Brands

The Anti-Red Bull: How JSTOR Hooked Readers With ‘Scholarly News’

Red Bull has guys jumping from outer space. General Electric has drones going through apocalyptic tests. And JSTOR has… balanced, nuanced stories about news and academia.

In a publishing world full of bigger and badder stunts, it’s tough to repackage an online library of academic journals into something more exciting for a general audience. The words alone conjure images of stuffy gatekeepers and dreary scholarly language. But JSTOR, one of the leading online libraries, is changing all that with its brand blog, JSTOR Daily.

Most people, if they have any experience with JSTOR, use the service out of necessity in college and post-graduate studies. But rather than appealing exclusively to researchers and academics, JSTOR has set its sights on a much broader following. With a mission that reads “Where news meets its scholarly match,” JSTOR Daily now brings in 150,000 pageviews per month, complementing the main JSTOR library that sees almost 7 million monthly views.

But how exactly did a bookish brand like JSTOR get to this point? By publishing what it knows best.

The relevance scale

Launched in October last year, JSTOR Daily is a relatively new brand publication, giving it an edge against the competition. Most online libraries such as Project MUSE and Science Direct don’t have blogs. Sage Publications doesn’t even link to its blog on its homepage—you have to use a search engine to find it. Questia, which specializes in humanities and social-sciences publications, has published a blog since 2010, but based on the design and scope of the site, even that pales in comparison to what JSTOR has accomplished.

For a blog that’s had a four-year head start, Questia most popular posts only have a small fraction—2.58 percent, to be exact—of JSTOR Daily’s social shares, per BuzzSumo.

The huge difference in social shares may be explained by the “relevance scale.” From Moz founder Rand Fishkin’s “A Manifesto of Content Marketing,” the relevance scale suggests that instead of making content just for your current and potential customers, create content for the broader audience interacting with them. This is the exact idea that Buffer founder Leo Widrich credits as the reason why his company’s blog posts are shared thousands of times.

Posts from the Questia blog are typically research paper suggestions and study tips. While the content can often be useful and interesting to students, it lacks appeal to different demographics. Meanwhile, JSTOR Daily made widespread relevance a priority from the get go.

“Our approach was really driven by our mission and desire to make an impact. We wanted to find a way to reach more people and engage them in the research, beyond simply providing them with access,” said Heidi McGregor, VP of marketing and communications at ITHAKA, JSTOR’s parent organization. “We wanted to invite people in and also help researchers speak to the public which is often a challenge.”

In fact, according its submission guidelines, JSTOR Daily contributors are encouraged to write for “the intellectually curious general reader,” “the non-expert,” and “the expert reader during their downtime.” In other words, they’re going after ambitious projects that strike the perfect balance between academic standards and widespread appeal.

Growing the right way

According to JSTOR Daily Editor-in-Chief Catherine Halley, it’s difficult to predict which posts will gain traction. For example, though animal topics are popular, it’s not exactly easy to rack up traffic with a piece like “The Environmental Danger of Outdoor Cats” when you’re up against listicles full of cute kitten GIFs. And the hit-or-miss nature of virality goes beyond cats. For example, a JSTOR Daily story on bald eagle conservation brought in over 300,000 visitors in a single day, but an article about left-handed kangaroos was largely unnoticed.

This puts JSTOR in a unique position in the publishing world: It’s dominating the competition in its niche industry, but at the same time, it’s not quite popular enough yet to compete with stalwart news organizations.

JSTOR Daily’s editors want you to think of the publication as “a cross between The American Scholar, Arts and Letters Daily, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Pacific Standard, and a general culture magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.” But if we’re to look at how JSTOR Daily’s content spreads, this is where it really hasn’t caught up with the purely journalistic publications that inspired it.

The Chronicle, which was founded in 1966, and Pacific Standard, which has a print circulation of over 100,000, both outshine JSTOR Daily when it comes to social shares. And The New Yorker and The Atlantic have the kind of mainstream appeal that dwarfs JSTOR’s.

“That tells me that at some level we can’t really game the system,” Halley said. “All we can do is try to publish the best content we can on as many subjects as possible—offering breadth and depth.”

