This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. The format has changed to give you a profile of the person, as well as more of our dialogue — including audio clips. If you have suggestions for future Q&As or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.
Hometown & Current Location: Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY; now in San Diego
What Makes Her a Thought Leader: Trapani was the founding blogger for Gawker Media’s Lifehacker blog, featuring tips and shortcuts to be more productive. The blog is ranked #7 on Technorati in authority, and according to its Site Meter stats, had more than 6.7 million visits in the past week. Trapani has parlayed her background in web development and blogging to become a noted expert in productivity and wrote a book, Upgrade Your Life, while being the lead editor of Lifehacker.
What She’s Doing Now: Last month, she left Lifehacker as daily editor, but will continue to contribute weekly columns. She started a new blog, Smarterware, is doing some freelance writing, and catching up on all the Firefox extensions she started developing.
What was your life like before Lifehacker?
Gina Trapani: I was a web developer living in Brooklyn, and I worked at a couple dot-coms in Manhattan. I worked at a community website for teens called Bolt.com, which was shut down. I built community features for teenagers from 2000, through 9/11, until 2003. I was doing freelance web development work, which got me working for Nick Denton, who runs Gawker Media. I was a freelancer working for Nick, doing web development for Kinja.com, which also doesn’t exist now [laughs].
I started out as an intern, and was keeping my own blog, Scribbling.net. I love writing and love keeping a journal, I wrote my own publishing system, and was fascinated with all the figures in blogging at the time like Meg Hourihan, who did Megnut and founded Blogger. And Anil Dash who was at Six Apart [which makes the Movable Type blog platform]. They became my idols. I met Anil at a party through a friend, and Meg put out a call for interns at Kinja, and I said I would work basically for free just to be around these people. So that’s how I got to work with Nick Denton every day.
Trapani talks about how coding is similar creatively to writing (and not):
When Lifehacker came about, was it your idea, Nick’s idea, how did that happen?
Trapani: I would say it was a combination. Nick started it. He already had several sites going — Gawker, Gizmodo, Fleshbot — and he was always constantly looking out for ways to expand the publishing empire. He registered the domain, Lifehacker.com, because he had heard of this thing called life hack and I was interested in Gawker and business. So I would go out to lunch with him and ask him about the business. He mentioned off-hand that he had registered the domain, Lifehacker.com, and it turned on a light bulb in my head. I loved the idea that Nick wanted to do a site on software, because he already had a site on gadgets with Gizmodo.
I got really excited and said, ‘You could do this, or do that, and have you heard about this piece of software?!’ So he asked me to write it on the spot, and we developed the look and feel and mascot and design.
Was it part-time or were you a contractor at that point?
Trapani: At that point I was a part-time contractor for Kinja. A month or two into [doing work for Kinja as an intern] my co-workers said, ‘Oh, you have coding experience, you should be paid for your work.’ So I was being paid for it. I started writing Lifehacker, doing that half time and Kinja half time, and was being paid for both of them. But it was untenable because I was doing 12 posts per day for Lifehacker and answering emails, and I said, ‘I just can’t do this work for Kinja anymore.’
I heard a lot about the complex pay structure for Gawker writers based on page views and “banked” bonuses. Did it get to a point where you just couldn’t figure it out?
Trapani: It felt pretty straightforward. The formula got more complicated as time went by, and a little more controversial. When I first started it was a straight-up $12 per post. And then I said, ‘This is great, writing 200 words and slapping on a link.’ But I wanted to write lengthy features, but didn’t want to get paid $12 for a post that took five hours to put together. So I got a higher rate for that. Then Gawker incentivized the authors to get paid more for popular posts, and that formula evolved over time and got crazy.
They were controversial for obvious reasons — like how far would a writer go just to get traffic and get paid. For a while it was based on quarterly site growth, with everyone getting bonuses based on traffic at that site. Then it went down to the individual and how they did with traffic. You got a base rate, and if you exceeded a certain number of page views, you got a bonus after that.
What was your feeling about that kind of pay structure?
Trapani: I did have mixed feelings about it, too, but I was mostly optimistic about it. As the site lead, my job was to police what writers were doing. So if a story went up that was obviously just traffic bait, it was totally up to me to nix that. I felt very much in control of those things and had confidence in my ability to police that. On Lifehacker, we were never snarky, we weren’t the Gawker or Valleywag [type site]. It did create issues, but we were able to work through it.
Trapani talks about how pay-for-views can work for commercial blogs:
What about the burnout factor of doing 12 posts per day. Did you feel like there were times where it was too much?
Trapani: Definitely. Burnout is a one of the biggest risks of being a pro blogger churning out that rate of posts every day. Adding staff definitely helps that. Even a salesperson working on commission can drive him or herself to total burnout trying to reach sales goals every quarter. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to manage your time.
The inputs are voluminous. I subscribe to 250 sites and news sources, and there’s never a time where there isn’t something to read from your RSS reader and post to your site. It’s a 24/7 situation, and there are competition from other sites who are blogging when you’re not. So there are situations where you’re out to dinner with your family, and you find out, ‘crap there’s a story breaking!’ That’s what interns are for.
