The Algorithm of Popularity

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a superintendent of a local school out in the Southwest. As she told me her story, she was practically in tears. She felt helpless in the face of a crisis that was looming in her future. I asked her and others who were deeply involved in this issue if they had talked to someone from a national press about this issue. They said no.

So, I have been hammering away at this topic for weeks now. As a freelance writer, I can make a decent living, if I go from pitch to submited article in two weeks. There’s a formula to these pieces. Start with a compelling story. Explain how it involves X number of people or involves X number of dollars. Interview an academic expert, a think tank type person, refer to some studies, and then return back to the compelling story. 1,200 words and you’re good to go.

But I didn’t do that. I kept talking to people. And writing up their comments until I reached 2,500 words. Any self-respecting editor will cut that in half and slap it up on a website. This will certainly happen. But I kept going, because I think I have more than one article here. I think I have a book topic.

But before I get that far, I need to see if that one article will take off. I need to see if there are enough people interested in the topic, which will justify another few weeks of uncompensated time pulling together a book proposal. I’ve done them before and gotten nowhere, so I want to test the waters before I keep digging and writing.

Getting an article to go viral, meaning lots of regular people read the article and link to it on their Facebook page, is a very complicated matter.

Of course, a lot has to do with matters that are beyond the scope of a writer. An editor has to love the topic, write an excellent headline that either makes people curious or confirms a pre-existing belief or bias. An editor can effectively kill your article by publishing it on a Friday, rather than a Monday, or by not publicizing enough on the website’s social media.

I can’t emphasize how important those gatekeepers are to exposure to ideas. If they don’t like the topic (or the person) at the heart of a story, you can’t get past square one.

Another factor that determines popularity is the audience. If the audience is well organized, woke, and is organized by outside groups, then your article will do well.

For example, I write a lot about special education and autism issues. It’s always better to write my articles with the word autism in the title, rather than special education. Parents of autistic children are super well organized on their own with tons of groups on Facebook. A link by Autism Speaks on Facebook is automatic gold, since they have over a million followers. Special ed is too broad of a term and doesn’t have an organized constituency.

Popularity requires both grassroots and elite interest. An article that is retweeted dozens of times by education geeks on Twitter may not necessarily capture the interest of ordinary parents on Facebook. And links from Facebook brings in more readers than RTs on Twitter. But you also want the endorsement of your peers on Twitter, because that’s another kind of win.

Of course, having a compelling story that impacts a lot of people and is well written is an important element of popularity, but there are millions of story like that every day. There is so much great journalism out there that doesn’t get enough attention. To be read widely requires more than producing a quality piece. It requires strategy.

As a writer, popularity is important because it means that you can command higher salaries and editors return your emails. A good topic can lead to book deals, which leads to speaking engagements, which is where the real money is.

All of those selfish reasons for desiring popularity are important. This is a job, after all. But sometimes you want popularity because you feel very strongly that an issue deserves more attention. Sometimes as a writer, you just love your topic and want to champion the people who are being ignored. Sometimes, it’s a mission.

36 thoughts on “The Algorithm of Popularity

  1. Inside larger publications it can also be about that editor’s popularity/power, like will the homepage and social media editor give the article a chance. Or how many articles on that topic are around, or how the last one did. There are also a lot of tools for content where articles will move out of prime positions due to lack of clicks, or A/B headline testing will determine which headline appears. And then there’s timing – if it appears the moment another bigger story drops, you’re a bit out of luck.

    All of which is to say, absolutely.


  2. That’s why I like the internet; it’s possible to find people who write about issues editors and pressure groups don’t care about.

    Of course advertising drives editorial decisions, so the people writing about unpopular issues are bloggers.


  3. Good luck with the article and finding the niche where you can find the returns from editors, book deals, and speaking engagements. It’s interesting to see you explore the different business models in the rapidly changing field.


    1. Laura said, “school buildings are falling down.”


      My hometown high school in WA was built in the 1920s and when I went there in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it still had the old school brick main entrance. They recently built a new high school and the old brick entrance is gone. On the one hand, it’s a bummer to lose the old entrance (which was really charming and iconic) and a number of the new buildings look like Star Trek sets, but on the other hand, hopefully the new high school campus will hold up a while.

