Matt Thompson’s Dark Secrets of the Online Overlords: A Recap

Matt and I pretending we were at prom, May 2011

For as long as I’ve known Matt Thompson (we first met a concert in Austin, natch), he’s shocked and awed me with his large brain. Over the past half decade, everything I was trying or figuring out or finding success with in digital and multi-platform journalism, Matt had already thought through, unpacked and articulated. He’s not just a close friend who rescues my $20 bills when they go flying into downtown streets, he is my journalism sherpa.

Few people can describe what’s happening across the media landscape and what audiences need from journalists better than Matt. His world-famous (or at least it should be) ‘Dark Secrets of the Online Overlords‘ presentation explains how we can take the webby sensibility that pervades the most-popular sites on the web and use it to do great, public interest journalism. Yesterday he shared the secrets with our StateImpact reporters and it got a fantastic response, so we will post the video of our webinar soon. But for now, a recap:


1. Package, Repackage, Repeat

Matt shares the example of LifeHacker and how they launched a series of packaged-and-repackaged posts about the best music discovery sites online. First, a call out post asking what’s the best music discovery site online. Then, culling the comment thread for a post called the “Five Best Music Discovery Services”. Then a poll post, asking readers to vote for the Best Discovery Service. That led to the “Best Music Discovery Service is Pandora” post. Then, that post was included in a new post called “The Week’s Most Popular Posts.” And wait, one more — an end of year Best of 2010 post that features the original “Best Music Discovery Service” post.

Why is this a discipline you should master? Packaging reinforces. Packaging extends reach. Your original call out post may only draw your insiders, but your Ultimate Best Service post is likely to reach the lurkers in your audience, or folks who have never heard of you before. And finally, packaging plays on the idea of stock and flow. Your incremental “flow” posts add up to the “stock” post — the guide that makes for a fixed information asset for your users.

2. Numbering is Narrative

Magazine editors have known this for years. People love numbered lists. The listicle is a powerful format because it’s a way to cohere a set of facts or ideas that may not have a narrative sweep but can be powerful taken together. Remember — lists promise specifics. Lists promise limits (you only need to read THESE specific things). And lists promise hierarchy. The web isn’t great at determining a hierarchy of information, but if you can make a promise in your list for hierarchy, you can provide compelling content and build a wider audience.

3. Headlines are Hooks

Remember, when possible write your web headlines as if you’re writing for a magazine, not a newspaper. Instead of “this thing happened,” your headline should focus on “what this means, or what is the implication.” Remember that parsability (we don’t want multiple dependent clauses in a headline) and authority are key. Readers want the essential thing about X. And formulating an authoritative headline before you even begin reporting can help focus your reporting as well, because you will be driven to deliver on the promise in your headline. Matt’s suggestions for winning headlines are available on the Project Argo Blog.

4. Comments are Content

Make your blog a place where people don’t just come to read what you’re writing but to talk with others about what you’re writing. As an author, respond to your commenters, draw people out, take seriously what the commenters are saying. Have concern for the quality of your comments.

5. Explain, Explain, Explain

We cannot do enough of it. We’re making it our StateImpact franchise. This is what your topics pages are for, and the approach you should take with every banner post you write. You cannot explain something enough. Web users are tolerant of repetition, and explaining something again and again only makes you a better explainer.

6. Illustrate Everything.

Even in policy reporting, we can be creative in how we visualize how policies play out. And when it comes to our page design, remember that while Huffington Post (one of the Online Overlords) may be unattractive, HuffPo knows two things well:
a.) Users read in an F pattern, which means they don’t tend to read content in the right rail. So the one of the most effective ways to draw eyes over to the right side of your page is…
b.) Posting faces. Faces compel our gaze. We’re evolutionarily conditioned to see faces. Remember that for your featured images for posts and topics pages.

7. Compete Through Co-Optation

A key part of our mission is to act as smart curators. Where conventional wisdom of 10 years ago was that you don’t link out, a key idea in web publishing today is to send your readers to other great places. If you are a trusted curator, a trusted source of other links on your beat, your users will come back to you over and over again. Compete through co-optation. If your competitors are already covering something, just link to them. Don’t replicate stories. Round them up.

8. Minimal is Magical

Matt talks a lot about the Sully lede, which he named after Andrew Sullivan. The sully lead is simple. Noun, verb, blockquote. “A reader writes: [blockquote]”. It’s quick. It demands listening on your part. It evokes a conversation. It triggers awareness. It communicates that you have so much to tell your readers that you must hurry.

9. Hustle Like a Shark

Our most successful bloggers are also the best at promoting their work, getting it seen by the folks who drive a lot of the conversation and influence on their beats. After you finish a piece or if you’re in the midst of reporting a series, call those products to people’s attention.

10. Streams Beat Stories

Pay more attention to the stream of stories you’re reporting than any one particular piece. What’s more valuable in Twitter? A single retweet, or a new follower? Followers are better than RTs. Twitter reinforces the very idea we’re trying to get at in our mission: getting someone engaged in your entire flow of information is better than engaging them in one post or article.

Thinking this way should inform your work. Remember: Feed > Post. Subscriber > Visitor. And it could be the future:

“[Jeff Jarvis says] news is more of a process than a product. Instead of being limited to articles, consumers can just reach into “the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital.” In this view, just keeping the flow going is the main job of journalism, with articles sometimes useful as a byproduct. I like the image of the never-starting, never-ending stream.” –Philip Meyer for Nieman Reports

Some of these sound mercenary or insidious, but remember that these tricks of the web overlords can be used for noble purposes. We’re doing important, public service journalism on the web. But it should be seen. So it’s time to put the secrets to work.

The slides:

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