'I am the social': Neetzan Zimmerman brings a little bit of Gawker to The Hill

Neetzan Zimmerman is having his comeback moment.

The former Gawker staffer was once described as “viral news genius” and “super-human” but more recently made news when he was suspended from the anonymous social app Whisper following a Guardian exposé accusing the app of breaching users’ privacy, charges Whisper denied (The Guardian later issued a clarification dialing back its report).

Now at the niche political publication The Hill, where he landed in January, he’s back to making news go viral, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Hill has just 306,000 followers on Facebook but counted 8.5 million likes, shares and comments on 3,155 articles in July, according to Newswhip. That’s up from about 512,000 engagements on 2,697 articles in December (and without spending on social promotion, according to Zimmerman).

The increased social effort is translating to The Hill’s traffic. Multiplatform uniques have soared 85 percent to 7 million in July since January, according to comScore.

“There’s no question that they’re driving a lot of the political news coverage on Facebook, which is all the more impressive given the size of their page,” said Brandon Silverman, co-founder of CrowdTangle.

Some of the increase is no doubt due to the rising interest in political coverage as the election season gathers steam. But Zimmerman’s effect, despite his being undermanned compared to other Beltway media outlets, is no doubt a factor, as he’ll tell you himself.

“I am the social at The Hill,” he proclaimed. “I am the person who does Facebook alone. Meanwhile, the Washington Post and New York Times and Politico have bullpens of people.”

Political news might not seem the most inherently sharable, especially when it’s dealing with wonky policy matters. But Zimmerman, borrowing from his Gawker days, starts from the position that anything can be interesting if it’s packaged the right way.

First, he understands who’s coming to which individual stories and tailoring the Facebook strategy accordingly. For example, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump stories have younger audiences, so stories about those candidates get posted early in the morning or late at night, when Gen Y is up checking the news on their phones.

Editorially, The Hill goes for a neutral voice, but Zimmerman gets around that by elevating the controversial or salacious elements of a story when posting on Facebook — borrowing from his Gawker days. Knowing Facebook doesn’t want you to post the same URL over and over, he’ll post the same story with a different URL and teaser to see which version performs better.

The results of all this are stories like these about Jeb Bush and Donald Trump that got more than 340 and 1,000 comments, respectively.

“You have 90 million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact. If you start adding it up, our real…

Posted by The Hill on Thursday, August 20, 2015

“My brother will be a tremendous President,” George W. Bush wrote in a rare fundraising letter to Jeb Bush’s supporters. “He’s got a tough road ahead — take it from someone who’s been there.”

Posted by The Hill on Thursday, August 20, 2015

Zimmerman’s repackaging might not sit well with The Hill’s more traditional corners. Zimmerman admitted “initially there was” some internal reticence to his new approach. But he maintained that he can make even the wonkiest of news interesting to a wider audience while keeping The Hill’s objectivity.

“Every story has a hook,” he said. “It’s politics, but it doesn’t have to be dry. You can season it up a little bit.”

Those likes, shares and comments are important because they’re the way a publisher can use their Facebook followers to distribute articles across others’ news feeds and potentially reach a bigger audience. More than a third of The Hill’s traffic is coming from social, mostly Facebook, up from 12 percent last year, according to the publication. That makes The Hill more vulnerable if Facebook tweaks its formula that determines what kinds of stories get amplified in users’ feeds.

‘There’s no way to game that algorithm,” said Rebecca Sinderbrand, politics editor at The Washington Post, which has emphasized constant experimenting as a way to hedge its social bets. “It changes too quickly. There’s no way to say, ‘This is the formula.’”

For now, that dependence doesn’t seem to bother executives at The Hill, like Rory McCafferty, who heads digital. “I think that’s always been the case, whether it’s Google or other sites,” he said. “The only thing you can depend on is direct traffic, which has also grown dramatically. You have to go where the audience is.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.