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The Analytics of Intuition

A lit mag comes online with an eye toward authenticity, not algorithms.

Since it began publishing essays, stories and poetry in 1978, The Missouri Review has gained serious cred as an arbiter of new voices in literature. 

Its print readers, generally speaking, are a loyal, traditional lot: They pay via snail mail, require little prompting to renew, shelve their quarterlies like collectibles and celebrate the long form.

So when it came to navigating its digital identity, the publication didn’t overreact or reinvent itself. It developed a digital strategy focused on right-sized wins, accenting the print edition and holding fast to its mission of naming up-and-comers.

Michael Nye, managing editor from 2010 until July of this year, talks about the process.

How do the print and digital channels work together?

They aren't solely independent but intended to complement each other. Our digital readership is a much younger audience—people who subscribe to seven or more literary magazines and don't have space in their homes to add more issues. The idea behind the digital issue is that you’re getting something additional rather than something lesser: We include audio recordings of every piece we publish, to give readers the chance to hear the piece performed.

Another example of this relationship between channels is Poem of the Week. The print magazine only publishes poetry features, which is a minimum of three poems by one poet, and more often six or seven poems. Through POTW, our poetry editor selects an individual poem she wants to publish and schedules it for a future Monday read. POTW showcases a diverse, intelligent, moving group of work that shows the best in contemporary poetry, while staying true to the magazine’s focus on poetry features. Best of both worlds!

Given TMR’s standing as a literary authority, what role do metrics—and the input of the crowd—play in the publishing process?

We don’t want to be too reactive. While the wisdom of crowds and the demands of the public can often be both right and quite loud, as a magazine we have to hold an incredibly high standard: What we do is literature, not widgets. As any reader knows, just because you like one poem (or story or essay) by a writer, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll like the writer’s next piece. A magazine editorial staff—not just TMR but all the good ones—is always looking for the avant garde, the next thing, not the current thing.

As managing editor, I was responsible for looking into the analytics. I was curious where people found our pages, since some of our older material is online but not all of it. Also, I wanted to see how long people stayed on our pages and how they navigated our site. I was looking for any rhyme or reason as to why a viewer would exit on a given page or drill deeper. This was useful for creating a call to action—“if you like this, you’ll like that."

How do you decide which pieces you put online?

It’s often a matter of feel. If one of the poets we recently published in print is nominated for a National Book Award, we’ll make his or her poetry available online. If someone writes a memoir that’s a monster hit that turns into a movie featuring Reese Witherspoon (i.e., Cheryl Strayed and Wild), we’ll make her essay available online. We also published a piece by Alexander Landfair called “Facebook of the Dead,” where he was writing about what it’s like to grieve and mourn online, and we thought that would appeal to our digital readers.

When looking at things that are popular in the news or in contemporary literature, we only jump on things that feel organic to what we do as a magazine, things that we still feel offer a deep sense of engagement.

With the constant urge to click elsewhere, how does The Missouri Review think about maintaining attention on the web?

One thing we did was focus on what was easy to digest in a brief period of time:  Poem of the Week. Sure, we’d love to have people read pages and pages for hours at a time—and we hoped that POTW would send a reader to our poetry archives—but if we can get real engagement with just one page, then we’ve done a good job.

For those wanting something longer, we used the #longreads tag to distribute work to readers who are primed to read for 15, 20 or 30 minutes. Even then, it's about the quality of the work. The #longreads editors don’t publish work that’s the right length; it's the right content. It’s a hashtag that fits who we are as a magazine.

Clicks and page views versus time on page: How do you think editors should think about those metrics?

For a magazine editor, time on page strikes me as more important. That’s reflective of the content, the quality of the writing, the reader’s engagement with the material. Clicks seem to be great for advertisers and buying things, and that’s not what TMR stands for. I doubt that many other magazines would honestly take a similar stance, especially if their site is frosted with advertising sugar.

What about shares and likes on social media?

They matter quite a bit, actually. They give editors a sense of what is being found by its readership and why it is being found. I was sometimes surprised by what pieces didn’t get a wider readership. But it seemed to me, work that engaged what was happening in the current climate—particularly against racism and misogyny—was widely shared. Social media has been a powerful tool for progressive causes, and that’s something we applaud and hope to see more of.

Yet at TMR, our writers’ material was never added for SEO—that’s not what a contemporary literature magazine is about. We make adjustments to the URL in order to make the items more likely to be searchable and rise up Google’s metrics, but the content itself? Never edited for clickbait.

Tell us about a win you had on the web.

One of our most successful blog pieces was by writer Anne Barngrover, who responded to Oprah’s list of poetry that women should read by offering a better list, and it went viral.

It wasn’t just high traffic for the day or the week but the entire year—it was widely posted, liked, shared and read. We looked at the metrics of exit pages and engagement on the page, and we found that people were often going to the external sources that Anne's post linked to. It gave our readership a central hub for finding a lot of really terrific work and bounced off something that was very current.

A good online audience is one that comes back. How do you think editors and publishers can create return readers? 

The generic answer there is to create great content and make sure that it is shared widely. TMR has done that. But I think that to get regular returning readers, a magazine needs to find more of a niche than TMR has wanted to establish. We never saw ourselves as having a particular cause or focus the way, say, Paris Review has always had an expatriate voice, or New York magazines bump up their New York-ness, or Guernica has tackled social justice. A magazine cannot be too narrow in making that selection, and it does need to be organic, I believe, to the editorial vision.

So while TMR has not done this, I don’t believe it’s a failure of the magazine, just a decision that this vision of publishing is not what we do best. In some ways, TMR’s commitment to being a quarterly print magazine is a restriction that prevents us from chasing current trends. One of the reasons the magazine has such a terrific reputation is that the staff has been in place for 25 years and they have a vision for what they want to see in literature. People know that the work they produce is going to be worth reading.

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