THE METHOD: The HuffPo’s Gay Voices’ editor, Noah Michelson, gives us his slant on Out, Arianna, and the best blog posts
When Noah Michelson, the editor of Gay Voices on The Huffington Post, isn’t hustling stories for his popular blog, he’s composing elegant pieces of poetry. His work tackles themes as wide-ranging as love, sex, nostalgia, history and pop culture, and have appeared in The New Republic, The Cincinnati Review, The National Poetry Review and The Best American Erotic Poetry from 1800 to the Present, an anthology.
A year after earning an MFA in poetry from New York University, his journalism career began as an unpaid editorial intern at Out magazine in 2007. In four short years, he shot up the ranks to senior editor, before decamping for HuffPo. Last October, while conservative America continued its loud campaign against gay marriage, Arianna Huffington quietly tapped the 33-year-old Michelson to launch and run an LGBT section on her wildly successful blog. Today, it is the most trafficked queer site on the web.
The week President Obama “came out” in support of gay marriage and North Carolina amended its constitution to exclude same-sex couples from matrimony, The Slant spoke with Michelson about the social and political necessity of Gay Voices, the shaky fate of Out magazine, Arianna’s earthiness, and how to craft a hit blog post.
So first things first, what’s Arianna like?
Arianna is obviously a brilliant business woman, but the thing that I might love the most about her is how incredibly down-to-earth she is. Recently, I met with her and she brought cookies with her to our meeting and we discussed business while snacking. And though she’s obviously one of the busiest people in the world, she takes a hands-on approach to The Huffington Post. She shares ideas, tips and thoughts with editors on a daily basis.
A lot of professional writers are disgruntled by the trend she’s started of not paying writers. What’s the incentive to write for HuffPo when you don’t get paid?
Many people do get paid to write for us and those are our reporters. Media people don’t make the distinction between reporters and bloggers for The Huffington Post. We have countless reporters who are just dedicated to writing for each of their sections and they are salaried, full-time employees with benefits. Bloggers, however, are not paid. For many, the incentive to be a blogger is to promote a project. By writing for us, they get to promote their book, movie or T.V. show. It’s just like any other magazine. If you’re going to be profiled in an interview for Elle, for example, you’re not getting paid, but you’re getting massive exposure. For everyday people, I would say it’s a thrill and an honor to have the kind of exposure they get from being on our blog. Also, I like to think–and maybe I’m a little naive–but I hope that for some people the opportunity to engage in a conversation with people in and outside there communities is important. We offer them a chance to sound-off on an issue, to explore, explain or expose part of their lives that they think other people should hear about. That can’t be underscored enough. We are the number one ranked site on the internet for the LGBT community. For a lot of people that in-and-of-itself is enough.
Does Arianna ever plans on paying writers?
I have no idea. Those aren’t conversations I’m privy to.
Recently, Aaron Hicklin, the editor in chief of Out, your former employer and boss, broke with Here Media. In a controversial move, he laid off his staff and is hiring some of them back on a contractual basis under his newly formed company, Grand Editorial. What’s your take on all of this?
First and foremost, I will say that I loved my time at Out. I owe a lot to Aaron Hicklin for where I am in my career. When it comes to editorial content, Aaron is in many ways a genius. I learned so much from him. I was very frustrated in my last 18 months there because some of the conditions under which we were working made it difficult for me to stay there. Aaron has kind of freed himself from the difficulties that came from working for a struggling company. It was a bold and probably necessary move. Do I worry about the future of Out? To be totally blunt, yes. I worry about the future of a lot of magazines. They have some challenges ahead of them. I’m cautiously skeptical and optimistic. I hope that this is a new start for them and I wish him and the magazine the best.
Give us some tips on how to write a killer (and highly trafficked) post?