      As we homeowners know, maintaining buildings requires a constant IV drip of money. It’s hard to keep stuff maintained that sits out in the rain…I also strongly suspect that a lot of 1950s/1960s/1970s buildings weren’t originally built with the intention of them lasting 40-70 years. My primary school had accordion dividers between classrooms (!) and I can’t imagine that held up well. (I don’t know when it was built, but since I started kindergarten in 1980, I presume 1970s.)

      Come to think of it, how about handicapped accessibility in older schools?


  4. This is such a big problem. So many schools built at the same time in communities (during the baby boom) and with thins like property tax limits, there’s no money (or appetite to raise taxes) to replace them. We have a problem with old buildings in my town (not yet falling down, but really needing replacement) and got an estimate from consultants as to how much it would cost us to start replacing. The low end estimate started at ~80 million, and that doesn’t even include our middle school (the old high school) which is the worst building of the lot or completely solve our problems. That may not seem like much, but it took us YEARS to get voters to approve a ~10 million override for our new police building – when the old one was unusable due to Legionnaire’s and the police were working out of mobile trailers. It’s so overwhelming I don’t even know where to start – and I am on the School Committee so getting the public to support this is really part of my (unpaid) job. I’ll be interested in read what you write about this.


  5. Can you explain why an editor would cut a good, solid 2500 word piece to 1250? I understand for a piece that’s going into a physical journal, but on the internet, why not just have a second page (or whatever works for the ad revenue)?

    State universities are falling down, too. According to an administrator I sort of trust, my school has an unbelievable amount of deferred maintenance. It sounds like the place could fall apart at any minute.

    Good luck getting it out there!


    1. Editors don’t want long articles for a few reasons. I think a lot of people walk away from an article without even starting it, if it looks like it’s going to be too long. Long articles are complicated with lots of ideas and complexity — none of which plays well on the Internet. And long articles take editor a long time to edit and fact check. They don’t have the bandwidth to take on long, juicy pieces. Dumb, simple, and short is the only way to go on the Internet.


      1. We’ve all been there. Sometimes I look at the size of a novel and decide to read the plot summary in Wikipedia.


  6. And yet, I find myself skipping articles that are too short. And broadcast news these days seems to assume none of their viewers know anything about anything. Then again, the younger viewers may not.

    Any school, public or private, my children would have attended from K-12 had a period of major construction during their school years. I give the state credit; the state’s school building authority offered great financial terms and outstanding oversight to local school districts. As the public schools improved their buildings, the private schools had to keep up.

    I would quibble a bit at the priorities our local school board set for the high school. They could have saved a great deal of money had they used one of the model, “off the shelf” plans the state paid architects to produce, rather than hiring their own team for a custom made plan. However, it does solidify the local real estate market, and homeowners understand the necessity.

    Back again to “dumb, simple and short.” Isn’t that the model of the news entertainment business? I like the internet because I can find longer, interesting pieces. I am resisting subscribing to Medium, because it would be a total time suck. I recommend their email “Medium Daily Digest,” which has had a good list of interesting articles in areas of interest.

    I have been concerned that the media market is splitting. People who like long, complex things, including tv shows, are segregating to the pay channels that provide such entertainment. For example, not everyone is watching “Succession.” People in my circle of friends and family, though, are watching. We watched season 1, and now season 2 is starting. I must watch, even if only to keep my kids from dropping spoilers. But you have to choose to watch such shows.

    And why, in the name of God, did “Parasite” only open in 2 theaters in the entire country???


  7. Speaking of writing, there’s a thread I saw earlier today by a woman who did some extensive personal research on various employers (including going to work herself at an Amazon center). She wrote a book. Anyway, along comes a New Yorker writer to appropriate her work…She discovered this after giving the New Yorker guy an interview about her experiences working at Amazon. When the New Yorker fact checker followed up with her, she discovered that the New Yorker guy had kind of “forgotten” to mention that she had a book coming out, to mention the name of the book, or that she was a working journalist (she was described as a “former journalist” in the draft Amazon piece).

