This week Mental Floss Editor in Chief Erin McCarthy tells us about how it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary, how the magazine started in a university dorm room, its mission to help people feel smarter, and how the team decides what to cover.

In the news roundup the team discuss a good week for a business-savvy Twitter, a bad week for Facebook and Snapchat, and the worst few years of all time for Yahoo & AOL. Peter has emails older than Esther.

The full transcript is live here, or see below for highlights:

The secret to Mental Floss’s success

I think our dedication to digging up weird information and fascinating stories, that’s been part of Mental Floss’s DNA from the beginning, and whether you were reading the print magazine or visiting the website, that’s just what Mental Floss does. So that has not changed.

I also think a little bit, it’s that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We take our editorial process really seriously, and we cover serious topics. But in general, I think we’re kind of looking at the world from a place of wonder and curiosity and delight, almost all the time. And I think that’s why it’s fun to read Mental Floss, and also really fun to work here.

The magazine’s origins

[William E. Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur] basically wanted to start Mental Floss because there were a bunch of things that they wanted to look into. And they were at school and they thought, what better place to start a magazine when you have access to all of these experts in all of these areas who can who can break down these things for a general audience, and kind of package something that feels like it’s a friend talking to you about cool stuff that they know, just like a smart person who knows a lot about things and can’t wait to share them with you.

And that’s hasn’t changed. I mean, that’s still our bread and butter. That’s our tone. That’s what makes us excited to come to work every day. So a lot of what ends up on Mental Floss are questions that we’re asking each other, or stories that we have found that we need to know more about.

Covering Coronavirus

One of the things that was a challenge for us last year was, obviously we had a bunch of plans, and then Coronavirus happened, and didn’t destroy all of our plans, but it threw us a curveball. And we had to figure out how to cover that. Because we do know that our readers kind of consider us a break from the horrific news cycle. So we wanted to be really conscious of that.

But at the same time, a big part of our mission is helping people lead smarter lives. And so you can’t ignore this huge thing that’s happening in the world, there’s this pandemic. So how do we cover this without overwhelming our readers?

And what we ended up doing was, we created a digest, we called it our Coronavirus Digest, very creative. And that’s where we summarized the hard news around the pandemic, so that if people wanted to know, if our readers wanted to know, they could go to that one spot.

Top stories:

News in brief:

  • Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook has been upheld by the Facebook Oversight Board…for now. The Board criticised the indefinite nature of the ban and has ordered the platform to review the decision and ‘justify a proportionate response’ that is applied to everyone, including ordinary users.
  • The latest version of iOS 14.5 has a feature called App Tracking Transparency, which requires apps to specifically ask users for permission to track their activity. So far, only about 4% of iOS users in the US and 11% of worldwide users are saying yes to tracking. Ouch!
  • Hearst has offered voluntary buyouts to all its sales and marketing employees in the US, and Hearst UK is looking to make up to a fifth of its staff redundant. The publisher avoided layoffs last year when thousands of staff at other companies lost their jobs, but the company says they need to transform to respond to accelerated trends in consumer behaviour.
  • A record 44% of The New York Times’ new digital subscribers came from non-news products like cooking, games and audio last quarter. It ‘only’ added 167,000 subscribers to its core news products, signalling a ‘post-Trump era’ slowdown.
  • The Athletic is seeking to “merge” with the NYT after talks with Axios broke down. 
  • YouTube is spending $7 million to fund two new programs to help journalists looking to build an audience on YouTube. It’s the first time the platform has spent money to fund journalism independently of the Google News Initiative.
  • Yahoo and AOL are to be sold by Verizon to a private equity firm for $5 billion; around 1% of their peak valuation.

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