Behind The Scenes: What 2012 Was Really Like at PolicyMic

No Gas or Electricity

Huddled around our wobbly wooden table, our morning editorial meeting was interrupted by very loud banging at the door.

Working up on 127th St., in Harlem, we were used to our fair share of distractions. This time though, it was the ConEd bill collector. He seemed agitated (probably part of his responsibilities), and informed us that our landlord owed over $10,000 in utilities and that he was going to shut us down. He wanted to come in and turn it off from our basement.

After a quick call to our landlord, we were instructed not to let ConEd in because “they can’t do anything from the outside.” The bill collector gave us a quick smile, waved in his crew, and before we knew it, construction workers were drilling a hole on right in front of PolicyMic HQ. The jack hammer noise lasted for a few hours, after which our gas was cut off from the street, and we were left with no heat or hot water.

The gas outage lasted for 10 days before our landlord ponied up. Luckily for us, January 2012 was a mild winter in New York, and we were just fine.

Just An Idea

In January 2012, PolicyMic was just the inkling of an idea. We wanted to be the first democratic news platform where the most prominent thinkers are not selected by an exclusive editorial board but voted on by hundreds of thousands of bright and passionate readers and community members. We believed that millennials could play an active part in shaping the national dialogue. But, we were a team of six working out of one room in Harlem: founding editor Chris Miles, editor Jordan Wolf, back-end developer Martin Mateev, our front-end developer Keith Forsythe, Jake Horowitz and me.

But we knew our idea had legs. In just six months, from June 2011 to December 2011, our community had begun to assemble a really impressive group of young writers and thinkers, with a little under 100,000 monthly readers. Every day, our pundits challenged the status quo and were often proposing ideas that would be taken up in the national discussion a few weeks later. This community inspired us and kept us focused, when the gas, electricity, or internet would go out, to find a way to make sure our pundits voices got hear.

Negotiating For Vodka

As we began gaining momentum in early 2012 — growing to 250,000 monthly readers — investors started returning our phone calls for the first time. Most investors said, “Cool idea, but I don’t believe enough millennials want smart conversation. There is no way you’ll compete with Snooki or online games to gain the attention of millions of young people.”

One investor wanted to hear more about our site, and she wanted to come visit our “offices” to meet the team. A few minutes before the visit, her assistant called and asked us if we could provide lunch since they were running late.

So I ran out to the local deli to grab some sandwiches and was hustling on my way back when my grocery bag bumped into the hands of a homeless man, who dropped and shattered his Vodka bottle dropped and shattered on the concrete.

“My name is Arthur," he said. "And we have a little problem.

"I’m on my way to a family gathering, and I can’t show-up empty handed,” he continue.

I offered him groceries but he asked for cash. The four singles in my wallet wouldn’t suffice, so Arthur and I headed to the ATM. After paying him $32 for his broken bottle of vodka, I sprinted back to the “office” arriving just in time for our big meeting.

Surprisingly, this investor loved our set-up in this historic neighborhood and decided to give us some money. Along with several others, including the Knight Foundation and the Media Loan Development Fund, we were off to the running with enough cash to support our growth.

The First Lady

As the number of pundits grew everyday, the number of articles, debates, and topics, grew exponentially. We needed to add more firepower to our editorial team. That’s when we brought on Elena Sheppard, our senior culture editor, and the first female to join the PolicyMic team. Her task was to grow PolicyMic beyond being a community that discusses political news, to being the leading place for millennials have high-quality discussion about arts and entertainment.

Our level system worked great for politics, so Elena’s job was to apply it to culture. With her leadership, in June of 2012, PolicyMic hit 1,000,000 monthly readers with 40% of the readers tuning in to talk culture.

PhDs and Trends

In May, Jordan Wolf, who had been with us since the beginning, got an offer he couldn’t refuse from UCLA to pursue a PhD in philosophy while also getting a law degree. We lost a deep thinker and the only basketball player who got any respect when we played pick-up games at the court down the block in Harlem.

But, we were excited when we received résumés to fill Jordan's position from two of our most active pundits, Michael Luciano and Alex Marin.

Michael had leveled-up on PolicyMic earlier that year and had become an increasingly active contributor of the site. He was very sharp and had extensive knowledge of American politics. He was an adjunct professor in political science University of Massachusetts and was the perfect person to take over PolicyMic’s college pundit training program.

Alex had leveled-up on PolicyMic in the spring of 2012 and had a way to always be ahead of the trending stories. Everything he wrote was read by thousands of people on a consistent basis. He became the perfect team member to help bring PolicyMic’s analytics knowledge to the next level.

“We will NOT have a women’s issues vertical”

Even with Elena on the editorial team, several pundits loved to tease us with the nickname, the “League of Editorial Gentlemen.”

Jake and I recognized that our team was gender skewed, and that if we wanted to become to leading platform for millennials to have thoughtful discussion, we needed to make a better effort at fostering discussions of gender and diversity. So we went looking for a team member who could bring us past the clichéd ideas that dominate in media. Luckily for PolicyMic, we met Samantha Meier on a trip to Harvard. She was a senior with extensive organizer creds, having been profiled by the New York Times for running “Sex Week” at Harvard. She also had a passion for blogging and set-up a conference with the leading feminist bloggers on the web.