Did you get to a point where you had to draw the line, and say ‘OK, every Sunday I will not be online’?
Trapani: Yes I did. My day away from the computer except for checking movie times or the weather was usually Saturday, and sometimes Sunday. I gave myself one weekend day per week to disconnect and chill out, and that was really important — once I had a weekend blogger trained and ready. I had varying degrees of success. I always had to keep perspective. No one was dying because we didn’t get a story up. For the most part, it did work. I stuck in there for four years, which is more than most Gawker editors.
Hear why Trapani loved her job and made it through the 4 years at Gawker:
How important was your community interaction and working with your readers at Lifehacker?
Trapani: For me it was extremely important. The primary way I communicated with readers was through the comments. What was cool was that I would post something to Lifehacker and within 30 seconds I had a dozen comments. Most posts would go to 40 or 50 comments on a hot topic. Before we had comments, it was email messages. The email was a double-edged sword, with 80% crap and 20% gold — much like my RSS reader, it was a matter of filtering through that.
When Lifehacker gets so big, with 1 million page views per day, you become some kind of celebrity, which is ridiculous. But when you respond to a comment, they get really excited, they feel like they’ve been recognized. I would be in the comments constantly working on corrections, and I engaged people through Twitter, I’m pretty active on Twitter. And people get excited when I direct-reply to them on Twitter. We did a little on Facebook and we have group pools on Flickr, where people submit pictures of their desktop tricks and we feature them on the site. People get super-excited about that, when their stuff showed up on the front page.
How do you manage all the inputs from email and RSS feeds? Talk about a productivity challenge…
Trapani: You have to ruthlessly prioritize. The first year of Lifehacker, I personally responded to every email that came into the tip box. We were growing the site and I thought it was important to do that. I kind of scripted canned responses, and eventually it became clear that that was impossible. Eventually, I hate to say this because it sounds elitist, but we only responded to the emails that were worth a response. It’s similar to RSS. I had two tiers of feeds — one that was can’t-miss, and a lower tier that was hit-or-miss. It was ruthless prioritization, and I had to get over the idea of being polite. It hurt me not to respond to every reader that wrote in.
What do you think is the best way to promote a blog post?
Trapani: I just started a personal blog myself, and it gets just a little traffic so far. For me, I create a presence on various social media sites like Twitter. So if there’s a post I really like, I will mention it there. But I do that very sparingly, I’m not into using social media to self-promote all the time. I do it as 90% authenticity, me being myself, and 10% linking to blog posts.
Do you use Digg and Reddit to get attention or do you rely on your own personal network?
Trapani: When I was at Lifehacker that was a constant discussion, whether we should submit our own stories to Digg and email the company and say, ‘Can everyone Digg this?’ I think I was the only one in the company who had a problem with that. For me it has to be organic. Someone else will submit it, and if someone else doesn’t submit it, then it’s not a very good post. Lifehacker got to the point where we were getting people putting our posts in Digg. And if we saw a post getting Dugg, we would put a Digg badge on it. We weren’t very aggressive at submitting our stuff to every site out there. The good content will show up. I’m not a big believer in submitting your content to these sites, which probably makes me a bad marketer.
What about all the opportunities you had outside of the blog, like writing a book and speaking? How did you manage all of those?
Trapani: The irony of being at Lifehacker is that I had all these great opportunities, but I had no time to do them! The job itself took up my days. People had this impression that I was a footloose and fancy-free freelancer who could set my own hours, but the reality was that I had 15 deadlines a day, one an hour. It was difficult. When I got the book offer, it was like, ‘You want me to write 500 pages on top of the 18 posts per day we’re publishing?’ I was writing all weekend and nights as well as blogging during the day during the week. It was really difficult.
In covering productivity, I would guess there were moments where you felt like, ‘I’m an expert in productivity and I’m not being very productive myself.’ Do you think humans are wired to be unproductive?
Trapani: I don’t know that we’re wired to not be productive, but we are wired to respond to interruptions and distractions and be attracted to shiny things. And the digital world is full of distractions and shiny things that pop up on our computer screens. The way we work feeds that.
But it does suck to be a productivity writer who has a chapter in her book about how to be responsive to email and manage it, and who then drops the ball openly and admits I can’t possibly respond to every email. My friend says to me all the time that it’s ironic that me and Merlin Mann [of 43 Folders] are the worst at responding to emails. [laughs]
Tell me about your new site and what you’re working on. It seems like you left Lifehacker to do the things you had always wanted to do but never had the time.
Trapani: Yes. My new site is a personal blog, which is what I was doing before. I went from indie blogger idolizing people who were pro bloggers getting a lot of traffic, and now I’ve gone full circle, now going back to a personal blog. All the pressures from Lifehacker I’ve completely removed from this blog. I’m not looking at traffic, I’m not putting up Digg badges, I’m not publishing 12 posts per day. I publish something when I feel like it, and it feels like a snail’s pace compared to Lifehacker.
And then I’m doing some development, I have some pet projects I’ve been meaning to catch up on. I have a series of Firefox extensions that enhance my favorite sites. I have ideas I’ve had for a long time that I’d like to see through.