It’s kind of the worst of both worlds. You’re spending a lot of time on someone else’s work. You’re more motivated when you’re pursuing your own work.”

In December and January, Salon published 33 percent fewer posts than it had in those same months the previous years — but it saw 40 percent greater traffic. Slashing the amount of content it published by a third, the site still logged record-high unique visitor numbers — 7.23 million at the end of January — and without any “big viral hits” that would have skewed the numbers, Lauerman said.

This isn’t just heartening from a business perspective, it reaffirms a principle that many journalists still hold dear. “Most people in our industry are dying to hear good news, particularly the kind that emphasizes our instincts,” Lauerman said. “Good work matters, and can be rewarded.”

Getting to this point has been “so organic” that Lauerman says he can’t say exactly where or how it began. He does remember the low-point that preceded Salon’s shift, and it involved — perhaps appropriately — Charlie Sheen and his very public meltdown last winter.

“I remember we had aggregated a Charlie Sheen story, and I saw it tweeted a lot,” Lauerman said. “It wasn’t a really interesting essay, just the latest news breaking. I saw TweetDeck, and I was watching all of our peers — either before or after us — tweet the exact same story. I thought, ‘This is how it ends. This is grim. We’re all just sort of regurgitating the same thing over and over again.”

Soon thereafter, Salon welcomed back founder David Talbot, who again became the site’s CEO last July. Talbot’s return marked another step away from aggregation. “It seemed totally logical to him, and he really wanted us to be ambitious and aggressive and break stories that really matter to our readers,” Lauerman said. “Focus less on doing pieces that could be found anywhere else.”

In other words, instead of racing to catch up on the same stories as everyone else, why not produce the stories that the aggregators will scramble to reproduce? Of course, not all aggregation is recreated equally. Value added from one news organization can advance a story in a critical way, as well as answer or raise important questions. Looking at the lifespan of a story (or a news organization), aggregation can also be an entry point — one that then naturally leads to original reporting.

“I thought, ‘This is how it ends. This is grim. We’re all just sort of regurgitating the same thing over and over again.”

But ultimately, Lauerman said, the time it takes to aggregate really well is still time away from original reporting. “It’s kind of the worst of both worlds,” Lauerman said. “You’re spending a lot of time on someone else’s work. You’re more motivated when you’re pursuing your own work.”

Salon isn’t abandoning aggregation entirely, but Lauerman can point to instances where he is proud of the decision to pursue boots-on-the-ground reporting instead. He sent reporter Irin Carmon to Mississippi to cover the personhood movement, which argues for a legal definition of life beginning at conception.

“A year or two ago we would have said, ‘Let’s stay on that and blog it, cover it form afar,’ and you could have done a fine job with that,” Lauerman said. Instead, Carmon returned to New York with “a totally original piece of reporting, and a great piece of journalism.”

“For an online site, it’s much easier to just blog at a distance,” Lauerman said. “Easier and safer. But I don’t think there’s any substitute for doing that kind of shoe-leather reporting.”

The fact that readers appear to agree with him is what’s shaping Salon’s identity going forward. In coming months, you can expect to see more resources devoted to Salon’s campaign coverage, new bylines from freelancers who can devote time to in-depth reporting projects, and a site redesign. Internally, the most immediate change — the one already underway — may be a sense of liberation. Lauerman calls the shift “piecemeal” and says it will be largely up to staffers to figure out how they can best contribute to the site’s evolving overarching mission.

Steve Kornacki, for example, I can see the back of his head from where I’m sitting right now,” Lauerman said. “He’s a machine. He writes four or five times a day and they’re all thoughtful pieces. I don’t really want him to slow down unless he has a piece that he really wants to spend time developing. Then we’d have that conversation right away. Even a year ago, I think it would be hard for people to get the break they needed to write…For pieces that really take time, you’ve got to clear the decks, spend time working phones and log off for a little while.”

Salon may be bucking the aggregation trend, but it’s not alone. To take one high-profile example, the viral aggregator Buzzfeed had taken big steps toward producing exclusive content.

“People are coming to the same conclusions, and they’re the oldest conclusions in our business,” Lauerman said. “You’ve got to be original to really thrive. It’s the most honest metric of all.”

Charlie Sheen photo by Angela George used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 7, 2012, 9:30 p.m.
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