The Daily Beast’s John Avlon on mobile, news, metrics… and Donald Trump
John Avlon, co-managing director and editor-in-chief, is also a CNN political analyst and author. Among other things, John has served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani.
He spoke to Jon Watkins not only about The Beast’s mobile strategy and audience engagement, but also Donald Trump and taking on bullies, bigots and hypocrites…
You can here more from John Avlon at FIPP London, taking place from 10-11 May. Visit FIPPLondon.com for more and/or register here.
We’re well into the mobile revolution. Just how dominant is mobile for you?
The move to mobile is really the third revolution we’ve seen in the news media industry over a period of just two decades. Newspaper and magazine distribution was essentially in stasis for almost a century. In the late 1990s, the internet changed everything. Now, social media and the mobile revolution – which go hand in hand – are changing the game again. So if your site’s not optimised for mobile at this point I’m not really sure how to help you, because we are seeing more and more readers coming in through the side door of social media via their cell phones. And you can’t un-ring that bell.
This new revolution is not equally distributed. Facebook is still the 800-pound gorilla and Twitter is enormously influential when it comes to breaking news. Then, of course, there’s Instagram and Pinterest and other emerging platforms as well as use of mobile video, etc. All of this raises one of the most interesting challenges in the industry right now, which is off-platform readers: How do we measure our real reach?
How is your own mobile strategy evolving and what success have you seen?
The Daily Beast became majority mobile two summers ago, which was ahead of many competitors. What’s interesting is that we’ve continued to grow in desktop in that period, which is not everybody’s experience. Most people are down on desktop. Overall, we grew 24% last year, three times the pace of our competitive set. We’re seven-and-a-half years old and we’re just coming off our best two quarters in our history at a time when many sites seem to be hitting major turbulence. We’re doing over a 1.1 million readers a day, and that’s up from 650,000 three years ago.
I do think that people will reward quality original journalism delivered with a clear tone of voice. One of the big mistakes that a lot of news media organisations make is to essentially follow the wire copy model, which is commodity news.
In our digital age, information is everywhere. And because of that fact, commodity news is the killer of differentiation. And differentiation is the soul of a news brand.
The Daily Beast is a testament to the fact that you can succeed offering quality original journalism at the intersection of politics and pop-culture. The two things that I think news needs to do now more than ever is call bullshit and make important stories interesting.
The opposite path – which can lead to some short-term growth while killing a news brand – involves dragging everybody towards a lowest common denominator of clickbait. But then all we’ll be doing is delivering our century’s version of bread and circuses – it’ll be endless celebrity gossip, sex scandals, pictures of kittens and car crashes.
There are people who believe that side-door visits that come with mobile make people brand agnostic. I don’t believe that. And there are studies that show that people are more likely to click on a link if it comes from a trusted source.
What makes a source trusted?
Partly, it means credibility and quality. But in the case of The Daily Beast, I think it also means an irreverent intelligence. And that’s where I think the nature of storytelling is enormously important. If a core part of our job as journalists is to make important stories interesting, then news can’t taste like medicine. It needs to have passion and punch and more than a little bit of wit.
If you do commodity news or anything that blends in with the crowd, you’re toast, because you’ve made yourself disposable. And sometimes that can be done amid a rationalisation that you’re giving people what they want because you’ve followed the algorithms or the most-searched items. If people follow that stuff blindly it leads to a mass of non-differentiation that has the side effect of making us all dumber.
Editors and publishers need to figure out how to use data science, but recognise that our business at the end of the day is a balance of art and science – because journalism, like jazz, is an improvisational art form.
Tell me some of the ingredients of good mobile content for you…
You need to think about how your mobile home page is seen by readers and their user experience. You need to be realistic about where your growth is coming from which, by and large will be people accessing your site via social media on their mobile phones. If you can coax them to becoming loyal readers who download an app or sign up for a newsletter, that’s great for building a sustainable business. But here’s what’s basic: you can’t fall into the trap of legacy media, which often treats digital as someone else’s problem. If there are still publishers out there who are doing that, which is stunning in 2016. Your digital product is your main product whether you want it to be or not.
In terms of organising editorial content for mobile, I like to cite Ernest Hemingway’s style guide, from the Kansas City Star 100 years ago: “short paragraphs, short sentences, vigorous English.” From a mobile formatting standpoint, the Joycean paragraph is the kiss of death. I also think mobile optimization also increases the obligation to have a great headline. Your headlines need to have punch and wit and a point of view – and that falls under the umbrella of ‘make important things interesting.’
How do these principles guide how you assemble your teams?
