How Mental Floss became the leading publisher of obscure trivia

Editor in chief Erin McCarthy explains how the magazine sets its editorial agenda.

In the spirit of Mental Floss’s 20th anniversary, let me give you a few pieces of trivia about the magazine. It made a cameo in two episodes of Friends and an episode of Netflix’s The OA. It started as a print magazine but discontinued its print edition in 2016. In addition to its web content, it produces several popular video series on YouTube. And in 2018, it was acquired by Minute Media, a conglomerate that mostly consists of sports media sites.

Suffice it to say, the Mental Floss of 2020 looks a lot different than when it was a magazine published out of the dorm room of two Duke University students. I recently sat down with its editor in chief Erin McCarthy to talk about its post-print strategy and why a sports media company was interested in a publisher that specializes in history trivia.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mental Floss’s editorial outlook

Mental Floss was founded by two college students in a Duke University dorm in 2001. “Since then it has evolved into a website for curious minds where you can basically find answers to life's big questions or really fun and strange facts that you didn't know you needed to know,” said Erin. “Since we started, the website has been visited by a billion people, which is wild.”

The magazine publishes evergreen content and rarely ties itself to current events. “We do cover newsy stories sometimes, but they're our version of newsy stories. They're quirky. They're interesting. We're not part of the news rat race, which is nice because I do think people look at Mental Floss as a bit of an escape from that.”

Erin came to Mental Floss in 2012 as a deputy editor and worked her way up to editor in chief in 2017. Given the magazine’s avoidance of current events, I asked her how she determines whether a story idea is a good fit for the publication. “One of the most interesting things about Mental Floss that hasn't changed over 20 years is that it was started as a way for the two co-founders to just kind of explore the things that they were interested in, and that's still how we operate.” Many of its articles focus on weird holidays, and it often covers historical events that haven’t been written about in other outlets.  “The fact that we cover so much, I think, is actually a strength, because a lot of the things that we're covering are things that people are searching for anyway. If you're Googling for the answer to some question, there's a good chance that Mental Floss is going to pop up in search.”  

Because so much of its content is evergreen, Mental Floss can constantly resurface articles around holidays and anniversaries. “We’ll bring back stories. We'll clean them up. We'll make sure that they look nice, because one of the other things about having been around for 20 years is that some of your stories will have wonky code, so you have to go in and clean them up. And then we bring them back to the homepage. While we are doing that, if we notice that maybe there's something that we missed, maybe there's another story we'd like to tell, we'll take that on at the same time.” 

Mental Floss also regularly publishes trivia quizzes. “Our strategy is just finding cool and fun things to throw together. We have certain categories that we want to hit: animals, general knowledge, movies, and entertainment. They're all done in-house by our staff. A lot of times the quiz is spurred by a news story or a list that a writer has worked on that kind of gives them a kernel of an idea where they can say, ‘I'm going to take this thing and turn it into a quiz.’”

Expanding beyond the website

In addition to Mental Floss’s article content, it also runs a popular YouTube channel. “It was developed in conjunction with William Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who were the co-founders of Mental Floss. And John Green actually wrote for the magazine well before he was a famous author. They partnered with John and Hank to create the channel, and they stuck around through the end of 2018, and then we took it over and brought it all in-house, and now you see a lot of my face on that YouTube channel.”

The channel has 1.3 million subscribers and publishes multiple shows, each with its own host. Show topics range from food to listicles to misconceptions about history. “I think anything that we do, we want it to be an extension of what we're doing on the website. We want it to feel like it's part of the Mental Floss brand. I think that has become especially true since we brought the video production in-house. Previously we were weighing in on ideas and scripts and things like that, but we weren't heavily involved in production the way we are now. We do do some things a little bit differently because our YouTube audience is slightly different than our site audience. Our site audience is basically split 50/50, but YouTube tends to skew a little bit more male, so that's always in the back of our minds when we're thinking about topics for certain shows, but because all of the scripts are written in-house by our staff, we'll actually repurpose the scripts for those videos by converting them into articles and then posting them on the site so that we can make sure we're getting the most bang for our buck there.”

The magazine also has a partnership with iHeartMedia to develop narrative podcasts. “We've created two podcasts with them. The first was History Versus Theodore Roosevelt, which I hosted because I'm a Ted head and just had to do it. Each episode of that podcast basically looked at a challenge that he faced. The second podcast we did with them was called The Quest for the North Pole, which was hosted by our science editor Kat Long. That was a long form narrative podcast.”

Monetization

Mental Floss mostly monetizes through programmatic and direct sold advertising, though it’s increasingly publishing more ecommerce content. “I know that there are some places that keep it kind of separate, but I think for me, it's really important to me that anything that goes up on Mental Floss feels like it belongs on the site, and there's not a way to do that without editorial being involved. There are some [ecommerce] writers who work across the Minute Media brands, and then our staff writers will write some e-commerce content as well. We have freelancers who will pitch in. Everything is vetted by our editorial team.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.