An evergreen forest for the trees

How the internet self-regulates to make everything look the same

Welcome to I’m Late to This, a newsletter about things I haven’t stopped thinking about. 

If you haven’t yet, make sure to sign up so you don’t miss an issue. I’ll be publishing once a week on Saturday or Sunday mornings.

And now, the first newsletter of the year. 

When I joined Business Insider in 2014, I was overwhelmed.

I had never worked in New York City before, I had never had a public-facing job before, I had never been in a room of people who considered themselves journalists, and I essentially knew nothing about the digital publishing world. All I’d done, really, was read Business Insider.

I learned a lot in those first months. And one of the ideas that made the biggest impression on me was the idea of evergreen content. 

Maybe this is something they teach in journalism school, which I did not attend. Or maybe this is something you’re supposed to figure out organically, because essentially everything on television that isn’t sports or news is evergreen. (As a kid, however, my television consumption was light on non-sports content). But I eventually learned — or, rather, discerned, because it isn’t like anyone sat me down and said: “Here is what evergreen content means” — that evergreen content is anything which can be served to readers and listeners and viewers at times other than right after something happened. It was a completely foreign concept to me. 

My first job was at a small financial news company called The Fly on the Wall. The product then was a single newsfeed that sits behind a paywall. At The Fly, just about everything we published was meant to be consumed right that second. (It’s changed a bit since I left. As has the name. It’s now just The Fly.)

So, sure, we might offer our subscribers a Sunday evening summary of that weekend’s stock picks in Barron’s, or an early-morning or late-evening wrap up of stuff that had been published by Retuers, Bloomberg, or the Journal. But the site’s main focus was scouring newswires and SEC filings, cleaning up the PR and government-required copy in these items, and publishing the actual information contained in these documents to the feed ASAP. 

Corporate announcements are published in press releases with anodyne headlines like: “Waystar RoyCo Reports Leadership Update” but the actual news is that the CEO had a stroke, can’t be the CEO anymore, and one of his kids is joining as co-COO. And if we didn’t get the actual news out of the corporate fluff every one of these pieces of bad news is buried under in about 90 seconds, then our subscribers didn’t get the value we were supposed to provide. If it takes a batch of guacamole a couple days to turn, it took The Fly’s newsfeed about 3 minutes to get stale. 

And so “evergreen” is not a word I knew in any context other than forests. But as the last 5+ years of my career have embedded me ever-deeper in the digital publishing world, an obvious theme stands out: everything is becoming increasingly evergreen.

In the digital media content wars, nothing is more valuable than something that can be re-promoted on Facebook, retweeted, and “refreshed” (which involves updating the timestamp and maybe changing the image) ad infinitum. When I was a section editor, I had a spreadsheet of old pieces of content that worked, stories that were always good for 10,000 or so clicks. 

From a distance this seems like the kind of stuff you think just helps you bridge the gap between Christmas and New Year’s. But this content is really the stuff that makes the whole enterprise really run. A great piece of evergreen content takes the load off the social media team, off editors, reporters, interns, and ultimately executives who are selling a website that is growing. (For my money, this is one of the most important pieces of content in BI history.)

And so for a long time I’ve thought about this idea that “everything on the internet seems the same.” It’s an idea that is easy to agree with in a polite, just making conversation kind of way, but is obviously refutable in about 6 seconds. I mean, who is seriously going to argue that the collective output of billions of people every day is “the same”? It is the complaint of a luddite who wants to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. 

But the evergreening of the internet is also a very real thing. Google any query — “What time does the Super Bowl start?” is the canonical example — and you will find literally hundreds of news outlets competing for your click.

Increasingly, Google itself is supplying these answers. And as anyone in digital publishing knows, not being in the top half of the first page of search results leaves you with essentially no chance at getting someone’s click. And yet every outlet still makes sure to have a player in this game. Every outlet, in other words, sort of wants to be the same. 

And what’s unique about the internet as a medium for distributing content (as opposed to say television, a newspaper, or a book) is how it provides immediate, robust feedback on what does and what doesn’t work. This feedback also travels across organizations. Because while the ChartBeat data possessed by any one publication is proprietary to them, this data also reflects more broadly the types of stories that work. 

As Paul Ford wrote after The Dress went viral in 2015:

People are also keenly aware that BuzzFeed garnered 25 million views (and climbing) for its article about the dress. Twenty-five million is a very, very serious number of visitors in a day — the sort of traffic that just about any global media property would kill for (while social media is like, ho hum).

I worry a little about the lesson that people will draw from that traffic. I mean draw your own conclusions. I’m just saying. I worry. […]

I know from experience that Internet events like this have consequences. Meetings. Memos. Jealousy. Twenty-five million is a number to make an editorial director angry. People are going to chew their lips over those impressions. How do I get that? They’ll wonder. How do I get that sweet, sweet traffic? Why do those children get the traffic with frolic while my attempts to go viral fall flat at hundreds of thousands of impressions?

The internet’s feedback loop to editorial products that succeed is so fast and so tight and leadership teams leap at any idea or story that worked once (“Flood the zone!”) with such enthusiasm that what readers are left with on a long enough timeline is, well, the same. The consequences we’ve all suffered in the last five years are obvious. The current president is basically the political equivalent of The Dress. 

And so the newness of digital publishing is often lost on both the companies doing the publishing and the consumers of this output. The relative youth of this industry has left many publishers, editors, reporters still grappling with the reality that filing a story for next week’s magazine or tomorrow’s paper is no longer good enough. The internet is telling you every second of every day what is working and what is not. It is, of course, not surprising that any business selling a good or a service would want to know what it sells the most of and sell more of those. “The customer is always right” is both a customer service lesson and a sales mantra. 

But as the publishing industry transitions from one lead by individuals bequeathed with the power to decide what is newsworthy and what is not to an industry lead by ChartBeat data that tells the staff what is newsworthy and what is not, I think we’re seeing that the internet’s internal entropy differs from the universe’s. The internet’s natural tendency is to evergreen itself, to replicate a previously successful experience for as many users as possible as many times as possible. (Hello, YouTube!)

“The internet” is, of course, just a reflection of its users. It is not “the internet” but readers that are telling publishers that what they want is the same as what every other outlet is churning out. And as more money moves into online publishing, the cues taken from current and future management teams will be (and have been) to accelerate their own push towards an evergreen equilibrium. Towards a place where more content can be produced more cheaply because the traffic increases enough to satisfy advertisers and so on. (I suspect Maya Kosoff will be able to write a version of her story on media layoffs every year for a while.)

And so the vastness the internet offers publishers should in theory allow for experimentation, failure, oddball coverage, etc., etc. This is the pitch for any media brand, the pitch to any new reporter, editor, and acquirer of a business. “The internet allows us to do endlessly unique things.”

In practice, however, the internet’s scale has narrowed the scope of what is viable.

At least for now.