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?”

 

Edirin Oputu is an assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu