These thoughts on online journalism and such like are things I’ve been thinking about for a while, immediately motivated by my own little tantrum on Twitter, occasioned by the disastrous reader numbers I was seeing on this article. Actually, largely as a resulting of my undignified whining, a lot of nice people picked the article up and its readership stats aren’t all that bad now, but the general points remain valid, in my view.
Around the time of the launch of Vox.com, Ezra Klein made an analogy that resonated with me:
In journalism, you’ll sometimes hear articles about hard topics referred to as “vegetables” or “the spinach” — the idea being that readers don’t like those subjects but they should be reading about them anyway. Our view is that there’s no important topic that can’t be made interesting to the audience. If we’re writing about something important — something that matters in people’s lives — and we’ve made it boring then that failure is on us, not on our readers.
Vegetables can be cooked poorly. But they can also be roasted to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt.
This is certainly one approach to the preparation of otherwise unpalatable but virtuous fact-nutrition. However, here’s an alternative:
- Take the same original plate of metaphorical vegetables
- Chuck all the popular and/or fashionable ones away, like parsnips and kale.
- Replace them with more bitter chard, brussels sprouts and celeriac, and other stuff that people chuck out of their vegetable boxes
- Add some kohl-rabi and other weird rubbish. Sprinkle it with habanero peppers
- Don’t roast it at all. Lightly dress it with unsweetened verjus and Fernet-Branca.
I think we can agree two things about this hypothetical vegetable offering:
- Almost nobody would look twice at it on a menu
- But of the half dozen people who did order it, you would want all of them to be your mates.
I am making a note to myself to remember a lesson I learned at great expense through trial and error when I was an analyst, but have slowly forgotten over the course of a year looking at online readership statistics:
When it comes to readership, quality matters at least as much as quantity.
It’s hard not to sound a bit snobby about what is, at base, an intrinsically elitist thing to say but here’s my best shot…
There’s no sense in writing down to the level of the readers you think are out there. Half the time they aren’t really there, and the rest of the time, they’re not interested in a watered-down version of the real product. Even if you succeed, all that you achieve is that now a bunch of morons don’t understand the subject and think that you agree with them.
It’s much better to write the piece that you want to read yourself, which usually means pitching the technical content at a level slightly higher than you were comfortable with when you started thinking about it. That doesn’t mean using jargon or writing dull sentences, but it does mean refusing to dumb down, and it definitely means keeping all the complexity in the article which you were able to wrap your own head around.
You get fewer readers this way, but more of them email you. And if you do it right, some of the ones that email you are real professionals — people who you never imagined having a conversation with when you started writing stuff on a website. Rather than sifting through a thousand comments section bores, you attract an audience that is more likely to be sufficiently interested in the subject to make an effort to carry on a conversation, and exponentially more likely to have an interesting point when they do so.
Even a bit of out-and-out jargon has its place. Would the Joseph Cotterill pari-passu saga be so utterly beloved by its readers if it had broken off every now and then to link to a set of explainer cards telling you what all the legal terms mean? A big part of the joy of hobbies like bird-watching, stamp-collecting and related pursuits is the mastery of a new set of concepts and the language that goes with them. And one shouldn’t underestimate the attraction of trainspotterism — it’s a powerful enough intellectual pleasure that in quite a few people it can substitute for a sex drive.
So, that’s my manifesto going forward, I think. Subject to one fairly important caveat, which is my long held view that manifestoes are invariably bollocks and people who write them are saps. It’s not so much an intentional decision to make things complicated and appeal to only some vague notion of a cognitive elite. I’ve always believed, like Ezra, that anything important can be explained in an interesting fashion to any intelligent layman who’s prepared to apply herself. But it’s a reminder to myself that “to thine own self be true” is the only philosophy of writing that is consistent with long term soul preservation. And that there will be times when following this path means that hardly anyone reads your stuff, and that these times are a great opportunity to make the acquaintance of some top fellers.