Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter Houston: So what is Mental Floss?
Erin McCarthy: Mental Floss is an online destination for curious people at its core. Basically, on Mental Floss, you can find things like amazing facts. You can find answers to questions you’ve always had, or maybe questions that didn’t occur to you, things like ‘why do they call it bone china?’
Or ‘what is the Mercury Retrograde and why do we blame literally everything on that?’ And then interesting stories that you didn’t know that you needed to know, like how Saddam Hussein wrote a romance novel, or where Napoleon’s penis ended up. Spoiler alert.
I don’t know if I want to know that.
Well, it’s in New Jersey. I’ll just tell you that much. But basically, our whole mission is to help our readers be the smartest person at the party. If they’re there with a nuclear scientist, maybe they’re not the smartest, but hopefully they’re the most interesting.
So Mental Floss is 20 years old this month, right?
Isn’t that wild? Yes.
For me, personally, I’ve said this so many times before, I was a Mental Floss nut. I used to fly back and forth to the States and I’d buy it and I just loved it. So to see it being 20 years old is actually really reassuring, because we obviously worried about so many print magazines disappearing. What do you think kept it going? What’s the secret of the success?
Well, there’s no one thing. But I do think that there are a few things. So one: 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. That has not changed.
We also cover so much that we appeal to a very wide audience. The broadness of our coverage has also helped us with things like organic search. Those big questions I mentioned, if anybody searches for those on Google, there’s a big chance that Mental Floss is going to pop up and bring a new reader to the site.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention our readers, they’ve been a huge fan of the brand since the beginning. That’s largely due to the care and the time that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur took when they founded the brand to communicate with people and build something that they really loved, and they have stuck with us. We for sure would not be here, if it weren’t for them.
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 looking at the world from a place of wonder and curiosity and delight, almost all the time. I think that’s why it’s fun to read Mental Floss, and also really fun to work here.
How much of that goes back to that origin story that you mentioned, the idea that the guys founded the magazine because they were just asking each other these questions all the time?
Yeah, it’s so funny, because I actually sat down with them to chat about this in honour of the 20th anniversary. I worked with them very closely for a long time and I had never actually sat down with them and asked them to tell me what it was like when you started this.
Basically, Mental Floss came from the conversations that they were having with their friends in the dorm about things like what’s the sexiest dinosaur and things of that nature. If I had to answer that question, it wouldn’t be the T. Rex because it’s got weird arms and too obvious. I don’t know. I need to think about that. Maybe the Velociraptor.
I would say a velociraptor but it’s got to be the blue one that was in Jurassic World.
Jurassic World, yeah. But they did actually have feathers. They’ve got a little flare going on.
That’s less cool, though, isn’t it, when you think of a dinosaur having feathers?
They’re just big birds. Look at a chicken and think about that. Anyway, they basically wanted to start Mental Floss because there were a bunch of things that they wanted to look into. 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 break down these things for a general audience, and package something that feels like it’s a friend talking to you about cool stuff that they know.
Just a smart person who knows a lot about things and can’t wait to share them with you. That hasn’t changed. That’s still our bread and butter. That’s our tone. That’s what makes us excited to come to work every day. 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. It still operates in the same way as it always has.
I think you mentioned the process there. I think that’s really interesting in the sense of how do you come up with the perfect Mental Floss story? What’s the essence of that story?
There are a couple of ways that we come up with ideas. One is that we have pitch meetings, we have brainstorms, and everyone brings some ideas to those. Inevitably, what happens is that we’ll start at point A, and end up at point Z, 500 miles away, talking about something totally different and unrelated. Our team is just like a bunch of really delightful weirdos who have a lot of expertise and interests that are kind of niche. When you get us all together, weird and wonderful things happen.
So that’s one way. Then oftentimes, we will find ideas, just from being out in the world, from travelling, from reading. I can read a book and find a single sentence that’s basically just some background in that book and I’ll think that’s a Mental Floss story. We need to do a full-on feature about this. I would say those are the two main ways that we come up with ideas.
Do you have story types? Because you don’t really have feature stories, as such?
We do have some longer features, but they are really intensive. They take a lot of work, and we want to make sure that we’re taking our time to get them right, so we don’t do them all the time. That’s not something you’re going to see going up on Mental Floss every single day.
