If you’re a journalist who ever gets the chance to chat, informally or otherwise, with Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy about the delightfully offbeat, one-of-a-kind media brand she helms, let it be known that there’s at least one fundamental thing you’ll notice pretty quickly.
That observation is this: If you’re a writer who loves telling stories, and who loves being around similarly-minded writers, it’s hard not to feel like McCarthy is definitely the kind of editor you want, and her now 20-year-old online magazine is the place you want to be.
Mental Floss as an enterprise has managed to endure so much of the tumult associated with the industry — to the point where it’s now celebrating a milestone anniversary this month — for many reasons. One of them, and perhaps the most important, is that this web-based publisher which its current top editor joined back in 2012 arguably lives on the publishing equivalent of an island of misfit toys. There’s a very different media philosophy here, one that assiduously avoids SEO games, clickbait, and commoditized coverage that chases the same headlines of the day as everybody else. Mental Floss employs a small, tight-knit crew going its own way, striving to produce a very specific kind of journalism — compelling stories that, above all else, are sufficiently “flossy.” That’s the acid test, McCarthy told me, that “really encompassses what we think the perfect Mental Floss story is.
“A lot of it is just a gut feeling. You get a pitch from a writer, and you know right away whether it’s flossy or not. And a lot of that just boils down to what we find interesting. Because we know that if we find something interesting, our readers will, as well. That is one thing about the brand that has not changed over 20 years.”
This guiding principle has helped the brand build a readership that’s endured for 20 years as of this month and which includes 19 million users per month across its website, social channels, and YouTube. Additionally, Mental Floss has produced five board games, launched an e-commerce store, and published 15 books, not counting the new Mental Floss title being published on May 25. That new book is “The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists,” and it will feature, according to McCarthy, “weird stories about authors, how their works came to be, and there are some really fascinating stories in here. You’re going to find out, for example, which famous novelist kept her dead husband’s heart after he died. Which is one of my favorite stories. I mean, that’s love! It’s full of so many really cool details.”
There’s that fealty again, that love of a compelling story. I asked McCarthy to give me an idea of examples of some supremely flossy stories the magazine itself has published, and she didn’t hesitate: There was the feature, for example, from back in August that introduced readers to Zabiba and the King — that being the title of a romance novel from Saddam Hussein. Flossy? Of course. Same for an exploration of the economics around Beanie Babies. Oh, and also the Mental Floss story that took readers inside the US National Park Service Criminal Investigations Unit. Which is not only a real thing, but also sounds like it could form the basis for a pretty solid Netflix
For my money, one of the things my eyes immediately gravitated to on the site during a recent visit was a piece by writer Jake Rossen, headlined “The Man Who Picked Victorian London’s Unpickable Lock.” Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair, the piece begins. “These were the words used to describe the locks of Jeremiah Chubb, an iron worker in 19th-century London who was renowned for his Detector, a security lock that was thought to be virtually impregnable.”
McCarthy, who was named editor in chief of the site in 2017, says she’s learned a few things during her tenure with the publication that, she’s also come to realize, are probably broadly applicable across the profession. One is that growth and numbers aren’t necessarily more important than the instincts that journalists and their leadership bring to the table. “For us,” she explains, “we’re really guided by a gut instinct about the stories we want to tell and the stories that we think should be told. And there aren’t always SEO numbers to support covering those things, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to cover something.
“Will we use that data to try to optimize things to get as many eyeballs on a story as possible? Of course. But we’re never going to let the numbers 100 percent guide us on a story we feel passionate about.”
Mental Floss was founded in a Duke University dorm room in 2001, and today relies on a New York City-based team of writers and editors, as well as a global network of contributors. In addition to covering everything from history to science, pop culture, language, music, true crime and much more, the publication has won several Webby Awards (including a People’s Choice Webby in 2020), been nominated for an ASME award and published other products like a fact-of-the-day calendar in addition to the books and games.
Once the coronavirus pandemic took hold last year, Mental Floss, like everywhere else, ripped up its prepared playbook for the year and started a bit of a pivot. McCarthy, for one thing, started shooting YouTube videos from her home. Editorially, the magazine also decided to cover the pandemic in a balanced way that didn’t overwhelm readers with negativity. “People have always looked to us as a bit of an escape from the news cycle,” she said, “so what we ended up doing was if there was anything super service-y, we would break that out as its own piece. And then for harder news, we handled that as a digest and were linking out to a lot of other places and not necessarily covering every single coronavirus piece of news.
“Learning doesn’t have to be boring, right? I think it’s important to stick to the things you’re passionate about and that your audience is passionate about. This is the best job in the world. You get to follow your curiosity all day long, wherever it takes you.”