HowStuffWorks.com attracts nearly 30 million curious visitors each month and offers top-rated podcasts such as Stuff You Should Know. So, Editorial Director Tracy Wilson knows a thing or two about leading content teams that thrive. We talk with Wilson about her successful editorial processes, fighting writer stereotypes, her skepticism of the 80/20 production rule, and who she thinks is killing it in content right now.
At this point, we have three main processes for our three different types of content.
The time from assignment to publishing is about three weeks.
My role has really been about balancing multiple needs since I first stepped into it. And, a lot of times, it’s been more than just the needs of the team. There are also the needs of our ad sales team, the needs of the audience, the needs of the publishers. Normally, my approach is to try to meet the needs of everyone to the highest degree possible.
For example, if we need to write five articles on a particular subject by a particular day, I will start by saying how much lead time we’re actually going to need to get that done. That lays the groundwork from the beginning and sets expectations that we are all able to meet so that we don’t get into a situation where we need five articles on this [subject] by tomorrow.
One ongoing goal of mine has been to correct the perception that writers are temperamental. That is the stereotype of writers. And I have found that pretty much invariably to be false. There are definitely those who take [feedback] a little personally, but for the most part the idea of being difficult is a total misnomer. Writers want their work to really shine. So, if a writer is being asked to do something so that work is not going to shine, that is where the writer will say, “Well, I don’t want to do that.” That’s not them being precious about their work. It’s about delivering something that the audience is actually going to like and respect them for.
So, a lot of my role as Editorial Director is about listening to all the needs of all of these people and then balancing them to come up with a plan that’s going to meet as many of the needs as possible.
No. My answer on that is definitely no. There’s a complex relationship between what you’re producing and whether people are reading it. So many people have talked about the 80 / 20 rule over the years about how 80% of your traffic is coming from 20% of your content. I don’t know if I actually buy that. But I have definitely seen – and not just at How Stuff Works but at lots of other websites – a lot of writing, but only some of it is what you really want to read. I think there’s a complicated relationship between how much stuff there is, how many people are reading it, and what it took you to put that content into the world. The magical number is somewhere in that relationship. The return on the investment of the work it took to do the stuff, how much of it there is, and what did it accomplish once it got out there.
The Toast. It is particularly appealing to me because it is about gender and sexism in a way that is funny and insightful. And, then, sometimes it’s just about things that I care about.
For example, the Toast will do these articles that are about people invading personal boundaries in western art history. And it will be all of these little, medieval illuminated manuscripts of people standing a little too close and little captions that are hilarious. One of the reasons that it’s great is that every time I see one I want to share it and not because of some click-baity headline. It’s because the content itself is so funny and it resonates so much with me and people who think like me and are interested in the things that I’m interested in. So, it is very shareable in a very natural way, not a scammy way.
And it feels like there’s a surprisingly large amount of [this content] for what it is. It’s definitely a niche thing, it’s probably not going to appeal to the entire world because not everyone loves weird medieval art, for example. But, they’re able to do a lot of stuff that is creative, innovative, and funny.
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