Can Pacific Standard thrive in a post-clickbait era?
By Simon Owens
In December 2011, on the night the news broke that Christopher Hitchens had died, Nicholas Jackson was in an Austin hotel room. Jackson, then an editor at the Atlantic, had just returned from drinking scotch at the hotel bar and was “slightly intoxicated,” as he put it to me, when he read the news of the author’s death. He’d been following Hitchens’s work for quite some time and had been particularly moved by the pugnacious writer’s Vanity Fair essays about his battle with esophageal cancer. His passing had reduced Jackson to tears.
It was in this emotional and inebriated state that Jackson typed out a 400-word obituary and published it directly to the Atlantic’s website; no other editor had reviewed it prior to publication (he told me by email he’s “convinced it was read and/or edited after being published”). “Even as a very small [editorial] team, we had put in place different systems, but the speed and pressure to compete when you have to follow the news cycle like that quickly breaks them down, whatever your intentions,” he told me recently.
Jackson didn’t tell me this story to criticize the Atlantic, but to illustrate how much the internet has shifted the dynamic for how magazines approach content production. This philosophy of “publish first, amend later — if necessary” is a far cry from how the magazine has edited articles for most of its 159-year history. In its print-only era, a single piece would receive several rounds of edits and pass through the desks of multiple editors, fact checkers, and designers before it saw the light of day. Because issues were typically planned out months in advance, its coverage had only a tenuous connection to the news cycle. But starting in 2009, with the launch of a vertical called Atlantic Wire, the magazine signaled its shift to a high-metabolism publishing schedule, one that would allow it to aggregate and respond to the news at a blog-like pace. The strategy seemed to pay off; 2010 was its first profitable year in decades.
It didn’t take long for many magazines to follow suit. The general thinking was that monetizing content on the internet meant scaling web traffic to sell ads against, and the only way to achieve scale was to publish constantly. This is why you see New York aggregating celebrity news and why the New Republic fired its well-liked editor, Franklin Foer, and replaced him with Gabriel Snyder, the former editor of Atlantic Wire. Even the New Yorker, which has historically prided itself on ignoring the news cycle, has beefed up its web staff and is publishing more than a dozen items a day.
Yes, these magazines still publish the longform articles for which they’ve been historically known, but they’ve generally accepted the notion that curation — the fluff — is what will ultimately pay the bills. “My work at Outside is a good example of this,” said Jackson, referencing his year-long stint as digital director at the outdoors magazine. “There was nowhere else that I could take some of my digital money and send someone to live on base camp at Everest for a few months and report back by satellite phone. And that’s incredible. But to have that money I had to do a lot of ‘here are the 10 best backpacks to go hiking with’ and ‘here’s a short listicle about beautiful travel spots.’ That seems like an incredible deal for me, because at least I got to do good stuff that the other stuff paid for.”
But what if he no longer had to publish the “other stuff” — the listicles, the hot takes, the SEO-optimized “what time do the New York primary polls close” articles? It’s Jackson’s pursuit of this question that led to him leaving Outside in 2013 to join the staff of Pacific Standard, first as digital director and then, in mid-2015, as editor-in-chief.
If you’ve only recently become aware of Pacific Standard, that’s because it hasn’t been around all that long. Launched in 2008, it was originally called Miller-McCune, named after Sara Miller McCune, founder of the academic publisher SAGE Publications. She envisioned the magazine serving as a kind of bridge between the academic world and mainstream readers, a way for scholarly literature to be translated for the masses. Though it collected a number of awards and accolades in those early years, it wasn’t until it rebranded as Pacific Standard in 2012 that it began to receive wider recognition within the publishing world. Shortly before the announcement it hired Maria Streshinsky, a former managing editor at the Atlantic, as its editor-in-chief, and she immediately set about recruiting the editors and writers that would establish the magazine as an inimitable read.