We do have a few mainstays. One I would say are the Big Questions, which are the things that I was talking about earlier. By the way, they call it bone china because there’s literally bone in it, which I didn’t know.
What kind of bone?
It’s cow bone, I think. It’s ground up. This came up because I’ve been watching this show called The Great Pottery Throwdown.
I’ve never watched it, but I know it. I actually live not too far from where that’s made, in Staffordshire, it’s the next county.
Oh my god, I’d lurk. I love that show so much. But they were doing something with bone china. And I thought, I wonder why they call it bone china. Next thing you know, Mental Floss story. That’s a good example. So we have those.
We have what we would consider are newsy stories. They have a shorter lifespan, but they’re kind of quirky and they fit in with what we imagine a Mental Floss news story to be. It’s not anything in the breaking news cycle, basically. It’s like you could buy this island, or enter this contest to win a town or something along those lines.
We put up a story yesterday about a wood moth found in Australia that was just huge. I think I had a nightmare about it last night, it was a giant, giant moth. That’s our kind of news story, which is not to say that we avoid things that are happening in the world entirely. If there’s something that happens that’s terrible, we will often tell our readers how they can help because, so often, I think people can feel helpless and we want to help combat that.
Another type of story that you’re going to find on Mental Floss all the time is a list. We do a lot of lists. Each one of them is researched pretty intensely. I love the lists, because I think it’s a way to synthesize a whole bunch of information and deliver it in a way that feels really digestible. It allows you to cover a lot of ground. So I LOVE our lists.
Then of course, we do have what we would consider our feature stories. Some of them are more long-form than others. We have certain columns like TBT, which basically is nostalgia-based.
Would you do something around the vaccine development at the moment? If that kind of sparked a question, would you do something that was current like that?
Sure, yeah. We do actually have a story that is talking about how vaccines get developed. It’s not specifically tied to the current vaccine. That’s certainly something we’ve looked into in the past. We are now looking at a story, for example, about vaccine myths, specifically as they relate to these current vaccines.
I think one of the things that was a challenge for us last year was that, obviously, we had a bunch of plans, and then Coronavirus happened. Although it didn’t destroy all of our plans, it threw us a curveball. We had to figure out how to cover that. Because we do know that our readers consider us a break from the horrific news cycle.
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. 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?
What we ended up doing was that we created a digest. We called it our Coronavirus Digest, very creative. 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. We would send links out to other sites where they could find out what they needed to know.
What we did is break out stories like what should I be doing with my masks, and basically the little things that are going to help them figure out how to live their day-to-day lives in a smarter way and in a way that was going to protect them. The other thing we did was discover that there were pieces we had from the vault, as Taylor Swift might say. That’s not really true, they’re just old stories. We didn’t have them in a vault of any kind.
People were trying to escape their houses without actually leaving their houses. They were looking at pieces, like museums you can visit online, which is the list we had. We took that and we cleaned it up. We tried to focus a lot on positive things, sharing things that were uplifting at that time as well.
So you’re staying true to your mission, aren’t you? You’re telling people stuff, but you’re not really becoming CNN.
Right. That’s not Mental Floss. We tried to stay in our lane.
So you’ve been at Mental Floss for a while now. Almost 10 years?
Almost 10 years, yeah. I joined in 2012.
And there’s been a couple of big changes. The biggest one, which I’m still sad about, I have to be honest, was that the magazine stopped printing in 2016.
Yeah, we’re sad about it, too. We love the magazine. I was more of a digital employee. I did work on the magazine from time to time, but I have a background in print. Before I was at Mental Floss, I was at Popular Mechanics and I edited. I did a lot of late-night closings for Popular Mechanics. I did a lot of cutting to fit, which is something I miss. I hate it and I miss it.
We totally miss the magazine. That’s why it was so cool to be able to bring out a special issue in 2019, in partnership with the Paper and Packaging Board. It was really fun to get back into it in that way.
Do you ever hear from old readers?
Yes, all the time.
Your audience now is huge. You’ve got 2.5 million people on Facebook, you’ve got over 1.3 million on YouTube, almost a million on Twitter. There’s obviously a proper digital footprint there. Do you think those people are different than the people that used to buy the magazine, aside from obviously there’s more of them?