    (Sorry, I can’t find this right now–the search terms are really generic!)

    There was also a larger discussion of large media outlets snarfing up stories from smaller outlets without credit and/or rereporting their work.


    1. AmyP, here’s a similar story in the public radio/university setting:
      the headline for The Lily story summarizes it succinctly: “A female historian wrote a book. Two male historians went on NPR to talk about it. They never mentioned her name. It’s Sarah Milov”


      1. That’s weird for academics to do, because don’t they normally loooove to cite?

        I’ve heard a similar story to the NPR one involving some popular podcasts doing the same thing–stripmine books for content and then not mention where all the material came from.

        It’s pretty unforgivable/stupid, given the fragility of the book publishing industry. It would be all too easy for the parasites to kill the host.


      2. Read Guendelsberger’s twitter thread on her book on low wage work and the article at the New Yorker. that “Emily Guendelsberger, a journalist who briefly worked in an Amazon warehouse in 2015” does indeed seem a fundamentally dishonest description of a journalist who worked at Amazon so that she could write a book about it, which she then wrote and published. But, the New Yorker article is not a regurgitation of the Gundelsberger book.Potentially the New Yorker article could have been fixed by saying “Emily Guendelsberger, who worked at Amazon briefly while researching and writing a book on low wage work”. Still not great reporting on that topic, since the author uses it to quote a hearsay statement from Guendelsberger, rather than an original source.

        That’s the specifics about that specific interaction, but I think it is relevant to consider differing standards of conduct — indeed, primacy of publishing is important in academics (though as an experimentalist, where who got the data was important, I rolled my eyes plenty of times at theoreticians arguing about who thought of an idea first). I’m guessing that journalists think it is ethical to re-report stories, and, further, that once something is widely reported it is general knowledge. But, if the article is the source rather than the idea for a source, it seems that it should be accurately cited.


    2. I just read that book: On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger. It was on the shelf at my local library – it was an interesting read. Not bad, but wouldn’t recommend running out to buy it. However, she should definitely get credit for her work, particularly since working at Amazon sounded really shitty.


    3. That’s totally annoying, but it happens ALL THE TIME. That’s one of my pet peeves about journalism. In academia, if you write about something first. It’s like plunking your flag on top of a mountain. Everybody is obliged to mention it in every lit section of a paper or book. In journalism, nobody gives a crap. Over the years, I’ve seen major publications basically rewrite my story and then never even bother to hyperlink to my original story. One place even reused the same photograph. They’ll even go back and interview the exact same people that I interviewed. I was stunned the first time that it happened, but now I’m used to it.


      1. Agreed, and following up on the Sarah Milov story, I suspect that both the professors and the NPR producer conceptualized what they were doing as “journalism” rather than “scholarship,” which resolves AmyP’s puzzlement over their seemingly untypical behavior.


      2. An NPR reporter exploring the Milov story:

        There’s a bit of different people said (and, yes, they seem to be mostly a he/she). Here & Now has now credited Milov on its website. The historians say they didn’t cite because Backstory always dropped their cites. Backstory says that they don’t, and that the historians haven’t been citing. The NPR summary is a description of how the mistakes happen, but recognizes the systemic effect of making “women’s work invisible”, too.


  8. OK, I spent an entire day answering editor queries on Friday. I think this article is done. Unbelievable amount of work went into it. I’m taking a break from this kind of writing. I’ll do some essays and opinion pieces this month, but no more original journalism. I can’t afford to do this stuff anymore. Actually, this week, I’m just going to blog and sell books on the Internet, which is MUCH more profitable.


    1. For selling. I don’t know if you’ve read the literature yet, but it turns out cigarettes are really bad for you.


    1. Cranberry said, “Any idea how the new California law on freelancers will affect writers living outside California?”

      Caitlin Flanagan lives in CA…


      1. She’s not turning out 35 articles a year. There’s no way you can do that kind of research on butt-chugging if you write that many pieces.


