If you took a guess at the most-read authors on the Internet, you'd probably pick some big, household names such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times or Bill Simmons at ESPN. You'd be wrong, at least according to the data gathered by Read It Later.
Read It Later is a browser app that simply lets you save an article you visit in a folder, so that you can return to it later when you have more time. Thus, they're in a pretty amazing position to analyze the real reading habits of their users and web surfers in general. Granted, the following data only tells you about Read It Later's users--but this information yielding these insights would be almost impossible to get otherwise.
Consider this chart, which shows the most-saved authors up through October 2011. They're almost all writers for Lifehacker, a site that usually writes about clever ways to improve human existence, whether that's getting more from your iPhone or just getting organized. (You'll note that Lifehacker's most popular writer is Kevin Purdy, who now writes for Fast Company.)
At a minimum, the chart reveals something you'd expect: People value service journalism in a different way than most sorts of stories--they keep it and use it. But things change when you start looking at what articles are the most returned to--that is, which ones the reader accesses more than once:
It's a totally different list, and the authors on it write totally different types of content. That's pretty surprising, right? You'd think that the things that people save the most are also the things they read the most. But there is a big difference between the things we think we should read--that is, stories such as those on Lifehacker which aim to make us better, or at least more efficient--and the stories we want to read. Judging by the list, we want to read the short, hilarious posts on Deadspin, a sports website whose many distinguished accomplishments--in addition to having great writing--include publishing a picture of Brett Favre's penis.
Granted, those data are really emphasizing publishing outlets that are heavy on the entertainment side of things. What do things look like at a big serious place such as the New York Times? Here's the data for the most-saved authors:
And here's the data for the most-returned-to authors:
As you can see, certain writers, like Krugman, seem to be must-reads for many NYT readers. Others such as Nick Bilton, who writes about tech, also focus on popular news. Those guys are all important, but after you've read their stories once, there's not much reason to read them again.
The writers that people return to have different lures. There are reporters such as Carl Hulse, who writes long, deeply reported pieces on politics dense with information. Likewise, there's Nate Silver, whose long posts on statistics and politics demand lots of focused attention. Of course, the exception seems to be Maureen Dowd, a columnist alongside Krugman. People return to her articles quite often, and I'd guess that it's simply because Dowd is more of an entertainer than Krugman. People love her sassiness--after all these years!--and love her voice.
Of course, the interesting thing not quite addressed in all this data is which type of content should be produced by publishers. As the data suggests, there's a balance of content that you need to both lure new readers, and keeping the ones you have coming back for more.