Jackson was one of those recruits. As digital director, he was charged with taking the bi-monthly print magazine and building a web presence around it that included a healthy dose of digital-only content. It was around this time that the magazine began producing some blockbuster articles that reverberated well beyond the publication’s Santa Barbara headquarters into the larger media world. Though I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of Pacific Standard, it was likely with the publication of “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Written by Amanda Hess, a longtime feminist writer who now works for the New York Times, the 2014 piece was one of the first to document the cavalcade of hateful messages often directed at female journalists and writers. It was especially prescient given that it presaged the rise of Gamergate and widespread debate on how social media platforms should address the vitriol and hate directed toward women and minority users. The article would go on to win a National Magazine Award in the public interest category, Pacific Standard’s first.
So how would you define Pacific Standard’s journalistic approach? First and foremost, said Jackson, he wants it to be viewed as a general interest magazine, one that you’d compare in quality to the likes of venerable publications like the New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Times Magazine. When I initially approached him about writing this article, I pitched it as a piece about how Pacific Standard has become the New Yorker of the West Coast, but he pushed back against this narrative. “I think a lot of the work we’ve been doing, especially in the last six months or so … is comparable to that of the New Yorker in many ways — pushing deep reporting, encouraging and allowing (and building the necessary copy-editing and fact-checking infrastructure) for long-simmering investigative work, being aggressive on digital in original (and non-aggregation-based) ways, etc,” he wrote in an email. “But, while all of us here are fans [of the New Yorker], we don’t really consider ourselves a regional version of that title. We’re building something new and, I think, better.”
Speaking to editors at Pacific Standard, I heard very little talk of web traffic growth, social media subscribers, or any of the other metrics you usually see quoted in press releases from other publications. Instead, their emphasis was on “impact.” “All of our stories have big consequences,” said Jennifer Sahn, the magazine’s executive editor. “Our tagline is ‘stories that matter,’ and I think that really cuts to the chase of what we’re trying to do here.” Deputy editor Ryan Jacobs is responsible for commissioning many of the pieces for the magazine, and he takes that mantra to heart when assessing a pitch. “Does it have the potential for impact on either public policy or at the community level?” he asked. “And does it serve the public interest? I think that’s something we think about a lot.”
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The bulk of Pacific Standard’s reporting falls under four pillars: social justice, the environment, the economy, and education. It covers these issues primarily through an academic lens. “Outside of academia and the ivory tower, I would bet more academic journals are read front to back in this tiny office I’m standing in than anywhere else,” said Jackson. When the magazine does focus on recent events, it’s usually to explain them through data gleaned from a think tank or academic study. An article concerning the Republicans’ steadfast refusal to hold hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, for instance, cites data from a judicial watchdog group that found a lack of professional diversity in President Obama’s judicial nominations. In pieces like this one, the news event merely acts as a segue to a discussion of the bigger picture. The closest the magazine gets to “aggregation” can be found in its “quick studies” section, which consists of brief summaries of recently-published scholarly articles, but even those take work. “We don’t do them unless we’ve read the study and we’ve reached out to the researcher,” said Jackson. “There’s reporting in our version of aggregation that requires a hell of a lot of time and legwork.”
Given that Pacific Standard stakes its success or failure on its impact, I asked its editors how they measure the impact of a particular article. Sometimes it’s through direct reader feedback, as was the case with its “Children of the Tribes” story where reporter Julia Scheeres investigated the exploitative labor practices and child abuse inflicted by members of the Twelve Tribes, a Vermont-based Christian cult. “We were getting letters from some of the people who had been Twelve Tribes members that said reading the story had brought back memories from when they had left,” said Jacobs. “And they were encouraging family members who were still part of the community to leave.” In other cases, a Pacific Standard article has led to direct action from a government body or corporation. In early 2015, the magazine ran a story on exploitative prison labor practices, and a few months later Whole Foods announced it would no longer do business with Colorado Correctional Industries, the company featured in the article. Issues that are first highlighted in Pacific Standard often drive further coverage in the mainstream media. “I think there are several cases where we’ll cover something and we’ll notice that other sites are starting to cover our coverage or cover it on their own,” said Jacobs. “I think that’s great. If we can cover things that are important and crucial to the public interest and another magazine bigger than us pushes the story forward, I’m all for that.”
