How Atlas Obscura wins readers with best-in-class Journalism

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer (Author),‎ Dylan Thuras (Author),‎ Ella Morton (Author) (Hardcover: 480 pages, publisher: Workman Publishing Company, Sept. 20, 2016)

Every day I visit a variety of websites – some good, some bad and some a mixed bag. There are extremes of good and bad writing, and what is interesting is the thinking underlying the contents provided on these sharply contrasting websites, and the backstory of how the sites came to exist. A site that is well-written and well-conceived is Atlas Obscura, dedicated to articles about places, destinations and food in those destinations. I have been reading their articles online for years, and I have yet to find a single grammar or spelling mistake. Nor are there mistakes in style, references, use of idioms or expressions, or even references and quotes. Each story is the same format; two or three good photos, three of four pithy paragraphs, and some guidelines should you want to go there. There are also thoroughly researched and detailed “long reads”. The humour in many of the stories is delightful. Contrast Atlas Obscura with the Daily Mail, the British daily newspaper…

The stories in the newspaper’s original (U.K.) online version, MailOnline, frequently contains grammar, spelling and style mistakes. The MailOnline is reported to publish about 700 new stories every day – so one can understand a few grammar slip-ups and the occasional typo. But the problems with quality extends beyond frequent, obvious mistakes (that could’ve been prevented by editing or just using a spell and grammar checker), to the clumsy structure of stories, and an overly emotional tone indicated by lots of capital letters and exclamation marks. The MailOnline also makes the job of the editorial staff more difficult by having twelve separate news channels with different types and sources of stories.

It’s not all bad, though. There are also well-written original stories, by writers like Richard Kay, Daily Mail Editor At Large, who writes mainly about the British royals. And at least the “click-bait” stuff is obvious and therefore easily avoided. The key to the success of the MailOnline, and the U.S. version, DailyMail.comis the quantity of stories – the refresh rate, and the number of clicks – the browsers and impressions, which determine the advertising rates they set on their site(s).

What a relief – English that I cannot fault

I think that the founders and operators of Atlas Obscura believe that quality outranks clicks.

I asked the “Atlas Obscurians” how and why they maintain such a high language standard. I asked because I believe that;

  • Employing skilled writers and editors, and spending time on refining and quality-checking contents, come at a high cost.
  • To find stories that are intrinsically attention-grabbing, without having to write about them with capital letters, exclamation marks and superlative adjectives and adverbs, takes a special effort and lots of legwork by their contributors.
  • To attract writers and discoverers who are capable of generating contents to the required standards, they need to have some form of barrier to entry for contributors, which is enforced.
  • A specific style and tone of writing is the result of the priorities consciously set by the owners and operators of a website or publication.

The answer from Editor-in-chief Sommer Mathis, who, to my amazement, personally answered my online enquiry, was:

“Hi M—–, well thank you so much for the compliment! I’m not sure we have a secret to keeping our writing quality high other than that we work with talented writers and editors. We have five full-time editors on staff who work diligently to ensure each article and Atlas entry meets our editorial standards, along with an ambitious team of staff writers and contributors. Everyone here cares quite deeply about the quality of our storytelling and about the enjoyment of our readers, so perhaps that’s part of the story too! I’ve shared your note with my entire team, which really made their day. Thanks so much for getting in touch, and for reading Atlas Obscura!”

Sommer Mathis, Editor-in-chief, Atlas Obscura (@sommermathis)

So there you go: she believes that quality of their storytelling creates more enjoyment for their readers, and that – by inference – their readers care about the quality of the writing too. (Well, the 3,000,000 unique visitors/browsers a month do.) Content quality is one element in a convoluted and quite delicate process of monetizing of the site. (Here’s an explanation of Atlas Obscura’s business model.)

The good writing published in a book

Like Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal of Good Mythical Morning, they have published an anthology of travel and atlas tales in a book as part of the monetizing of their website. It is also a web-to-print production, and likewise is of high quality, with pernickety attention having been paid to the fact-heavy, finely detailed contents. Considering how well-written the website stories are, it was probably a no-brainer to re-use some of the copy for the book and produce a high-quality read.

Any good? As good as?

How is the book? Well, so far on Goodreads it has an average rating of 4.25 out of 5, 2,407 ratings and 329 reviews. People call the book “beautiful” and comment that the research done for it is exhaustive, and say they wish they had read it before they had gone travelling.

As one reviewer, “Sara”, wrote;

“Unless you are so dreadfully boring that organizing your toothpick collection while listening to your white noise machine is your version of a rockin’ Friday night I’m pretty sure any one who cracks its cover will find something to love in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Is quality the key to Internet success?

You’d think delivering high quality content is really, really important for any writer or website contributor – same as if they were writing a book. Yes, it is – but that is not the way the world works. Sorry folks, but for many online publications it’s a case of cum fatuis lucratus sum.

The lack of basic editorial standards has become a problem for many social websites where the contributors can be anyone, from anywhere. Reddit, the social news aggregator site, recently re-emphasized their “reddiquette” rules to their users. The etiquette rules pertain to general civilized conduct when posting, quality of information, and sourcing of content. They ask that users please;

  • Moderate based on quality, not opinion. Well written and interesting content can be worthwhile, even if you disagree with it.
  • Use proper grammar and spelling. Intelligent discourse requires a standard system of communication.
  • Keep your submission titles factual and opinion free.
  • Look for the original source of content, and submit that. Dig through those references and submit a link to the creator, who actually deserves the traffic.
  • Link to the direct version of a media file if the page it was found on isn’t the creator’s and doesn’t add additional information or context.”

These rules are what the writers of MailOnline content don’t always follow, and what the writers of Atlas Obscura do follow. Nevertheless, globally, the MailOnline is the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world, period. On 20 Feb. 2018, the online user stats were as follows:


Platform Source Category Number Rate
PC ABC Unique browsers 13,738,436 Daily
Page impressions 142,990,178 Daily

Just mind-blowing, isn’t it? Compare that to the much smaller approximately three-million readers that Atlas Obscura gets per month. It’s like a mountain and a molehill. MailOnline is a ruthlessly efficient news site and the website designers totally rewrote the handbook on how to draw people in and keep them reading. The Daily Mail’s Editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, who sets the tone, is probably justified in resting on his laurels.

Sticking to the good stuff

Atlas Obscura bucks the trend of profiting from publishing sensationalist, badly-written but easily consumed pulp fiction, by carefully monetizing their site and sticking to their quality standards. They do manage to survive and does so without a paywall. But Atlas Obscura is teeny-tiny in comparison to the global behemoth that is the Daily Mail, with its multi-millionaire backers and political power.

That being the case, I believe that those who support and practice Best-in-class Journalism, like the Atlas Obscura team, need to be themselves supported. Buy the Atlas Obscura book, visit the website, and be part of the community of people who prefer the classier things on the web.

%d bloggers like this: