Clickable. Shareable. Likeable. Social media increasingly drives more web traffic than search engine optimization, and a clever headline now outweighs even the most diligent string of tags and phrases.
That’s why some sites are offering unique, personalized experiences that they hope will not only attract visitors, but also make them stick around. Gawker is letting readers rewrite headlines and reframe articles. Quartz has introduced an “annotated comments” feature in the margins of its articles. And PolicyMic, a news and politics site specifically designed for millennials, is making news and journalism more interactive by letting a user’s contributions be just as important as a writer’s original content.
Founded two years ago by lifelong friends Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz—the latter is a liberal and worked for
PolicyMic isn’t Medium or Upworthy; its articles don’t command the same reach. (Compare their respective Twitter followings: PolicyMic has approximately 14,000 followers; Upworthy around 180,000; and Medium over 200,000.) Yet Horowitz and Altchek have successfully captured the attention of a demographic that’s supposed to be more interested in LOLcats than Syria: They’re clearly doing something right, and other outlets will probably follow.
With a target audience of 18- to 35-year-olds, Horowitz likes to think of the site as a cross between NPR or Guardian-style content, and BuzzFeed-inspired digital flair. “We want to be the next New York Times for millennials,” he said eagerly.
But it’s the “upmicing” process that makes PolicyMic unique. Comments sections have traditionally been relegated to the very bottom of pages, with readers asked to give their opinions almost as an afterthought. Not so on PolicyMic. “The mission was to create a comments section that actually mattered, where people were incentivized to say something more meaningful than usual,” Horowitz said. The site borrows concepts from video games and Foursquare to create a system in which users reward each other for thought-provoking comments by giving a thumbs-up or “mic.” “When you sign up for an account on the site, you start off as a commenter, with a small word limit. As you get more mics for saying smart things in the comments, you work your way up through a system of levels, and at the highest level you become a pundit,” Horowitz explained. In short, users help choose who earns a chance at the microphone.
Upmicing is a novel way of making news more interactive, and it’s a popular one too: PolicyMic receives 7.5 million unique visitors per month, and 60,000 people have signed up for accounts, many of them based in major US cities like San Francisco, Washington DC, Austin, and New York. But the process isn’t infallible—just because someone writes good comments doesn’t mean they will also have the capacity to write long, elegant prose. Nor does becoming a pundit automatically grant them the power to write and post anything they choose. Rather, they get to apply to a PolicyMic editor (the site employs 15 of them) with a writing sample, and then he or she decides whether to bring them on as a full-fledged (unpaid) pundit.
People spend an average of 30 minutes on the site per visit, according to Horowitz, mostly reading and commenting. It’s a deliberately addictive process bent on driving traffic, stimulating conversation, and generating content. “We have made it so that once you start participating, it becomes very difficult to stop,” he said. “Everything we do is trying to showcase the community,” and the staff “spend a lot of time singling out the really smart pundits and putting them in front of our audience.” The ideal pundit has “a basic writing competency,” and “well-informed opinions.” Most aren’t full-time journalists, nor do they wish to be. They are simply young people with a passion, and a desire to share their views on the biggest platform possible.
PolicyMic now boasts 2,000 pundits, 600 of whom write every week. Although Jessie Bullock, a 24-year-old Vanderbilt University graduate who specializes in Latin American issues, didn’t work her way up through the upmicing process—she was chosen as a pundit after applying via the site’s “50 under 30 Challenge”—she still finds it fascinating. “It’s not as dependent on, not as fixed on the news cycle and what’s hot,” she said. “The pieces that I’ve written that are more straightforward and more explanatory are usually the ones that have fewer mics,” while articles that have “a really specific, directed point-of-view are the ones that gather more mics.”
Pundits aren’t paid, but Bullock keeps writing because she enjoys it, and because comments from the site’s editorial team have helped her improve her style. “I’m thinking about entering academia and it’s good training for expressing myself concisely and clearly,” she said. Bullock didn’t go to journalism school or take any journalism classes at college, so “having their [the editors’] feedback was like jumping in and learning on the job,” she said.
In fact, the opportunity to have work scrutinized and polished by an editor before it’s published is a large part of what draws writers to PolicyMic. “Our writers tell us that’s what they live for, that feedback, because they’re not getting that from other people,” Horowitz said.
And soon users will have even more incentive to participate. PolicyMic will be launching a revamped mic system later this month, which will reward writers for publishing articles, among other changes. “We want to promote people’s reputations a lot more on the site, so that over time, if somebody has proven that they’re a really valuable commenter, not only do they get to be a pundit, but their comments appear higher in the discussion”, allowing them to become “thought leaders,” Horowitz said.
The upmicing process is just one part of PolicyMic’s evolving relationship with its readers. Managing a “user-generated contributor network” that produces dozens of high-quality articles per day “isn’t a model most people have figured out,” Horowitz said. “We’re trying to get it down to a science: What content do millennials want to read?” and “what framing and what topics do they really want to read about?”