Once the web’s fastest growing aggregator, Upworthy pivots

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Eli Pariser. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Nicole Levy

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This viral content site drew almost 50 million unique visitors last August. What happened next will surprise you.

Upworthy, the website that made its name re-packaging heartfelt liberal content for maximum shareability on social media, is shifting its focus to the production of original content, laying off six staffers in the process.

"Three years ago, when we started Upworthy, we hired people to curate and package meaningful videos," co-founder Eli Pariser in a statement to Capital. (Pariser launched the company with Peter Koechley in 2012.) "But we are now moving decisively to deepen our focus on original storytelling that supports our mission."

The first hint at Upworthy's impending about-face came in February, when the company hired Amy O'Leary as editorial director. O'Leary had one foot in legacy media and another in digital, having served as the New York Times digital deputy editor on the paper's international desk, and having co-authored its Innovation Report, which outlined strategies to transform the Times into a digital powerhouse.

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At Upworthy, she would fill the position vacated by the company's founding editorial director. Under Sara Critchfield, Upworthy had called its editorial staffers "curators." They searched the web for videos that would resonate emotionally with viewers, tested different clickbait-y headlines, and posted the top performers on social media. Critchfield preferred to hire "non-professionally trained writers" as "curators," she told Nieman Lab in 2013.

With O'Leary leading the push into original storytelling, Upworthy is retiring the title "curator."

"To make the transition from curation to storytelling (which we’ll share more on in the coming weeks), we...are asking for different skills and a different work style from our editorial team than we ever have before," Pariser said.

While Upworthy has retained most of its editorial team, it let go six members "who had many strengths that don’t fully translate to the kind of original storytelling we’re investing in going forward," in Pariser's words.

The company has hired five new writers, a company representative confirmed. According to Pariser, it has plans to hire more, as well as "visual storytellers" and "a few new Upworthy leaders."

Following that blockbuster month last year, the site's traffic has declined. In May, it drew fewer than 20 million unique visitors, according to Quantcast.

Pariser and Peter Koechley launched Upworthy in 2012 with the mission of connecting readers to nonprofits and the intention of monetizing that service. Supported by the $12 million it raised during two rounds of venture capital financing, Upworthy has also made money through native advertising.