What I learned in 2019 as the editor of Poynter.org

December 20, 2019
Category: Business & Work

I’m a journalist who manages a website that writes about journalism for journalists. Pretty meta.

Also, pretty intimidating, especially as it’s my first full year in this job. I’m ultimately responsible for the content of the news that appears on Poynter.org … and the errors … and the AP Style mistakes …

I suspect there’s no tougher audience our readers: skeptical, questioning, accurate  journalists who serve as the constant voice in our heads to keep us striving for perfection. So as we come around the home stretch (cliché phrase) and consider end-of-year lists (overdone topic), I thought it might be helpful to share a little more from behind the scenes (should that be hyphenated?) about Poynter.org’s best-performing stories of 2019.

One more consideration: As print journalists are increasingly laid off and the role of the press is often news itself, my staff has worked to expand our coverage and appeal to those who are interested in the Fourth Estate and its relation to American democracy.

I asked my coworker and digital guru Ren LaForme to run me an analytics report of the top 10 Poynter.org stories of the year. (Mostly because I like to say, “Ren … run me an analytics report of the top 10 poynter.org stories of the year.” Very much sounds like I know what I’m doing.)

Here’s what we found.

A sad No. 1

Our top 11 (one top story was published in 2018) displayed a sort of depressing overview of the industry and highlighted the purgatory many editors are forced to work in: bad news get clicks.

Our top story for 2019, accounting for 1.3% of our total traffic this year, was this Gannett layoffs piece by newly minted senior media writer Tom Jones. I can say with absolute certainty that everyone at Poynter wishes this story never happened and that all newspapers in America were thriving and growing, not cutting. This not a No. 1 we savor.

Year of the Rick

Let’s talk about the advantages I have as an editor: Rick Edmonds is on my staff.

Check, mate.

Good editors learn from their reporters, and Rick has taught me a ton this year. Aside from being one of the most respected media analysts in the business, Rick has an uncanny knack for knowing what stories will resonate with his audience. For example, he just knew that people would be pissed off at McClatchy’s “reverse redlining,” in which readers were charged different subscription rates based on their ZIP codes. (Plus he suggests irresistible headlines that start with phrases like “The Strange Case of …” ) Rick penned several of our most-trafficked stories this year, including speculation on USAToday’s future, while covering the heck out of the GateHouse Gannett merger.

It’s not unusual to be No. 1

Tom Jones spent almost 30 years as a Vegas headliner. No, wrong guy. Our Tom Jones was a sportswriter, and when he made the move to Poynter as our senior media writer, I knew we’d get fresh copy fast. Did we ever. Tom took over and rebranded our daily newsletter, The Poynter Report (which we email out Monday-Friday at 7:30 a.m. and then post online). It routinely enjoys high traffic. In fact, several of the top articles we posted this year were actually his newsletter on poynter.org (do you subscribe?). If you don’t post your newsletters, try it — it might just drive traffic and subscriptions.

‘Percent’ is dead — long live %

Man, you guys like stories about grammar and punctuation. Three of our top stories in 2019 were about changes in the AP Style rules:

AP says the percentage sign now OK when used with a numeral (that’s shift+5)

AP Stylebook update: It’s OK to call something racist when it’s racist

AP changes guidance on the hyphen. Again.

I love you nerds.

Being basic isn’t always a bad thing.

We had some really good reporting in our top 100 that came from basic, fundamental journalistic skills. Cultivate good sources (a sex cult!). Following up on tips (injustice!). Help your community (social done right!).

And we had some stories that I was just excited to tell: about The Washington Post’s TikTok guy, this look at a famous Onion front page, and this journalist’s advice after surviving a shooting.

The important stuff

Poynter published some stories in 2019 that felt important, no matter how they performed online. Did we just experience the hardest decade in journalism?, this Rocky Mountain News anniversary and Maligned in black and white took so much time and effort and editing, but they were really important. Poynter.org sometimes feels like journalism’s paper of record (a legal term we now lovingly use to rationalize our content decisions — essentially, we have to write about something, or it risks being lost to history). They might not have cracked our top 10, but they were valuable and I am glad we devoted the resources to getting them done.

The wind beneath my wings

But I’m not sure I’d be writing this if I hadn’t been paying attention to the lessons of my star reporter Kristen Hare and my digital wunderkind Ren LaForme. Between the two of them, I’ve learned how critical social media semantics and timing are to the success of packages. How it’s crucial to deeply consider precisely worded headlines. And that taking time to focus on what’s going to be really meaningful and important — versus jumping onto breaking news — pays dividends. (Not to mention their patience in teaching me literally everything I needed to know about working in a new CMS, running social platforms and what to expect from a national audience. But this isn’t a column about how great Kristen and Ren are. I don’t have enough room, anyway.)

My white whale

By the way, the biggest story in all my Poynter tenure was the one about the Newseum selling MAGA merch, a nice tip from America’s Writing Coach Roy Peter Clark, penned in nothing flat by Daniel Funke (who knows a hell of a story when he sees one). That was about two weeks into my new job. Then the Newseum changed course on a Saturday, and I knew I needed to update, but I barely knew the system or how to run my new laptop or the cell numbers of my coworkers or … anything. That was stressful. But I managed.

So to all the editors out there making content calls and working with staffers and freelancers and Twitter trolls and the only-too-occasionally-loving reader — hang in there. You’re doing important work for your audience, working to understand what they need and thoughtfully provide for them what they want.

P.S. I’d love to hear from you at for a possible future story … what blew up this year that you didn’t see coming? What was a great story that just seemed to get overlooked? Email me and I’ll try to round them up in the new year.

Barbara Allen is the managing editor of Poynter.org. She can be reached at at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter at @barbara_allen_