Ask an Editor: What Makes a Climb Newsworthy?

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How do you decide what climbs to write about? What makes a route newsworthy in the first place, and why are the fifth, sixth, or tenth ascents of a route sometimes newsworthy and sometimes not? And why don't we hear as much about local crushers as pro climbers?

—Thomas Z.

Thanks for your question, Thomas. You've articulated the eternal struggle of my career. As the person in charge of Climbing.com for the past six years, every day I decide what is newsworthy and what is not. It's often not an easy decision.

The short version is that I try to evaluate whether or not something will make for a good story. That is, will people find it interesting? Is there something inspiring about it? Are there compelling photos? Is it funny, or does it have some kind of novelty element to it? Is it important information that people should know? There are a lot of reasons a story could be newsworthy, but the most important question is, Will people want to read it?

I'm the person deciding what to cover on our website, but I'm beholden to the readers. I can't force anyone to read our stories (my job would be a lot easier if I could). Instead, I have to predict what our readers will like. The pageview counts of previous articles help inform my decisions, but it's always a bit of an educated guess.

Here are a few more frequently asked questions on the subject in more depth:

What Grades are Newsworthy?

The answer to this is always changing. There was a time when climbing 5.14 was newsworthy. Today, 5.14 and 5.15 ascents happen all the time. When I started working at Climbing in 2014, V15 ascents were newsworthy. Now there have been too many to even count. Climbs at the bleeding edge will always be newsworthy—ascents like Silence (5.15d), Bibliography (5.15d), and Burden of Dreams (V17). Below that, it really depends if there is a compelling story behind the ascent.

Why Do Repeat Ascents Matter Sometimes?

Here's a curious tale. The Recovery Drink (5.14c) at Profile Wall in Jøssingfjord, Norway, is among the world's hardest cracks. Nico Favresse completed the first ascent of the line in 2013. In 2018, Daniel Jung made the second ascent. In 2019 we ran a print feature by Tristan Hobson about Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall's quest to complete the third and fourth ascents of the line. Whittaker has since redpointed the route, but at the time, neither of the two had sent.

In 2013 we ran a news story about Favresse's FA. We didn't cover Daniel Jung's repeat. Neither of the first two ascents received a print feature. Why were Whittaker and Randall's attempts on the line more newsworthy?

They weren't. Our coverage of Whittaker and Randall had nothing to do with their attempts being more or less noteworthy than the previous ascents. Editor Matt Samet and I didn't work for Climbing in 2013, so we can't speak to why the first ascent didn't receive more coverage. For the 2019 piece, it comes down to storytelling.

"The best narratives in any sport or pursuit are those about the process—whether you succeed or fail is almost immaterial," explains Samet, who assigned the story. "I'm thinking of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, for example. So, that's what we were going for with Tristan's piece—getting inside what it took to prep for, attempt, and refine tactics on a limit-redpoint for two of the world's best climbers."

It's always a judgement call. We get plenty of pitches about repeats that don't make the cut.

For example, every year during Everest season I get emails asking us to cover hyper-specific achievements on the mountain—which has seen thousands of ascents. "Dear editor, I'm happy to announce the first-ever ascent of Mount Everest by a 51-year-old woman from Ruso, North Dakota with heterochromia. We hope you'll share the attached press release about her inspiring story, and we'd be happy to set up an interview." No thanks. If this job has taught me anything, it's that every single person that climbs Mount Everest can claim some kind of first, and most of them have publicists. That doesn't mean their ascents make for good stories.

Why Do Pro Climbers Get So Much Coverage?

You may notice, when browsing climbing media, that many of the climbers featured are professionals.  Why is that, you might wonder, aren't there weekend warriors with good stories to tell? Of course there are. In fact, we write about climbers that don't make a living from the sport all the time. Our news coverage online is mostly about pros, sure, but otherwise it's a good mix. There are a few reasons why pros do get a significant amount of coverage, though.

The vast majority of cutting edge climbs are done by pros. Weekend warriors aren't getting out and free soloing El Cap, establishing 5.15d, or climbing the Dawn Wall. If they were, we'd write about it. If someone went and knocked out the Dawn Wall during their Labor Day holiday weekend from their IT job at a cubicle farm, that'd be a great story.

Pro climbers are also good at publicizing their ascents. Publicity is part of their job, and they often travel with great photographers and videographers. Then their sponsors help spread the news with instagram posts, YouTube videos, and press releases. When pro climbers do something cool, it's easy for us to learn about it and then write about it. On the other hand, a weekend warrior might not publicize their story at all. The climbing community is vast, and we can't know everything that goes on. Often these stories come from freelance writers who are a part of the same community as these lesser-known climbers, or we might know the individuals ourselves.

In our Autumn 2020 issue, Dakota Walz wrote a feature about his quest to climb a mile of first ascents in 2019. Dakota is not a pro climber. Though he did obtain his first sponsor after we'd assigned the story, it's not how he makes his living. I've been friends with Dakota for years. The feature came about after he told me about his goal, and then I encouraged him to pitch a story. If I didn't know Dakota, who knows?

We're a small staff here. We can't cover every single thing that happens in this multi-faceted, worldwide sport. But, by focusing on storytelling, we can provide the most value to our readers with the content we dedicate our time to.