December 11, 2015
A screenshot from one of Upworthy's videos, "Why I Paint My Daughter's Nails," which has been viewed millions of times.

A screenshot from one of Upworthy’s original videos, “Why I Paint My Daughter’s Nails,” which has been viewed millions of times.

It’s hard to watch this video of Nathan Bond painting his daughter’s nails without getting a little bit choked up. As soft acoustic guitar jangles in the background, the single father explains matter-of-factly that he and his 6-year-old daughter use the manicures as a bonding activity designed to banish gender stereotypes.

“There’s no boy color or girl color,” she pipes up, popping open a bottle of yellow nail polish.

The video is aimed directly at the reader’s heart, with a tantalizing headline (“He enjoys wearing nail polish. Why? Because it’s about being a good dad.”) and a positive takeaway that many would be proud to share on social media, aligning themselves with Bond and his message of gender equality.

In fact, it’s designed to make viewers do just that. The video is from Upworthy, a New York-based company that tries — and often succeeds — to make uplifting content go viral. The video about Bond by producer Jess Blank has been licensed by The New York Times, Reuters and AOL, shared more than 100,000 times on Facebook and garnered 8.27 million views there. The voluminous comments section is filled with encouragement from thousands of Facebook users, many wondering why Bond is still single.

The video is in the vanguard of a new type of content from Upworthy, which in the past was known for sifting through the Web for stories with the potential to go viral and topping them with irresistible headlines like “I’m Not So Sure This Is The Best Way To Sell Makeup” and “A Bunch Of Sad, Insecure Dudes Attacked A Woman And Everyone Got What They Deserved.” Its reputation as a purveyor of clickbait was such that, when Facebook tweaked its mysterious News Feed algorithm in 2013 to de-emphasize frivolous content, many speculated that the social network was targeting Upworthy’s brand of storytelling.

But in the last year, Upworthy has embarked on an effort to cast aside its reputation as a clickbait-monger and become a launchpad for original storytelling. In January, it hired Amy O’Leary, one of the authors of The New York Times innovation report, to direct its editorial operations. In keeping with the site’s new focus, she’s done away with the title “curator” and is calling members of her growing editorial staff “writers.”

The drive to produce original stories has been accompanied in recent months by a parallel push into videos like the one featuring Bond. In October, Upworthy brought aboard Croi McNamara, a former executive producer at Discovery Digital Studios, to lead a a small team of producers assigned to scout, shoot, edit and publish uplifting videos. They focus on what co-founder Eli Pariser calls “positive, purposeful, human-interest” productions designed to elicit shares from millennials. Since the beginning of the year, Upworthy has gone from producing or curating one video per month to maintaining a feed of about 25 videos, some of which are originals.

“You watch them and you feel something — and they’re positive,” Pariser said. “They’re not tearing people down, they’re not preying on people’s insecurities, they’re talking about the good things that are happening in the world.”

Social media and data analysis are at the core of Upworthy’s video strategy. Like many digital media organizations, Upworthy favors a distributed publication strategy, releasing its content on multiple social channels for maximum exposure. Staffers have adopted the mantra “create once, publish everywhere,” which requires that they produce multiple versions of the same video for various platforms like Vine, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.

Upworthy also creates video iteratively, which means staffers will test out one cut with a segment of its audience and analyze its impact. Depending on the video’s reception, producers may tweak the length or outcome using supplemental footage gathered in the shooting phase. To maximize the likelihood that the video will be shared, Upworthy creates its video with a specific audience in mind, often a niche group that will convey the production to a wider audience.

“In the world of viral video content, it’s much more valuable to get a small group of a million people really buzzing about it and sharing it with their community, rather than 20 million people who are lukewarm about something,” McNamara said.

Has it worked? According to Upworthy, the site amassed more than 125 million video views in November, up from less than 5 million in January. Video views are up by 25 percent month over month for the last six months, and Upworthy says its original videos have proven three times more sharable than its curated offerings. So far, the team has produced 40 original videos that have each garnered about 3.44 million views on average, according to Upworthy.

Upworthy is by no means alone in joining the ranks of media organizations doubling down on their commitment to video. As revenue from print advertising continues to wane, many traditional publishers are investing in video and the relatively high advertising rates they command. By producing video that’s narrowly focused on uplifting stories, Upworthy has a chance to stake its claim in a field that’s still wide open, said Andrew Pergam, the head of video for The McClatchy Company.

“Everyone’s trying to find their voice — trying to find what works for them,” Pergam said. “It’s a complicated, yet nascent space. There are some things that are working well for some people, and there are other things that aren’t. I actually think that’s OK and part of a healthy ecosystem.”

In his appraisal of Upworthy’s social publication strategy, Pergam noted that many news organizations are building their audiences on social networks like Facebook even though a money-making strategy has not yet materialized. This tactic will familiarize them with various techniques required to maximize their audiences and give them the upper hand when Facebook finally monetizes its video player.

Unlike its competitors, Upworthy’s videos are generally not tied to the news, so it’s natural to wonder to what extent its content is journalistic. The company says its producers and writers are storytellers, not news breakers, who tell “real stories about real people dealing with real life situations.” Upworthy’s mission — to change what people are paying attention to — is in keeping with traditions of legacy news organizations, although journalism standard bearers might frown upon the company’s penchant for focusing on uplifting stories.

But positive stories have gained wider acceptance even among self-described news organizations in recent years. The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and others are making efforts that defy the “if it bleeds, it leads,” philosophy that has dominated coverage in the past. It’s part of a growing appreciation of the power of positive news, which is more likely to be shared on social media by readers and viewers who want to pass on positivity, said Mallary Tenore, the executive director of Images & Voices of Hope.

“We’re seeing people wanting this kind of content,” Tenore said. “It’s just that sometimes there’s a gap between what people want and what traditional news organizations are actually giving them.”

Tenore, a former Poynter editor who now oversees a nonprofit devoted to fostering positive change through the media, says news organizations may avoid telling positive stories because they’re afraid of looking soft among their peers. But to accurately represent the world, their news reports should include uplifting narratives, she said.

One factor separating Upworthy from traditional news organizations practicing uplifting news is its age. The company has only been around for three years, McNamara said, which means it hasn’t had to unlearn antiquated habits that were cultivated and practiced for years by print publications. This has helped them operate without blinders or outdated priorities that might handicap its competitors.

“Everyone that works here is very much of a video native culture,” McNamara said. “It’s not like we’re a traditional brand that is now trying what the new kids are doing. They are the new kids.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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