      1. I think it is a big problem if they are counting “submissions” equally, when a big ol’ long form piece might take a month (and hence people who write those sail under the 35 submission limit), whereas people who write a lot of short articles (and get paid a lot less per piece) are going to get whacked.

        Some problems I’ve seen mentioned: mothers and others who want part-time/from-home work, loss of tax advantages, and workers who need to keep their pay under a certain level (for example the disabled and people on social security). People on disability normally only get to earn about $1,100 a month, and on Social Security, pay above a certain level (and it’s not high at all) gets docked 50%.

        There are a lot of people who do not wish to be or in fact cannot afford to be full-time or even seriously part-time employees.


      2. Those sound like the kind of people who could really use the protection of minimum wage laws to prevent being exploited.


      3. MH said, “Those sound like the kind of people who could really use the protection of minimum wage laws to prevent being exploited.”

        Rather than having their income capped by not being allowed to do a whole 3 articles a month for the same employer? Yeah, you might think!

        Let’s do some math on the CA legislation. If a writer writes 3 $200 articles a month for a single company, that is $600 for the month per employer. That’s not within shouting distance of being a full-time employee (which at CA’s $12 an hour would be $1920 a month working four weeks at 40 hours a week).

        One of the people I was reading on this pointed out that the legislation is especially onerous given media consolidation. If that guy was right, the 35-item cap affects not just individual outlets, but the umbrella media company–making it even more difficult to cobble together a livelihood working for a number of different companies.

        There’s also the issue that under the 35-submission rule, a prolific writer could wind up “capped” at several different companies, which are theoretically ALL obligated to hire her if she hits 36 articles a year.

        It’s just a ridiculous piece of legislation. Nobody did the math on this.


      4. The lines are a bit arbitrary by necessity, but it’s now clear they need to be drawn before everyone is Uber-adjuctned-free lanced into poorly paid piece work. I’m not worried about the person writing 34 articles. I’m worried about the person who wants to be full time and the company wants to replace them with three people getting no benefits.


    2. I have mixed feelings about this. The law sounds like it has good intensions. It wants to make it harder for businesses to avoid paying benefits by taking advantage of the hordes of people who want a flexible lifestyle.

      On the one hand, it seems like there are some people who are making a decent living, while maintaining a flexible lifestyle. They don’t feel like they are being exploited. One of BFFs is a freelance editor. While she isn’t getting rich, she is able to travel to visit her aging mother and work from her house, whenever she feels like it.

      But most writers/editors are barely getting by. They’re working 80 hour weeks for less than minimum wage. There are plenty of extreme abusive relationships that happen when people step out of the office.

      But writers are like adjuncts. We feel sorry for the, but nobody is putting a gun to their heads to do the jobs. There are plenty of good jobs out there. A starting salary for someone with a BA is $40K now.


      1. Taking the job that pays the most money for the same hours of work is really working out well for me. Unless it’s why my blood pressure is now high, but I blame having a teenager for that.


  9. I’d been thinking about the NY times article on “Why Don’t the Rich Just Stop Working” (and, the comparison to Forbes 2013 “Why do the mega rich continue to work”). At what point does a 40K job stop being worth it (in the sense that it would not improve ones quality of life enough for the job to be worthwhile)? We’ve talked about that a bit with men living in their parent’s basements and playing video games. Does it matter if the 40K job has no path to greater earnings? What about a 30K job that has a path, but an unlikely one (how unlikely?). If someone gave you (a hypothetical you) 2 million dollars if you promised never to be paid to work again (Oh, we can add some caveats that might allow working)? 10 million? 50 million?

    I think without labor laws, much (some?) work becomes a winner take all model in which a few succeed (Example: Ta Nehesi Coates, whose article about writing for free before his career took off I just read). And, in a model where only a few reach the top of the pyramid, there are many who are working hard doing work that others may build on (Milov, EG) but never reap the value of their work for themselves. But, if you opt out (don’t write for free) you have 0 chance of winning.


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