Gleaning content lessons from a digital impresario
June 23, 2016
One of the co-founders of Politico recently made this provocative claim to The New York Times: “Journalists are killing journalism.”
How? By creating 50 versions of roughly the same article about the same event or development. In our digital age—where accessing streams of free content is as easy as breathing—that follow-the-pack strategy is a roadmap to irrelevancy.
Media companies need to distinguish themselves with website content consumers can’t get elsewhere. Maybe it’s deeply reported pieces that take major resources and significant time. Or maybe it’s great video or podcasts. Whatever it is, it should be unique and it should be distributed to consumers on whatever platform and in whatever medium they want.
This idea is relevant to law firms, too. Whether they realize or not, they’re also in the content business. Fortunately, law firms don’t depend on content to make money. But just like BuzzFeed and The Washington Post, they’re after the same precious commodity every time they publish an article, post a video or send a tweet: people’s time and attention. And every day, those two things seem to dwindle a bit more.
Which is why I reached out to David Lat, founder and managing editor of Above the Law. There may be no other legal news site that knows precisely why it exists and how to serve its readers more than Above the Law.
I wanted David’s take on what he’s learned about thriving in the digital media jungle and about becoming essential to his audience. While his experience is in journalism, I think what he has to say is applicable to law firms developing their content strategy and branded collateral. The biggest takeaway for me: be interesting and useful. Just as 50 stories of the same development is not helping journalism, 50 client alerts about what happened yesterday are not helping most law firms.
What have you learned about what works and doesn’t work in the digital age?
First, give readers what they can’t get elsewhere. In the digital age, there are really no barriers to entry for journalism, so numerous outlets compete for eyeballs. Sites must distinguish themselves with their content.
Second, give it to readers quickly. Maybe readers can get the information you’re sharing elsewhere, but if you publish first, you’re more likely to get the traffic—and to develop a reputation for being a place readers should visit first.
Third, eye-catching and clear headlines are key, both for getting readers through social media and for search engines. The days of witty, literary, but non-transparent headlines are over.
How do you use “ratings” information like page views/social media stats?
Page views and social-media shares are critical information for us. They play an important role in our editorial strategy. If we notice a certain type of story performing well, we’ll often produce follow-up or similar stories. On the flip side, if a story underperforms, we might not pursue it further. We of course still have room for editorial discretion—sometimes we’ll write or promote a story that doesn’t get a lot of traffic or sharing, because we feel it’s important—but at the end of the day, we want to produce stories that readers want to read.
How content is consumed today is so different than it was 10 years ago. If you were starting a media site today, would you do anything differently than you do today?
If I were starting a media site today, I’d make it “social-optimized” from the start, designed for easy sharing of articles through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social media has changed the game. Readers are increasingly coming to sites not as destinations in and of themselves, but through social channels. Here at Above the Law, social media is a big part of our strategy. We have great traction on Twitter and Facebook, but we always have room for improvement.
What have you found about your readers’ appetite for in-depth, nuanced posts?
Over the years, readers on the web have become more open to reading longer, in-depth, nuanced stories. In the early days of Above the Law, we tended to go short, maybe 400 to 600 words per post. But now readers are willing to spend more time with stories—as long as they’re interesting. As more readers read more content online, they’ve gotten used to spending more than a minute or two with a story. So it’s not unusual for us now to publish stories of 2,000 words or more. That’s still the exception rather than the rule—maybe now most posts clock in around 800 to 1,200 words—but it’s nice to have the flexibility to tell a story at its natural length, rather than having to adhere to some artificial word limit. That’s one nice thing about writing online over writing for print, where there are actual physical constraints on storytelling.
In my mind, law firms make a mistake when they put out content without much thought. How did you figure out what an “Above the Law story” is and what was best left to other outlets? Once you figured that out, did it require some discipline to stick with it?
When I launched Above the Law almost a decade ago, I had a fairly clear idea of what an Above the Law story was. Typically an ATL story focused more on personality, backstory, and human elements, rather than what I would call “substantive law.” Sticking to that framework wasn’t hard in the early days because I was the only writer and didn’t have enough time or bandwidth to do much more.
But as Above the Law has evolved to the point where we now have five full-time writers and more than twenty outside columnists, we offer a much wider range of content—including discussions of substantive law. But we still try to have an “angle,” in terms of a strong opinion or analysis or humor; we tend to leave the drier stuff to other outlets.