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Gone are the days when news organizations had just copy editors and page designers. Today, there are newsroom titles like digital optimizer, audience analyst and executive mobile editor. As social media platforms have evolved so have job titles, along with the tools journalists use to communicate with audiences. In this series, RJI will learn more about these titles and the people who hold them.

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

Nick Wing (left) interviewing Bill Nye | Photo: Christine Conetta/The Huffington PostNick Wing has been senior viral editor at The Huffington Post for almost three years. He’s worked for the online organization for nearly seven years and first came to HuffPost as a politics intern. Before becoming the viral editor, he says, he covered several stories he knew had the potential of going viral.

In 2013, Wing recruited a team of editors to think more seriously about what it takes to produce viral content and focus on creating content that could go viral. This was about the time Buzzfeed was “maximizing its listicles,” he says. Wing’s team wanted to go beyond just generating cat videos and look for ways to produce more “hard-hitting stories” with deeper substance that had the potential of being widely shared. This eventually led to the creation of his position. According to Wing, his job continues to evolve to be more news-focused with deeper reporting and more source building.  

What do you do as the senior viral editor?

Part of my job is picking stories that I want to write myself that I think will have potential and will get shared either broadly or in niche communities. Another part of my job is assigning articles I think will do the same, that will do well traffic-wise, but are also important stories. The other part of my job is serving in an advisory role to a lot of other people on the website, helping them come up with better headlines, come up with better decks or think about ways to produce a story that will get people to share it on social media and that will create buzz around it. It’s partially creating content and partially advising, and using the tricks I’ve learned from creating content to help maximize their content.  

Let’s say I’m a new viral reporter at The Huffington Post. As an adviser, what are some tips you’d give me for a story I’m writing to increase its chances of going viral?

That’s not a specific job title at the HuffPost, but some beats are certainly more prone to going viral than others. I think the easiest advice to give a reporter — regardless of whether they consider themselves to have an interest in viral content — is to think extra hard about headlines and social share language. These things can't be afterthoughts. You need a headline that will attract people regardless of their existing knowledge of the topic and, even better, get them to share it with their friends after reading. If you're writing a story that has no exciting headline options or nuggets to use in a Facebook status or tweet, maybe you should rethink your approach to the story. This doesn't mean only writing traditionally "viral" content, but it does mean accounting for the new methods that have a big hand in determining the success and interest in good journalism.

Why would you say your role as a senior viral editor is important?

I think I tend to look at stories a bit differently than a typical reporter or editor, and that diversity of perspective is necessary in any newsroom. Quality journalism is the most important aspect of this content, but if you can't draw eyes to that journalism, it sadly doesn't get appreciated as much as it should. It's rewarding to be able to read a great story and help the reporter come up with a better headline or way to frame it to broaden the interest. It's also a constant challenge to look at stories or beats that don't get enough attention and try to find a way to change that rather than accept it. I'm by no means the only person at HuffPost who does this. It's become an essential part of our DNA in recent years.

What prepared you for this position?

It has definitely been the evolution of working at The Huffington Post for about six-and-a-half years. This is my first media job. I came in when digital publishing was really starting to hit its stride. I’ve seen so many different iterations of where the industry is headed and we’ve sort of grown and evolved with those directions. When it was more blogging and aggregation, I was here. Then the HuffPost invested in reporting and saw the rise of listicles and explainers, and now people are shifting toward video. I’ve been in the heat of it for all of that. So sort of just learning along with the growth of the industry has been helpful and made it easier for me adapt.

Watching hundreds of your stories go boom or bust — and typically the latter —  gives you plenty of feedback to figure out what works and what doesn't. Understanding exactly why is a bit harder, but at a certain point the process starts to become a little more intuitive. You realize that your headline was boring, or that you seized on the wrong part of an interview, or that you played a story straight when you could have given it a much more playful tone. All of this provides lessons for the future, while also giving us the freedom to experiment when things start to feel stale or get ignored by readers.

What has surprised you most, if anything, about your job as a senior viral editor?

I’m not sure if I would call this surprising but I think I’m incredibly lucky that with a job title and position that is this open-ended, I can really get my hands dirty with a number of responsibilities and beats around the site so I don’t feel pigeon holed into just covering what people would think of as traditional viral content. I’m encouraged to take underappreciated stories and to make them viral. So it’s not just, “Let’s do cute cat videos.” It’s like, “Let’s do a hard-hitting story about prison reform and we’ll figure out how to make it viral and interesting to people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in that content.”

Speaking of hard-hitting stories, you shared a story you wrote in 2013 about U.S. incarceration rates being much higher than the rest of the world. What do you attribute to that story going viral?

Impossible to know for sure, which is part of the fun and frustration of this job. I have a few assumptions. The stat was known, but relatively understated at the time, which drew in both people who assumed that the answer was the U.S., as well as those who were genuinely curious as to what the answer might be. The decoy and playfulness of the GIF also added a little curveball to a topic that has generally been played pretty straight. I also think the issue of criminal justice reform and the U.S. prison population was really just starting to pick up steam at the time. Plenty of less known factors as well, like Facebook's algorithm or other outlets that helped share it around. Either way, I think the mainstream interest has grown since this more playful piece was published — I won't take any credit for that growth, though throwing together a piece made me want to learn more about it.

What tools do you use in your job?

The majority of the tools I use are focused on news monitoring. I have a search list of terms for Google News. I use Reddit a fair amount, and Twitter, to dig up stories that are either prime for assigning or writing because I think they’ll have viral potential, or stories that are underappreciated and have played poorly in their initial iteration.

Jennifer Nelson  
     
Senior Information Specialist



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