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Even though most people don't understand his job description, Dan Roth might just be the most powerful business journalist on the internet. As executive editor at LinkedIn, he's the guy who makes sure the most important articles of the day get seen by the most important people in their target industry.
"It's a great title to have," Roth said at Business Insider's Social Media ROI conference earlier this month, "because people outside of LinkedIn have no idea what it means and people inside of LinkedIn have no idea what it means."
What He Does
Roth oversees the news on LinkedIn Today, a social aggregator that brings top business headlines to LinkedIn's 175 million-plus members across 40 different industries.
"One of the things I noticed at Fortune [where he worked previously] is that we did articles that I thought were amazing articles; and you’d read the comments, and the right people were never commenting on the story," Roth told BI. Rather than good critiques, like a real estate developer slamming the concept behind a Fannie Mae foreclosure piece, Roth would find trolls extolling "You guys are liberal jerks/conservative jerks/you guys are idiots, or even, my sister makes $500/month stuffing envelopes, here’s how you can do it.”
His job is to make sure that the right news gets to the right people, which is a win-win for readers and reporters. And as much as journalists love their stories being seen by their intended audience, they also love another bonus effect from LinkedIn Today placement: Traffic.
Lots and lots of traffic.
A Forbes article, which dubbed the news curator "the perfect morning newspaper," said it plainly: "Get a story showing on the top 4 of LinkedIn Today – the ones that appear in people’s LinkedIn home page – and it’s reader gold."
Because even though most content promoted on the site is individually customized by industry — a stock trader's main page looks dramatically different from a social media marketer's — it's the Editor's Pick section that gets the most views. Those stories have the ability to be seen by all 175 million members (plus the two new people signing up every second).
We at BI can attest to the power of a LinkedIn Today link. Roth is like the Matt Drudge of business news. A high-profile link from LinkedIn Today can turn on a firehose of traffic, sending tens of thousands of readers to a single story within minutes.
How He Picks
The selection process for the page comes from the alchemy of pitches from publishers and writers; an algorithm that shows what is getting organically popular among different industries on the web; and Roth's own personal taste.
"The stories that have a tiny little bit of fire, we pour gasoline on them," Roth said.
And the smoke signals are easy to see. "When people start sharing your stories or commenting on stories, our algorithm starts noticing it."
More than one million publishers have implemented an "InShare" button on their sites, enabling members to share articles via LinkedIn. Spokesperson Julie Inouye told us that these social actions have increased engagement on the site by 150 percent.
But it's about more than just numbers crunching. When deciding which hundred articles will circulate through LinkedIn Today, Roth also takes pleas from individual writers into consideration.
Roth gets 150 headlines pitched to him from three dozen publications — "everyone from Med City news to the Wall Street Journal" — a day. And that's just via email. Don't even start with Tweets. "I quickly read through them to see what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense," Roth explained. "The algorithms tell us if we got it right or wrong."
While one would assume that Roth gets flooded with anything and everything, journalists and publications know better. "People don't spam us," Roth said. "This isn't open to everybody."
Roth told us that Wall Street Journal, for example, only sends one, maybe two headlines a day. "And they are always great headlines. They are always the exact kind of stories that are going to do well on LinkedIn."
Although most of those pitched headlines go out only to specific readers with related interests, a lucky few editor's picks get blasted to everyone. "That's our attempt to break the filter bubble," Roth told BI.
Time zone also goes into heavy consideration when choosing what to promote. Since the East Coast, for example, starts at about 6:30 AM, you'll see more stories regarding finance, Wall Street, and the economy on LinkedIn Today early in the morning. Roth continued that when the West Coast wakes up, things start getting more techy, "And we do that based on what we see from traffic."
While articles about someone like Mark Zuckerberg will tend to do well across all channels, Roth has been surprised by some pieces that go crazy on LinkedIn. Part of the job is looking at what stories cross different industry verticals, and while the spirits industry is usually reading different things than corporate lawyers, everyone was reading about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
"I was shocked about," Roth said. "If I was an editor in my traditional role, I would have maybe assigned a couple of people to cover SOPA. But I would never have thought to say, we are going to flood the zone on SOPA coverage. Everyone cared about SOPA. It was fascinating. Readers tell you (and are telling us increasingly) what they want to read."
From Writer To Curator
Roth, an award winning journalist, first delved into the world of non-traditional media when he was a staff writer for Wired in 2009.
He was writing a piece about Demand Media's factory approach to articles, and "It just freaked me out. It made me realize the power of algorithms and the software that was coming to journalism. I was reading a lot more on the web. I was a magazine writer my entire career. Then I just realized I needed to figure this world out fast."
Roth met LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner a couple years later when he was the digital editor at Fortune. The two were working on an app that overlaid LinkedIn's information with the Fortune 500 plus, and he was blown away by the new way to get the right information to the right people in business. "That's what I've been doing my entire career." Come July 2011, Roth moved to his ambiguously titled role at LinkedIn Today.
In spite of the fact that Roth and his small staff have worked for a handful of the most elite publications in the world — the team of under a dozen were writers for Reuters, AP, Forbes, and the New York Times — they have embraced their roles as curators, rather than writers.
While there's a smattering of editorial work in the form of blog posts or newsletters, Roth says he has no intention of becoming the next Dow Jones News Wire. Journalists at other publications will start the conversation, and LinkedIn Today will proliferate it.
And there's a reason why the site doesn't host stories or house more than one solitary ad.
"We send all of the traffic out because we don’t want to keep people on LinkedIn," Roth said. "You’re a busy professional, you come to LinkedIn – if you come to LinkedIn and you end up on Business Insider, and that’s the right flow – perfect. If you want to stay on LinkedIn, that’s great too ... It doesn’t matter to us where you go as long as you are coming back all of the time."
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