Pacific Standard’s staff is small; Jackson said it has a headcount of 13 full-time staffers, most of whom work in editorial. He estimated that about 30 percent of the content produced for the website comes from the full-time staff while the rest is written by freelancers, some on long term contracts with the magazine. “I can run a newsroom that puts out 60 or 70 stories a week between the site and the print magazine, and I can do that all on [New Yorker editor] David Remnick’s salary,” he said (for the record, New York estimates Remnick’s salary at $1 million).
One obvious question for any magazine launching in the 21st century: why bother with a print version at all? Many of the most high profile journalism outlets to emerge over the last decade have been digital-only, and the costs of building a print apparatus are not insignificant. “We’re trying to make print something that lasts,” said Jackson. “There’s no reason to be in print if you’re not trying to create a keepsake, a coffee table object that you’re inspired to share with other people and pass around. Because you want to keep it and display it it can influence a much greater number of readers than a page load on a site can do. We put a lot of thought into that. We want something that lasts longer than a moment.”
It seems clear, however, that the magazine is still trying to figure out its print strategy. It started out with the goal of generating 100,000 subscribers — with the idea that such an audience would attract advertisers — and took the traditional route of buying up subscribers from shuttered print magazines like the Wilson Quarterly and US News & World Report. But recently Pacific Standard switched gears by shedding many of the subscribers it had purchased and focusing on organic growth. “We wanted to clear them off and say even if our subscriber list is 3,000 people, we want to be in a space where those 3,000 people found us in the market and decided they wanted to subscribe to us and submitted their money,” Jackson explained. “We’re not advertising subscriptions anywhere. They have to come to us and give us their money.” In some cases, the magazine still engages in distribution, like when it provides free copies in airport lounges and on Capitol Hill. He estimated a circulation of about 50,000.
At the same time, Jackson is trying to chip away at the print-digital divide practiced at many publications. Traditionally, a magazine reserves its longform feature articles — as well as all the time and resources that go into producing them — for the print version while relegating shorter pieces to the website. “We ran an online 6,000-word deep dive a couple weeks ago, and it was never discussed as a print piece,” said Sahn. “The key is to be nimble and look at the material and to understand what kind of editorial life the piece is asking for, how quickly it needs to get out there.” In some cases, Jackson said, they’ll run an online-only piece through the same fact-checking process applied to print stories. “Even with our quick stuff, we do have a process by which everything is looked at by two editors before it goes live.”
Of course I haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Pacific Standard is a nonprofit, and it doesn’t produce enough revenue through the magazine to be self-sustaining. It’s funded mainly by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which contributes most of its $3 million annual budget to the magazine. Jackson said the magazine brings in some revenue from subscriptions and is about to launch a live events series, but it doesn’t have a full-time ad sales staff and he didn’t make it sound like breaking even was a huge priority at this point. A skeptic would say that it’s easy to turn your nose up at “fluff” content when you have a large benefactor bankrolling you, and all the editors I spoke to acknowledged they don’t face the same pressures found at most publications.
But we do seem to be entering a “post-clickbait” era where publications are experimenting with doing away with commodity content. Writing on Medium, Verge co-founder Joshua Topolsky argued that digital media companies “built up scale in digital to replace user value. We thought we could solve with numbers (the new, seemingly infinite numbers the internet and social media provides) what we couldn’t solve with attention. And with every new set of eyeballs (or clicks, or views) we added, we diminished the merit of what we made. And advertisers asked for more, because those eyes were worth less. And we made more. And it was less valuable.” New startups — from the Information, to Stratechery, to Wirecutter — are experimenting with premium content that isn’t monetized with traditional ads. In a recent interview for Digiday, New Yorker web editor Nicholas Thompson explained how his team attempts to apply the same level of quality control to the website as you’d find within the print magazine.
With ad blocking adoption on the rise and display advertising rates continuing to plummet, media executives are being forced to reconsider what kind of value they offer their readers. And though it’s not always easy to figure out what that value is or what it should be, adopting Pacific Standard’s mantra — “stories that matter” — as cliche-sounding as it is, seems like just as good a place to start as any.
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As a longtime journalist who’s written for national publications including US News & World Report, The Atlantic…medium.com