After agreeing to join the team in August, Jake and I proposed in our first meeting to set up a new vertical, like the culture section, for her women’s issues community. Sam told us in no uncertain words that this was a stupid idea and that “we will NOT have a women’s issues vertical.” Instead, the discussions she wanted to foster should cut across every vertical, Politics, Culture, Millennials, Business, Science, and Media, because this would be core to PolicyMic’s inclusive identity. We would not ghettoize women’s issues into its own corner.

Elections Time

By the end of the summer, the team had outgrown the Harlem HQ so we moved down to our small office in midtown. It was time to focus 24/7 on the presidential elections. The prevailing narrative was that young people were tuned out of the 2012 race. Record level youth unemployment was bound to lead to lower turnout rates for Obama while Romney had not successfully made any inroads with millennials. Many simply expected millennials to sit this one out. But that’s not what we felt and saw everyday.

Martin, Sam, and Mike get their coffees ready for election season.

Starting with the Republican and Democratic conventions, we knew our community was as interested as ever. Millennials tuned in and discussed not only the prime-time speeches, but every interesting speaker put forward by both parties. Our community was trying to figure out what the future of each party would look like and was weighing-into with their opinion on what it should look like.

Debates, spikes, and crashes

On that first night when Mitt Romney came out swinging and absolutely trounced a lethargic President Obama, we had a record number of articles, comments, and readers on PolicyMic. On top of that, we had thrown together a small viewing party downtown and quickly saw the bar packed with over 150 people excited to listen to what our presidential candidates had to offer. Even after the incredible interest in the conventions, we had underestimated how many people would be on PolicyMic during the debates. On the first debate night, the site crashed with ~20,000 users concurrently loading articles and leaving comments.

Over 150 PolicyMic'ers show up for the first presidential debate.

As October rolled on, the PolicyMic pundits really began finding their voice. On a weekly basis, several pundits would publish viral articles that would get read by over 100,000 individual people. The editing team, led by Jake and Chris Miles, would routinely be in the office until 2-3 a.m. editing and publishing the flood of stories coming in. The debate about the future of the American presidency was hot and the PolicyMic community wanted to lead the discussion. Jake, Chris, Elena, Alex, Mike, and Sam were committed towards making sure everyone who published got high quality edit and got published on a timely manner. By the end of October, we had grown from 2 million to 4 million readers.

On the night of the final presidential debate on foreign policy, MTV took notice and decided to film the team in action. Foreign policy was one of our strongest areas and we had pundits in 15 countries ready to fact check the debate. Our plan was to stream in PolicyMic Pundit Edward Williams (who was reporting from the media center at the debate in Florida) as well as PolicyMic Pundits Kathleen O’Neil from Egypt and William Bauer from the Netherlands. Depending on which topics came up, we had pundits ready in Egypt, China, and Canada ready to weigh-in.

As the TV crew rolled in, we had our first small hiccup. Amazon, our server provider, reported an outage in our region (Virginia). We had a back-up option but there was no way it would hold the anticipated 500,000 readers we were expecting that night. As we scrambled while trying to look cool for MTV, we had our second hiccup. The internet (thanks Time Warner!) in our building went out. We were now streaming internet from 3G hotspots and running our site on our back-up servers, right before our biggest night ever, with MTV filming.

October 22nd MTV Spot

Our team made the best of a difficult situation managing to publish over 200 pundits' article and live blogs. In a moment of indescribably frustration, our site went down for 10 minutes that felt like 10 hours. But our editors and community responded with the poise and calm of a passionate and professional team, hitting our goals for the night, and putting a good showing for national TV.

The final debate set the stage for the upcoming challenge of being prepared for election night. In the two weeks between the final debate and the election, we had to get our servers prepared to handle up to five times as many simultaneous users as the peak of the debates. Lead by Martin, our tech team worked tirelessly for two weeks, and made it happen. It all came together on November 6, when 2 million readers tuned in to PolicyMic to read what the smartest millennials had to say about the elections.

Looking Ahead

Following the elections, our mission became very clear: PolicyMic is the place where millennials turn for thoughtful discussion of the big questions. By 2016, we want the most important thinkers and columnists not to be selected by the editorial boards of New York Times or Wall Street Journal, but instead be voted on by hundreds of thousands of engaged members of PolicyMic.

The pace didn’t let up after the elections. We refocused on the foundations of our community and platform. The editors doubled down on raising the quality of our pundits’ articles every single day. Michael McCutcheon, a super-star from CUNY entrepreneurial journalism school school, joined the team to lead the politics section, allowing Chris Miles and Jake to work on helping Elena and Sam build out the other critical verticals: Culture and Gender.

The team is incredibly excited for 2013. We have big plans for the year. On the editorial side, we will be digging deeper within each vertical and bringing new voices to the table. Our editors are focused on quality – making sure each pundit is putting their best foot forward each time they write. The tech team will continue to build the tools that make PolicyMic the best platform to share your thoughtful opinions to a community of smart engaged young people. We also plan on improving commenting and the level system on PolicyMic to promote the highest-quality conversation between people from diverse political opinions.

The PolicyMic team was build to serve our community. We are inspired by our members’ passion, dedication, and brilliance every single day. In 2012, we proved together that what our community has to say can make a big a difference. In 2013, we are going to prove that what our community has to say will make a big difference every singly day.

Dessert: Can you guess who's who at the PolicyMic Halloween party?

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