How WPR Avoided the Lure of Viral Content

How WPR Avoided the Lure of Viral Content
Participants at the 6th Moscow Conference on International Security, Moscow, April 27, 2017 (Iliya Pitalev for Sputnik via AP).

The past nine years spent editing World Politics Review have put me in a privileged position to observe not only global affairs, but also media coverage of global affairs. In that time, a number of trends and evolutions in online media have dramatically changed the way we collectively are informed about the world, at times for better, but often for worse.

Never has there been so much global news available to the average reader. But the way news is now delivered means that quantity has not necessarily translated into quality.

Although this column normally focuses on the actual issues WPR covers, this week I’d like to call attention to how we cover them, because WPR’s own evolution over that time has been driven by a conscious decision to provide an alternative to the trends that have remade new media.

When I first started editing WPR, the buzzword for online media was that “content wants to be free.” If the guiding logic behind that trend proved illusory, the move toward free content nurtured habits among readers that were harder to break. Many media outlets have since readopted versions of metered or porous paywalls, and others never abandoned their exclusively paid-content models. But when it comes to the major players in online media today, content has remained free.

The hitch is that, instead of selling content to readers, online media now sell readers to advertisers, whether outsourced to social media and search engines or in-sourced to “native advertising” desks. And as Franklin Foer explained this week in the Atlantic, that in turn has led to an arms race to exploit both reader behavior and the algorithms that determine social media and search engine rankings, in a quest for the Holy Grail of today’s new media: viral content.

At WPR, we saw very early on that we would never generate the kind of scale needed to make advertising revenue viable, and so we were among the first new media sites to begin the migration from free to paid content. Over time, we raised and tightened our paywall, to the point where now almost everything we publish is available only to our subscribers. There are downsides to that approach. Readers obviously prefer free access to content. Writers similarly prefer the broader reach their work enjoys when it is freely accessible.

But there are also upsides to being a subscriber-funded site.

First, because WPR’s metric for success is how many customers we satisfy, measured only by subscriptions sold, we are free to ignore many of the more destructive current trends in online media, particularly the quest for viral content. Perhaps the most obvious effects of the viral model are the proliferation of clickbait, and the selection of topics by trending hashtags and memes rather than editorial judgment.

But viral content is also responsible for a creeping homogenization of online media. In the past, as Foer wrote, a print magazine was a portal to a broad range of coverage, and its identity was a composite of that offer. Now, readers often access online content that is atomized. At the scale of individual articles, this work is stripped of any sense of belonging to a larger editorial ensemble or vision. And as outlets compete for clicks by flooding the zone on trending topics, coverage increasingly seems interchangeable across sites.

By contrast, at WPR, we’re obviously pleased when our articles get widely noticed, but our first priority is delivering quality to our readers. That often means covering stories and topics that are largely ignored elsewhere, but that we consider significant, even if for a smaller range of readers. That could be a briefing about a flare-up in separatist violence in southern Thailand, or an email interview looking at Iran’s rapidly developing drone program.

WPR’s evolution has been driven by a conscious decision to provide an alternative to the trends that have remade new media.

When we do turn to widely covered stories, we seek out angles that have not yet been examined elsewhere. As Colombia haltingly implements its peace accord with FARC rebels, for instance, we have looked at the deal’s potential impact on Colombia’s LGBT community—and why the peace agreement is a potential solution, rather than an obstacle, to Colombia’s booming coca trade. And in addition to covering the politics of the crisis in the Gulf between Qatar and its neighbors in detail, we’ve also looked at how the conflict could affect the Horn of Africa.

But for me as an editor, my greatest satisfaction is when we spot stories and developments out on the horizon and cover them before they have emerged as headline news. Back in January 2013, for instance, we ran in-depth articles on the rise of far-right parties and the normalization of extremist parties in Europe. And in December 2014 we ran another on the threat to liberal democracy posed by populism more broadly.

That full range of coverage—from headline stories to quiet but significant developments to over-the-horizon previews, and from short briefings to in-depth long-form articles—is what gives WPR its particular profile and identity, and it wouldn’t be possible if our editorial choices were governed by the viral logic of today’s online media landscape.

WPR’s exclusive reliance on subscriptions for our business model is also an expression of our commitment to integrity. When we cover a topic, our readers can rest assured that it is only because we have determined it to be of significance, uncolored by any considerations of how our editorial decisions might impact advertising sales. Nor do our readers need to double-check to make sure they didn’t miss any small print identifying an article as sponsored content. And though it might seem surprising that this bears pointing out, we are not beholden to any of the governments or organizations we cover through any branding or lobbying relationships.

All of this allows us at WPR to define ourselves as a for-profit enterprise that is also a mission-based organization, “committed to integrity, quality, and the principles of an intellectually honest press whose exclusive purpose is to inform readers.” As we put it in a recent series of promotional posts on Twitter and Facebook, we believe that the best antidote to fake news is real analysis, and that our paywall is our readers’ quality guarantee.

Of course, we are not the only site that prizes quality and integrity. And many of the outlets that have embraced the dominant trends driving online media still produce journalism of the highest caliber.

But when I see observers and critics, like Foer, lamenting the proliferation of clickbait, fake news and homogenized content, my first reaction is to feel pride that WPR has managed to steer clear of these pitfalls. My next thought, though, is that readers have a choice. Alternatives are out there. And in seeking them, remember: You get what you pay for.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column, Balance of Power, appears every Wednesday.