Sure, sure. A good word count is 500 or 600 words. Much longer than that and people start to tune out. Much shorter than that, it just doesn’t feel weighty enough to read. The posts where people are risking something do the best. Posts that are really honest about something tend to do well because we’re all such voyeurs and want to know what other people’s lives are like. We want to know that we’re not the only ones that feel a certain way, especially in the queer community. When a reader thinks, “I feel the exact same way” or, “I do that too,” I think that’s the kind of moment when a post is likely to go viral. So risk something and get personal. Be radically honest and come at it from a very heartfelt position. It’s really hard to be funny in writing, but if you can do satire or parody well, people love that. They’re going to want to share it with their friends. Justified anger also makes for a compelling post. If you can write a post articulately and smartly about why you’re outraged about something, that will attract a lot of attention.
What are some of Gay Voices’ greatest hits?
J.D. Samson of the band Le Tigre wrote a blog when we first launched about how even though she’s this famous rock star, she’s actually really poor and can barely pay her rent. It was super honest talk about her life. No one expects someone of that caliber to be quite so honest, so that did very well.
We have another blogger named Amelia–that’s a pseudonym. She’s the mother of a seven-year-old gay son. He came out to her in November. She writes a lot of posts that go viral because the idea of a child that young self-identifying as gay is very unusual and intriguing. Also, her writing style is open, honest and conversational. She writes a lot of things that people are feeling or thinking in digestible and accessible language.
Family and child stuff does well. The other day we had a blog post that was featured on America Online about a married couple, where the husband transitioned about five or eight years into their relationship. They stayed together. It was a video blog and they were speaking about the challenges of being in this new sort of relationship. That was big.
Gay Voices has a very large straight readership too because we’re positioned within a mainstream platform, so sometimes the blog posts that do the best are the ones that deal with topics that our straight readers don’t know anything about and are intrigued or confused by. Those are the ones that take off.
Domenick Scudera writes all these funny, satirical posts. He has one called My Gay Lifestyle, where he makes fun of the idea that gay people have a certain lifestyle. It has 100,000 Likes on Facebook. People love humor. People love confessional stuff. People love nostalgia.
We’ve heard critics say that the whole notion of Gay Voices ghettoizes gays, that’s it’s regressive and unnecessary now that gays have assimilated into mainstream culture. Are we in a post-gay world?
We’re not. We’re not in a post-gay America. People are still getting murdered for being queer today. And look at what happened in North Carolina! I think that it’s still very important to have places that are dedicated to queer news and culture.
Are you a one-man operation, or do you have a editorial team at Gay Voices?
I have an associate editor (Curtis Wong), a blog editor (Clay Chiles), a reporter (Lila Shapiro) and an editor at large (Michelangelo Signorile).
Do you ever reject posts?
We don’t really reject posts, unless we feel it’s not a fit or it has larger problems, like if it’s libelous or too offensive.
We imagine it’s hard to fact-check your content when you’re posting as much copy as you do on a daily basis. Do you have fact-checking procedures in place?
For any kind of original reporting, we have a news desk. Every story that goes through the news desk is edited–and vetted–by an editor. But for anything that’s aggregated, which is the majority of what Gay Voices does, those go through me and my team and they post really quickly. We spot check and we’re on top of what’s what, but there are sometimes typos and errors.
What day of the week gets the most traffic?
It’s so dependent on the news cycle. The week that North Carolina adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman; Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage and John Travolta was accused of sexual assault by two male masseuses, our traffic was through the roof, so it just depends on the news cycle.
Do you have a PR department that’s responsible for all the pick-up Gay Voices gets?
We do have a PR department in-house. They handle things like getting reporters or writers on T.V. shows to talk about stories that have taken off in the media. The amazing thing about The Huffington Post is that because it has such visibility, things tend to go viral on their own–and very, very quickly. But each editor of each section is in charge of doing their own social media, putting stuff on Facebook and Twitter. I also reach out to people within my own circles and say “We have this great post. Maybe you’d want to feature it.” Or, we say to Perez Hilton, “we just did this interview, maybe you want to link to it.” We don’t rely on PR to help us with that.
When he’s not editing Gay Voices or composing poems, Michelson’s drinking Red Stripe in dive bars with well-curated jukeboxes. Follow him on Twitter @KingofMountain.