Each Monday morning, when editors at The Huffington Post walk into the office with their cups of warm coffee, they are given donuts.

Data donuts.

These circular weekly infographic charts tell the editors the most popular topics based on engagement, trending topics, and shareability on the HuffPost’s various sources of traffic, Vincent Wu, head of analytics at the media company, shared with attendees at of the Big Data Media Conference, a joint venture of World Newsmedia Network (WNMN) and INMA.

Therefore, editors begin each week knowing what is viral, and use that to make editorial decisions. But they are not going viral just on the HuffPost Web site. The donuts pull in data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and, as of this week, Snapchat.

This standard of content distributed across platforms is the reality for many news organisations today. The source of HuffPost’s online traffic is no longer a simple linear model, Wu said.

Many people — even Wu’s boss, Ariana Huffington — have asked him why they are giving over content to these third parties. What is in it for the HuffPost? And Wu admits there is no clear-cut answer. But there is a logic.

“The key reason to consider distributed is for the sake of user experience,” he said. And of course, the data that ensues.

The fundamental question then becomes how to use these numbers, he said: “Where do we start? On which platform and at what time does the audience pick up the story and share it? Fundamentally, where do we reach the peak traffic?” he said.

In one example of a political story, the traffic peaked when it was shared organically on Facebook, driven by an initial share on Twitter.

Knowing these sharing paths helps not only maximise traffic potential and target their articles, but also to dedicate human resources in the right place.

Philosophically, Wu said, distributed content is like opening a door to another world. And it boils down to a competition for time: “People only have 24 hours a day,” Wu said. “If you can get more timeshare, you win.”