Not necessarily. We often hear from former magazine readers, literally all the time, they’re telling us to bring back the magazine. We’d love to do it, but it’s extremely expensive. I think that our print fans are there, they’re still with us. We just have a lot of additional fans who are there for the fun facts, or they’re there for what we’re doing on the website.
So the other big change is that you were acquired by Minute Media in 2018. Minute Media is, fundamentally, a technology company. They’re a publishing company, but they’re very heavy in technology. Has that made it easier or more interesting?
It’s definitely been really interesting, and I think an incredibly positive experience for us. Before we were acquired, we were in a bit of a holding pattern. It was about making a good website, don’t worry about branching out into other things. Just make the website.
As soon as we were acquired, that changed immediately. We were looking at ways that we could expand what Mental Floss was doing, to bring in new audiences, new revenue streams. We partnered with iHeartRadio to make podcasts, we brought back the print magazine for a special issue. We’re actually even publishing books, two of them this year, which is really exciting for us.
That’s my birthday sorted.
The first one is called ‘The Curious Reader’ and it’s basically everything you wanted to know, all the weird things you wanted to know, about classic novels and their authors. You’re going to find out which author kept her husband’s heart after he died and carried it with her everywhere she went., and which author was super obsessed with his chimney. Those are the kinds of things you’re going to find in there.
Then we also took over the YouTube channel, which we had worked on in partnership with John and Hank Green’s team, brought that production in-house, and I don’t think any of that would have happened, had we not been acquired by Minute Media. There’s just an incredible openness to try things.
Do you ever work with any of the other brands that they’ve got, the sports brands or any of those guys?
Yeah, we do on occasion. A couple of people from the other brands have written some sports stories for us, because as you can imagine we are not necessarily sports people. They’ve pitched in on some stuff there. We’re just constantly chatting about how we can work together. We’ve had some content partnerships and things like that. It’s been fantastic.
In terms of what we were doing day-to-day, there weren’t a ton of changes for us. I think that we were really lucky because they acquired us because they liked us. They didn’t want us to fundamentally change Mental Floss into something that it wasn’t. I feel like that’s not the story with every acquisition, right?
What they did encourage us to do was look at the data, and use that to inform the decisions we were making. That helped us to operate a little smarter.
So in terms of where you ended up with your business model, how does that work, between advertising or ecommerce? I ask everyone this question: how do you actually make money?
I’m obviously very firmly in editorial, but I can speak to it generally. I think, as all digital businesses have found, recently, it’s really crucial to have diversified revenue streams. That’s exactly what we try to do. We have direct and programmatic advertising on the website.
We do have an ecommerce arm, we’ve got editorial partnerships, like with the special edition magazine, and these books that we’re creating. We’re just constantly evaluating new opportunities that are going to allow us to reach new audiences and commercialize those where it makes sense for us.
We ask our guests always to recommend an article or a book or a podcast or whatever, but I’m going to spin something on you. First off, I’m going to ask you what is your favourite ever Mental Floss story?
This is like asking me to pick a favourite cat. Can I make it one that I have written so that I’m not choosing a favourite among my writers?
This is actually one that ended up in the print magazine. It is about the Voynich manuscript. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Voynich, or did you read this piece?
I don’t know where I first heard the Voynich manuscript, but I’m aware of it.
It’s this book, I think they carbon-dated it to the 16th Century, or maybe even earlier than that. Anyway, no one knows where it came from. I called it the most mysterious book in history, because it’s written in a code or a cypher that no one has been able to crack.
You had the people who cracked like Code Purple during World War Two working on this thing, and they came up totally empty. Every few months or something, someone will come out and say, I’ve done it, I’ve cracked the Voynich and they never have reliably. That has led some people to say that it’s probably a hoax of some kind or a joke.
It’s got these really weird plant drawings and drawings of naked ladies in baths. It’s a very, very interesting, interesting book. It’s actually held at the Beinicke at Yale, the Beinicke library. I think that’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on.
To me, that is what Mental Floss is all about. It’s about finding stuff that you were vaguely aware of, but didn’t really know and you find all this stuff, all these facts and figures.
Yeah, and then you just follow your curiosity down the rabbit. I hope that the experience of reading Mental Floss is the same as working here because you just go to some really weird and fascinating and fun places.