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Is This Gchat Ready To Publish?

The latest media experiment operates on the idea that readers care about writers’ chat conversations. Do they?

Is This Gchat Ready To Publish?
[Photo: Jetta Productions, Getty Images]

Last week, along with its redesign, the Verge introduced a new, informal editorial venture called TLDR. “We wanted a space to share our thoughts with a thinner filter, make cool things, and point people to other great stuff on the web,” Verge editor Nilay Patel wrote in the announcement. The section is modeled after similar experiments at the Verge‘s parent company Vox Media. Lookit and IDK on SB Nation and Eater, respectively, offer a place for ideas and jokes generally reserved for pitch meetings or Gchat.

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While Patel urges that TLDR is “absolutely for readers” he added: “it’s more of a place for our writers to publish what they might otherwise simply tweet or drop in a Slack room or something,” he told Fast Company.

With TLDR, the Verge is joining in on a new trend afoot in media naval gazing. The latest in editorial experimentation lets readers see how the modern newsroom operates, which in this Internet age means making writers’ online conversations public–or in the case of Cosmopolitan, filming its pitch meetings and releasing as video content. As someone privy to a lot of these conversation, it’s hard to believe that readers could possibly care about what amounts to inside jokes, link dumps, and not fully realized “takes.” But are people actually clicking?

Newsrooms have long thrived on gallows humor and tip-trading that often seems more exciting (if less trustworthy) than the stuff that lands on the page, but these new projects are enabled by a fairly recent office phenomenon: The company group chat. Using products like Hipchat or Campfire, or, increasingly, Slack, most edit staffs spend all day sitting in various communication platforms. Sometimes that time is spent discussing angles and assigning stories, but a lot of that time is spent goofing around. TLDR along with Gawker‘s Disputations attempts to turn the less functional staff chats, like the jokes, into useful, monetizable content.

Patel sees TLDR as a huge opportunity. “I’ll just be bold and say that if we do it right, I expect TLDR to be the highest-growth part of our site over the next few months,” he told Fast Company.

That seems optimistic. Let’s see how other similar initiatives have fared.

Media organizations have attempted to make use of their writers online chatterings in various ways going back to at least 2011, when the Atlantic Wire (my former employer) opened editorial discussions to the public with “Open Wire.” Gawker‘s commenting system Kinja aims to serve a similar function, as Nieman lab points out, acting as a “message board-cum-publication.” For awhile, it was also popular at certain publications to post unedited unedited chat conversations as the content of a blog post.

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At The Atlantic Wire, writers eventually receded back into Campfire, “the natural habitat of web editorial” as former Wire editor Gabriel Snyder put it. Kinja hasn’t quite realized its full potential.

The latest iterations of radical journalism transparency are slightly more refined. TLDR, IDK, LookIt, and Disputations ask writers to take the ideas they would normally spit off into Slack or Gchat or Twitter and turn them into blog posts. Usually that doesn’t amount to more than a few sentences. Still, it looks more like an article than a chat. Cosmopolitan has taken the vision even further, turning its weekly pitch meetings into a webseries called #CosmoLive (hashtag included).

Readers have embraced the content to varying degrees. “I don’t actually know what success looks like with it,” Gawker editor Max Read, who launched Disputations at the end of June, told Fast Company. Often times Disputations posts go unnoticed, with a few hundred page views. That said: “Some of the posts have managed to do fairly well despite not being pushed to social or shared to the front page–just by virtue of appearing in the sidebar with interesting or compelling headlines–though they tend to confuse readers a lot,” Read added.

Well is relative, of course, but the following four posts got more than 10,000 page views.

Patel says that IDK and Lookit are both successful in terms of traffic. “What you’re looking for is some viral breakouts,” Vox VP of editorial Lockhart Steele said. “We’ve had a few of those.” One post on Eater got 2 million views in one day, for example.

Cosmopolitan is happy enough with the success of its series that it plans on bringing back #CosmoLive in the fall. The first season of the 45-minute program included 19 episodes and ran from mid-December to mid-June. “I think it turned out better than I expected it to,” Cosmopolitan.com editor Amy Odell said. The two most successful episodes brought in nearly 1,000 live viewers and generated about 300 hours of total view time, a Hearst spokesperson told Fast Company.

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That’s not exactly viral by YouTube standards.

But success comes in flavors other than pageviews: Odell says the show drives community engagement. Readers can videochat into the show and offer up ideas and angles, some of which have turned into stories. Patel says that the existing writers’ corners have sharpened the voice of the site brands, “giving writers space to play with the readers, and in being generally the funniest.”

Read says Disputations makes him laugh, but isn’t entirely satisfied. “I wish that my writers used it as a scratchpad more often.”

All of the editors Fast Company spoke with admitted that chats-as-content generally appeal to power users, who want to consume every morsel of a beloved media site. The average website visitor doesn’t care that Valleywag editor Sam Biddle is the best at kissing at Gawker.

In the end, it might not matter much if readers flock to this content or not. These editorial transparency experiments squeeze productivity out of writers who waste a lot of salaried time joking around with their media friends in chatrooms, Twitter, or on Gchat. Read said he would kick his writers out of Campfire–the company groupchat–“if they use it to argue about food, cities, music, movies, news, politics, or anything else that is smart (or at least funny) enough that it should appear on our website.” In other words Disputations commands writers to stop chatting, and get to work.

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About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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