I often look for reporters who have strong social media voice and followers – because that is an indication of their throw weight among influencers. In a crowded media landscape, getting your third-party validation from influencers in other areas is enormously important. And maybe someday, journalists will adequately appreciate how much their social feed is an advertisement for themselves, for better or for worse.
You talk a lot about audiences coming in through the side door – with content being delivered through social platforms. Doesn’t that reduce your control over your content and your ability to measure your real numbers?
You need change to be your ally, not your enemy. For a long time felt it’s frustrating that we have well over a million unique readers who aren’t being counted effectively. Measuring real reach – as well as uniques – will be an increasingly important metric. But it has to be based on real transparent data and not used to mask a slowing of growth, which accounts for its enthusiasm among some sites.
Another important metric for our era is engagement, because if people are just coming in through the side door, staying for a second and never coming back, what have you really achieved? In recent months, The Daily Beast has seen higher engagement than The Atlantic, which excels at longform, so I would expect their engagement to be very high.
Other sites spend a massive amount of money to purchase traffic, but they’re going to get a lot of very short side-door visits that lead to very low engagement and very low return visitors. That suggests to me that the brand is not actually strengthening. Our growth at The Daily Beast is organic and as a result we’re building a sustainable brand.
What role does aggregated or curated content play? You guys obviously produce the Cheat Sheet, and that’s been very successful…
The Cheat Sheet is not aggregated content; it’s curated content. And I think that’s a crucial distinction.
Cheat Sheet is designed to be a virtuous circle, where we are doing a 100-word encapsulation of the news you need to know now – breaking news with a point of view – and then a direct link back to the original or best-source of reporting. That’s very different from a content farm rewrite, where they put a hyperlink in the fourth paragraph that says ‘The Daily Beast’– which the Daily Mail just did to us today on a great story we had.
The Cheat Sheet is different and I think it provides a service. We’ve seen a lot of fragmentation in the news media industry, and the right kind of credible source that curates the fragmentation for quality can give people a one-stop-shop to find out what’s happening right now. It has to be delivered with voice and have a good story mix. And then it should offer people an opportunity to go deeper if they want to.
Given your political background and interests, I have to ask you about the US nominations. It feels like we have this perfect storm gathering – where perhaps the dirtiest ever election battle is about to take place in a time when it’s never been easier to publish content and offer insight into what’s going on…
I wrote a book a few years ago called Wingnuts, which looked at how the lunatic fringe was hijacking American politics. This is all something that’s been brewing for a while and it’s certainly coming to a head – particularly within the Republican Party.
But part of the mission of The Daily Beast is to confront bullies, bigots and hypocrites. So to that extent, someone like Donald Trump is sort of tailor made to our mission. We are aggressive but fair, and insist on a fact-based debate. We’ve done some hard-hitting reports on Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz as well.
For us, the key to covering politics is to be non-partisan but not neutral, and that simply means that we’re not part of the cheerleading section for one particular party. Partisan media has hurt the credibility of media overall. We will take on bullies, bigots and hypocrites wherever they might emerge, without believing that everything’s magically morally equivalent.
Overall, this is a great time to be a political reporter. My word of caution would be that sometimes we get so excited at the prospect of covering the political circus that we can forget the element of public service that should be a core part of journalism. It can be fun to cover the Republican Party but we’re covering the republic first.
How much influence do you think the media, with all its ability to show so much now, will influence the outcome?
Well, I don’t think the media created Donald Trump. He rose out of a series of dynamics that have been occurring for a long time, which I wrote about in Wingnuts. I do think that an important part of that dynamic has been the rise of partisan media, because it has challenged the idea that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. That is dangerous in a democracy because it creates separate political realities. What journalism and the news media must do is insist on a fact-based debate so at least people are working off a common set of facts. And you do that without parroting a particular party line: Our columnists range from liberal to libertarian, and that ideological diversity, within a context of civil debate, is very important.
Where I think the news media has unwittingly colluded in the rise of Donald Trump is that, depending on what form of media you’re in, you’ll chase ratings and sometimes if you feel that people are going to stick around to watch what crazy thing Donald Trump says next, you’ll cover all of his press conference in a way that might not actually be proportionate to his importance in the race. And what Trump understood is the media’s Achilles’ heel: more than a liberal or conservative bias, we have a conflict bias. And he played to that conflict bias in a way that sucked up all the oxygen in the initial months of the Republican primary. But I’m proud of the way The Daily Beast has covered Donald Trump from day one.
John will be at FIPP London to talk about storytelling for mobile, but we are sure he would not mind a question or two on the US presidential nominations race Meet him in London. Visit FIPPLondon.com for more on FIPP London and/or register here.
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