Keep on the sunny side: Publishers are chasing good news

The old line that “If it bleeds, it leads” might have helped publishers sell newspapers, but it’s not making it easier for them to grow their digital audiences.

Publishers are realizing today that, if they want to increase traffic and attract readers, it helps to look on the sunny side. This month, The Washington Post launched The Optimist, an email newsletter dedicated to stories that uplift and inspire. Available only to the Post’s digital subscribers, The Optimist features Washington Post stories about sacrifice, creativity and people who are making the world a better place.

“The Post produces thousands of stories a week, but what grabs the biggest headlines are stories about Ferguson, Gaza and the Ukraine,” said David Beard, director of content at The Washington Post. “We don’t want to shift coverage; we just want to take a different snapshot of what we’re already doing.”

Beard said that The Optimist is meant to feel like a digital version of CBS “Sunday Morning” or NPR’s so-called “driveway moments” which are more likely to uplift than depress. And it’s a product that is demonstrably in demand. Some of the Web’s fastest-growing sites are those that tap into Web readers’ thirst for content that is both entertaining and shareable. Consider, for example, BuzzFeed, which regularly counts stories about powerful, humanity-restoring images as its most popular content. Same goes for Upworthy, which has built its entire editorial strategy around inspiration.

The Huffington Post has found similar success in the approach. Its Good News vertical, launched in 2012, has seen its traffic increase 85 percent compared to the same time last year. Content from the vertical regularly gets twice as many social referrals as the rest of the Huffington Post’s content, according to comScore.

“There is a place for positive news — and not as a subhead or as an ancillary special feature — right alongside traditional news,” said HuffPost Good News executive editor Jessica Prois. “We’re working against a longstanding narrative that the world is a terrible place and the media should cover it as such.”

The research gives a good sense of why the approach works. A 2013 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that positivity goes further than negativity on the Web.  A single “like” on Facebook or “upvote” on reddit increases by 32 percent the chance that someone else will like or upvote the post. Like most of the relevant research, the MIT study pointed to a bigger conclusion: People like to make themselves look good, and sharing positive news online is an effective way to do that.

“There’s a difference between what people view and share,” Catherine Davis, president of Vizeum Americas. “What you share is a reflection of who you are, and people are more conscious about their public personas than they like others to believe.”

This focus on positivity opens up big opportunities for brands, which are eager to get their messages in front of big audiences. Huffington Post vp of brand strategy and sales Lauri Baker said that this a part of why State Farm signed on in January as an exclusive partner for Good News. (The Washington Post’s Optimist has Wells Fargo as an early sponsor.)  “Brands have historically been interested in surrounding positive news stories so Good News as a section has been a best seller for us. What’s key is its shareability.”

Davis said, however, that while advertisers want to be where the eyeballs are, media strategies are often equally focused on what a brand’s ad will appear next to. No brand wants its message to appear next to a story about Ebola, but a brand like Discover would love to be next to content that suggest it cares about big issues. “It’s about brand purpose,” Davis said.