Essential skill: The art of rustling up readers

I saw this on Twitter today from Jay Rosen:

Publishing used to be the barrier. Now that publishing is easy, getting your stuff picked up, linked to is an essential skill.

Jay was responding to a question from Howard Rheingold, who asked:

Skills for digitally-savvy journalists: RSS, map mashups, widgets, Twitter (video goes without saying). What else?

I read Jay’s answer and had two thoughts. One, this is absolutely right. Two, it is an insight that most working journalists today — at least those who are working for some newspaper or broadcast outlet or magazine, as opposed to those who have already lighted out for the online territories — are occupationally blind to.

They cannot see this because, all their working lives, the business of gathering their audience has been handled for them. Whether you are a brilliant journalist or a total hack, you get accustomed to assuming that you have a lot of readers because you are gifted and wonderful and creative. Whereas, in truth, whether you are in fact gifted and wonderful and creative, or not (and you? you are — of course you are!), you have those readers because you work for some company that has supplied them for you.

In other words, most journalists confuse what they have inherited ex officio with what they have earned through their own talent and sweat. It’s comforting but fundamentally unrealistic. (See Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody for more on this.)

This privilege disintegrates out on the Web once you leave the protective umbrella and traffic supply of a media company. For instance, this little blog used to be associated with In its previous incarnation as part of the Salon Blogs program, it got a significant amount of traffic off Salon’s home page. That was great — but it didn’t have much to do with the quality of what I was producing. (I suppose if I had raved like a lunatic or begun to peddle miracle cures, David Talbot or Joan Walsh would eventually have spoken up.)

When I left Salon the blog became an independent entity. Of course its traffic declined. I could have poured my energy into posting round the clock and promoting the blog — maybe I should have! I’d certainly have had fun. But I’ve been writing books instead. That challenge, at this point in my life and career, feels like it’s pushing me harder and teaching me more. And it’s a living. So the blog is a side effort, and I’m content, for now at least, with its being a poky little personal blog that people who are interested in my work can follow.

So the blog goes along day by day with a few hundred page views (measured for real, conservatively) or maybe breaks a thousand or two on a good day, and I’m fine with that. But then every now and then somebody I don’t know decides to promote something I’ve written on some high-traffic Web crossroads — and suddenly, blam, the traffic goes through the roof. For instance, last week I posted my thoughts on Sarah Lacy’s book. My regulars read it (or not), and I moved on. A week later, some kind soul posted a link to this review over on Y Combinator’s Reddit-style “hacker news” feed, and, blam, thousands of people were reading it –or, you know, at least loading it in their browsers.

Thank you to whoever did that. Writers are always grateful for readers.

This is the way the Web works. If this (or any) blog were my primary focus, I’d be out there rustling up readers for it, because that’s what you have to do. I think a lot of journalists still see this as a grubby, low, self-promoting activity that is beneath them. Of course, it can be done in a grubby way (and often is) — but that’s true of everything. Writing headlines is, after all, another form of the art of rustling up readers. It can be done with style and flair; it can be done crudely and effectively; it can be done clumsily and stupidly. But it must be done. There is no alternative.

Watching how Salon’s home page drove traffic to all its stories through the years depending on the quality of the headlines we wrote taught me to respect this art. The business of publishing a book and figuring out how to get it noticed taught me even more not to look down on it. It is, as Jay said, an essential skill for any journalist who does not already have some guaranteed audience in the back pocket. Those guarantees are increasingly rare — for entry-level folks, they’re virtually non-existent. Relying on them might be even more painful than learning some new tricks.

Post Revisions:

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  1. bowerbird

    > that’s what you have to do

    b.s. before too long at all, collaborative filtering
    will deliver you more readers than you can dig up.

    when that day comes, self-promotion will be seen as
    the kiss of death that only the desperate must employ.


  2. Excellent piece Scott.

    The fact is – if you are purely on the web then you need to reach out to get new readers. Once you have those readers – you have to serve them quality stuff or they won’t fall for the plea a 2nd time.

    It’s something that I’ve gone back and forth with myself. I recognize that I have a cute little nickname “digidave” and I use it as a digital identity – and it often helps people remember who I am – but it won’t keep readers coming back.

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    bowerbird: Collaborative filtering is a fine thing, but I don’t see it replacing all other forms of information hunting and gathering. And I don’t see “self-promotion” disappearing or becoming simply the last refuge of the desperate. There is now, as there has always been, “self-promotion” that is measured and thoughtful and reasonable and “self-promotion” that is grotesque and spammy and exploitational. What I’m saying is that it’s better to learn how to navigate these waters than the pretend they don’t exist.

  4. Great post, and totally right. I came here, btw, because I follow Robert Scoble’s FriendFeed, so if your server falls over you can blame him! :)

    Promotion/self-promotion for blogs does not come naturally to many, including me. Even now I find it hard to reach out the the network I’ve made. I have a presence on many Social Media platforms and I enjoying reading and commenting on other people’s work but I still find it hard to even Tweet when I’ve updated my blog. Why is that? What I write about is niche and, I hope, interesting to the people that I interact with, but still I hold back.

    Your post has made me think about this more, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for you putting actual page view figures in there. Everyone out there is saying – got more traffic! – subscribers are the key!-be successful! but then it’s hard to know what you are ‘supposed’ to be aiming for!

    Wow, I’ve rattled on enough now, I think! In summary: great post and lots to think about.

  5. And then the trackback robots kick in and a fellow wonders how accurate feed counts are anyway.
    Blog for your own pleasure : unless a steady stream is forthcoming people don’t seem to track you. RSS fixes that, of course, but not everybody is a blogger lost in a technology explosion.

  6. bowerbird

    scott said:
    > Collaborative filtering is a fine thing,
    > but I don’t see it replacing all other forms
    > of information hunting and gathering.
    > And I don’t see “self-promotion” disappearing or
    > becoming simply the last refuge of the desperate.

    i say your vision is flawed. :+)

    check back in 5 years, and you’ll see the trend…
    check in 10, and see how utterly wrong you were.



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