At these outlets, the editor—Marshall, Denton, Sullivan—is the public embodiment of the blog’s attitude and ethos. Not coincidentally, all of these sites are also known for the loyalty and active involvement of their readers. TPM famously relied on readers across the nation to contribute reports about the firing of US Attorneys, which added up to a major Bush-era scandal. Sullivan frequently quotes commenters, often at great length, and Gawker is the envy of the Internet for its volume of high-quality user feedback.
The contrast with traditional media is stark. How many readers can tell you about the personality of their local paper’s editor? “I think the invisibility of editors has really hurt news organizations,” says Ann Friedman, 31, the former executive editor of Good and a weekly Web columnist for New York magazine and CJR. “Except for the occasional ombudsman and the very top editors at The New York Times, I don’t know who’s curating my news. When I go to Andrew Sullivan, or the Hairpin, or [The Atlantic’s] Ta-Nehisi Coates, I know who is curating my news.”
The idea has long been that an editor is “this faceless, objective Wizard of Oz type,” to maintain the appearance of objectivity. “Editors should be communicating as humans with their readers,” Friedman says. “The idea that you’re getting a point of view is important. It’s not necessarily a left or right political view; it’s just knowing you’ll get a certain type of tone and content.”
They like having the news find them
A corollary to the existence of empowered and participatory news consumers is that media organizations must now be simultaneously more aggressive in reaching out to them and more humble in their tone when doing so. One can no longer simply produce strong content and rest assured that readers or viewers will order a subscription or tune in every night. They must try to be everywhere their potential readers are: on social-media platforms, in their email inbox, and in their mobile device’s app store. “We’re moving from ‘pull,’ where you request your morning newspaper, to ‘push,’ where links are being put in front of your in your morning inbox or Twitter stream,” says Quartz’s Seward.
Sites like The Atlantic Wire, Slate, and The Daily Beast have recently found success by distributing their take on the day’s news through the digital revolution’s oldest invention: email. Newsletters such as Slate’s “The Slatest” and The Daily Beast’s “The Cheat Sheet” are the modern equivalent of Time or Newsweek, catering to the upper-middlebrow tranche of online news consumers. For them, it used to be enough to get the news sifted and summarized once per week; now, with news sites churning out stories every few minutes, a daily email recap serves a similar function.
In this era of customization, the aggregating and summarizing functions are now being divided into specialized demographic markets, such as the 22- to 34-year-old upscale women targeted by theSkimm, a daily email newsletter founded last year by Carly Zakin, 27, and Danielle Weisberg, 26, who met while working at NBC. TheSkimm’s online sign-up page says it “simplifies the headlines for the educated professional who knows enough to know she needs more.” The Skimm uses cut-to-the-chase phrases but introduces topics playfully: A hostage-taking by militants in Algeria was teased as “A Really Bad Argo Sequel.”
“We saw our friends weren’t getting served by traditional media,” says Zakin. “An email newsletter made the most sense . . . to make it part of the daily routine. I wake up, roll over, and look at my email.”