Is UpWorthy moving closer to journalism?

The hiring of Amy O'Leary suggests the site may soon produce original content
January 6, 2015

Last Spring, in the midst of reporting a feature on the idealistic hit-maker UpWorthy, I asked site co-founder Peter Koechley when we could expect the company, which repackages existing online content with viral potential, to start making its own. Koechley deflected my question, but he didn’t rule it out. He compared UpWorthy to Netflix: “We’ve spent some time looking at the great content other people have made,” he told me. And before launching their own House of Cards, “we’re really happy to wait for all the insights that we have from that.”

But UpWorthy seems to be inching closer to bringing original work into its viral orbit by hiring Amy O’Leary, one of journalism’s thought leaders on narrative in the digital space, as editorial director. (Headline: Why This Amazing Woman is Joining UpWorthy As Our Editorial Director.)

Currently a deputy editor of The New York Times‘ international desk, O’Leary has been integral to the paper’s digital innovation, working on the multimedia team as a hybrid reporter and digital editor–as well as helping to author the outlet’s much-covered innovation report. Outside the Gray Lady, O’Leary is one of the most prominent speakers about how to use digital tools to enhance narrative. (She’s even put these intersections into practice by live-tweeting her own speeches.)

By hiring a journalist with O’Leary’s caliber and vision–she is reportedly one of the most influential voices at the Times–UpWorthy is signaling the importance of the craft of storytelling for their company’s future. And O’Leary’s decision to move has even more profound implications: It’s another sign that generating an audience–and the companies with the power to do that–are increasingly crucial to producing journalism of any worth in the first place.

O’Leary declined to say whether she would be leading UpWorthy in producing its own content (“It’s much too early for that,” she told me Tuesday afternoon, by phone) explaining that the move would allow her to focus fully on a question integral to journalism’s future: How do you capture a reader’s attention? UpWorthy, O’Leary said, is one of the most potent forces online studying how to get a reader’s attention. Its techniques may be simple–changing headlines, placing images, optimizing language for social media–but the data it’s cultivating provides a road-map into how to form an audience.

“I’m always telling traditional journalists we’re in this battle for people’s attention now,” said O’Leary. “We have to pay very close attention to, not only how we write our stories, but also how readers find our stories and how they share them.”

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UpWorthy achieved internet fame as the annoying propagator of “You’ll Never Believe” curiosity-gap headlines (a traffic technique O’Leary has spoken against in the past). But in the last six months, the site has moved away from the headlines it popularized and toward other techniques aimed at not only draw an audience, but helping retain it, a crucial growth area for news organizations now–in a staff memo on Tuesday, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet announced that the paper had created an “audience development department,” a move originally championed by O’Leary et. al in the innovation report, crediting the unit with a 20-percent increase in readership in the last few months.

“I think every media company needs to figure out both the traditional question–what stories are we telling–but also the second new question in the digital age: What does it mean to reach our readers?” O’Leary said. It’s not the same as creating content, but for journalism now, it’s just as important.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.