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Refreshing the evergreen

One of things we're exploring at Vox.com is how to make better use of all the reporting, writing, and coding we've done before today.

One of our experiments with this is the card stacks, where our writers can filter their daily reporting into a larger, deeper, and continuously updated topic resource. But during the perennially slow news period of mid-December, we decided to try something a little unusual.

For one week, we asked our writers and editors to update and republish a number of articles — one each day — that were first posted more than two months ago. This is hardly a brand-new idea in digital journalism. But we did it a little differently. Rather than putting the old article back up again unchanged, or adding a little apologetic introductory text to explain why it was coming back and was possibly outdated in parts, we just told people to make the copy as good as it could be.

So we changed the text to be up-to-date and accurate. We changed the headline if the writer felt the old headline didn't work very well. We added new information. We added new ideas. We rewrote sections that dragged. The result was that some pieces went up virtually identical to their original form. Others bordered on unrecognizable. Our articles have always had "updated at" rather than "published at" adjacent to our time stamp, so we simply changed the "updated at" time. Everything got tweeted from the @voxdotcom twitter account and some of the stories went up on our Facebook page.

In a five-day period, we ran 88 of these stories, and collectively they brought in over 500,000 readers. That was great to see. The articles generated a lot of positive feedback, and some pieces that writers really put a lot of work into but that didn't attract much readership the first time around became hits.

What was interesting — though not completely unexpected — was that no one even seemed to notice that we were flooding the site with previously published content. A lot of the articles were enthusiastically shared by people who had shared them the first time around, too. No one seemed gripped by a sense of deja vu, or, if they were, they didn't mention it.

Which is great! On the modern web, content tends to arrive via miscellaneous streams rather than coherent chunks. So the meaning of strict chronology is breaking down regardless of what publishers do. If we can use our archives as a way to deliver more great pieces to today's audiences, then that's a huge win — for us and for them.

Every single day, genuinely important, wonderfully interesting things happen in the world, and it's, of course, a core mission of journalists to tell people about them. But lots of important things aren't new at all, they're just longstanding patterns, structures, or systems. Even more commonly, some new development causes an issue to get attention or seem more relevant, but once you do start paying attention you see that you're just looking at one aspect of a longstanding issue — one you've written about extensively before.

Journalism has long had the concept of the "evergreen" story — the story that was as true last May as it will be next Thursday — and slow news periods around the holidays have always been a traditional time to run them. But we think well-executed evergreen journalism is often the very best kind of journalism there is. We want to be doing it regularly, and we also want to be doing it better than traditional formats have allowed. Periodically refreshing stories so that timeless topics are covered in timely ways is one of our ideas about how to do that. This clearly isn't the last word in how to do digital evergreens, but we think the results were encouraging. So while we work on more and better ideas around evergreen journalism, we're going to make the December experiment a routine part of the site.

We've asked our whole staff to do at least one refresh per week, and we're looking forward to seeing how it goes. Hopefully you'll find some great pieces you may have missed the first time around, or see some longstanding issues presented in a brand new light. And hopefully we'll get a bit closer to building and surfacing the persistent news resource we're working towards.