Still, for a blog that’s less than a year old, JSTOR Daily has gotten plenty of people to pay attention. The brand publication even won the “Best Newcomer” award at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit last July.

And there’s a reason for Halley and her to team to continue to be optimistic. After all, JSTOR has a secret weapon that underlies the foundation of everything it publishes: its vast library.

A brand newsroom “thrilled by rediscovery”

“What makes JSTOR Daily unique among ‘smart news publications is the access we can provide to the scholarly record,” Halley said. “One of JSTOR’s greatest strengths is this rich, often untapped archive we can draw on.”

This means that whenever JSTOR Daily covers current events and pressing issues, contributors have access to a treasure trove of sources that put a story into historical context and look beyond what’s happening now.

“We’re thrilled by all the latest discoveries, but even more thrilled by rediscovery,” Halley added.

To drive this rediscovery, Halley works with both academics and journalists to create the content for JSTOR Daily, though many contributors fit both roles. The most prolific contributors—who write at least 70 percent of their content1—are a healthy mix of both backgrounds.

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Academic contributors usually work on longform pieces or columns that take advantage of their deep expertise, such as computational linguist Chi Luu, who works on Lingua Obscura, a regular linguistics column on the site that has been resonating well with readers. “People love anything about language or words,” Halley said. “That makes this English major very, very happy.”

Journalists, on the other hand, bring in their storytelling skills and help distill the scholarship into something compelling for general readers.

Apart from Halley, who plays the role of an editor-in-chief, the staff consists of three other editors: an assistant editor and two part-time contributing editors who serve as advisors and bring in new writers. All final drafts go through fact checkers and a copy editor before they are published—a level of journalistic rigor that can get overlooked when some brands start to produce content.

It’s this newsroom approach that’s worked well for JSTOR Daily, helping the editorial team elevate what could have been a typical brand blog into a place for high-quality journalism.

Reporting on the ground

With such an exhaustive library, JSTOR Daily could probably succeed just by relying on in-house resources. But from the very beginning, that newsroom mentality has led to field reporting when the story calls for it, such as in “What Makes Work Meaningful? Ask a Zookeeper,” by Livia Gershon.

“I was interested in the idea of what makes work satisfying or meaningful, and I thought it could make a good feature,” Gershon, who is among the more prolific authors for JSTOR Daily, told me. “When I poked around in the archives, one of the papers I found was about zookeeping as meaningful work. It occurred to me that doing some on-the-ground reporting could help bring out the themes of that paper and the other research I used in an interesting way.”

To tell the story, Gershon went to the Capron Park Zoo in Attleboro, Massachusetts, to interview zookeepers and watch how they work. She observed them preparing meals for the animals, conducting physical exams, and was even privy to a minor medical emergency.

After the story was published, it ended up as the second most-shared piece on the site. It was also featured by Longreads and the Politico Playbook.

“I think it did well because it’s reported,” Halley explained. “[Gershon] went out and spoke to people and included quotes. This combination of real live humans and animals worked. Livia often blogs about labor and work, and the news is often bleak. So this piece was a terrific opportunity for a positive story about work.”

Running with research

Since JSTOR Daily is less than a year old, it’s still in a stage of constant experimentation. The team is currently developing a data visualization series about the scholarly lexicon on JSTOR and might even try their hand at producing audio content.

“JSTOR Daily is all about the future and what we can build that helps people to learn, to become smarter,” McGregor said. “Someone said to me once, ‘You have this amazing library. Think about all the things you can do with it!’ So creating new ways for people to engage with research is a huge focus for us.”

So far, it’s working well. Rather than letting its materials stay hidden behind walls, like old books gathering dust at the back shelf of an empty library, JSTOR Daily is making its extensive catalog more accessible to a broader audience. And while JSTOR may not send someone to outer space anytime soon, it seems to have no problem breaking new ground.

Correction:

An earlier version of this article misstated JSTOR Daily’s traffic at almost 7 million pageviews per month. JSTOR Daily gets 150,000 pageviews per month, while the JSTOR parent site gets almost 7 million pageviews per month.

  1. Based on data on 250 JSTOR Daily posts from April to August 2015
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