NY Times vs the HuffPo

Tom McGeveran asks an important question, in his analysis of the AOL-HuffPo deal:

What is it about the environment of traditional journalism that makes it so that readers are more likely to interact with the Huffington Post reblog of a New York Times article than they are with the article itself?

The answer to this question, I think, is also a key part of the reason why the NYT paywall is a bad idea.

It’s worth using a specific example here, so let’s take Dave Pell’s suggestion and look at the NYT’s Olbermann scoop last night, and HuffPo’s reblog of it. When Pell first tweeted the comparison, the NYT blog had no comments, while the HuffPo blog had “hundreds of comments/likes.” Now, the NYT post is up to 93 comments, but the HuffPo post is still miles ahead: 2,088 comments, 1,392 likes on Facebook, 340 Facebook shares, 89 tweets, and 52 emails. All of which figures are easily visible in a colorful box at the top of the story. . . .

Still, the difference between the two pages is much starker than it needs to be: the NYT page is like walking into a library, while the HuffPo page is like walking through Times Square. The HuffPo page is full of links to interesting stories elsewhere on the site — about Egypt, or the kid in the Superbowl Darth Vader ad, or the stories my Facebook friends are reading. And there are lot of links to media stories, too; each one has a photo attached.

The NYT page, by contrast, feels like it’s at a site-map dead end. It’s part of the Media Decoder blog, and almost every NYT story linked to on the page is also part of that blog. There are almost no photos; there is almost no color.

Most importantly, the HuffPo page is genuinely, compellingly, interactive — it’s almost impossible to visit it without finding something you want to click on. Like! Comment! Tweet! Go here! Try this! Visit that! There’s site navigation, yes, but that’s just one layer of a very rich and complex page architecture. At the NYT page, by contrast, to get out of the Media Decoder blog you either have to click on a generic navigation button like “Sports,” or else you’ll just leave the page and the site completely. . .

One of the paradoxes of news media is that most of the time, the more you’re paying to use it, the harder it is to navigate. Sites like HuffPo make navigation effortless, while it can take weeks or months to learn how to properly use a Bloomberg or Westlaw terminal. Once the NYT implements its paywall, it’s locking itself into that broken system: it will be providing an expensive service to a self-selecting rich elite who are willing to put in the time to learn how to use it. Meanwhile, most Americans will happily get their news from friendlier and much more approachable free services like HuffPo.

Rather than learning from or trying to emulate HuffPo’s hugely valuable editorial technology, then, the NYT is sticking its head in the sand and retreating to a defensive stance of trying to make as much money as possible from its core loyal readers. There’s no growth in such a strategy. Indeed, the opposite is true: the NYT is making it both hard and expensive to become a core loyal reader. Meanwhile, the open web will become ever more accessible and social, with friends pointing friends to news in a site-agnostic manner.

That’s Felix Salmon. But there’s always a counterargument:

The most important takeaway from the deal is the limited valuation. No one, not HuffPo’s venture money or AOL or anyone else in the internet business, sees advertising as a business with growing margins. The valuation on Huffington Post is low because of the insistence on cash and the dark prospects for advertising in a world driven more by Groupon than by simple display ads. . . .

Viewed from the perspective of Huffington’s own ambitions to be a meaningful public figure, the Huffington Post has succeeded far beyond what anyone (especially Tina Brown) thought Huffington could achieve. Though I’m sure it has fallen short of Arianna’s own imagination. Here’s a woman who saw that the right was over-crowded with leggy firebrands and pulled off a careerist conversion to rebrand herself as a leftist.

As an editor, however, no one can point to the writer she’s discovered and championed. Indeed, there’s no success that comes out of the Huffington Post in pure content terms. Here’s Jack Shafer on Huffington’s relevance as a journalist:

How to account for Huffington’s remarkable success? If you’ve ever edited Huffington’s raw copy (I have) or read a galley of one of her books before the published version comes out (which I’ve also done), you know that she’s not much of a journalist. But instead of impeding her, those limitations actually gave Huffington an advantage over other sites—Slate included—that hewed to old-media standards. Old-media types don’t feel right about rewriting the copy of their competitors and calling it a story. Huffington glories in carving the meat out of a competitor’s story, throwing a search-engine optimized (SEO) headline on it, and posting it. She even claims to believe that she’s doing the originator a favor by sending traffic back to it via a crediting link.

So Huffington’s relevance to journalism is nil. It’s all SEO page views. And there’s a reason that the New York Times, which has fewer uniques than the Huffington Post according to many of the press accounts, is worth a lot more than $315 million even in its hobbled financial state today.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. I think the HuffPo valuation — which is either low (based on the pageviews HuffPo gets) or high (being six-times revenues) — indicates that the offer was as much for Arianna, her brand and (Aol hopes) her vision as it was for the HuffPo’s content and model. It’s also relevant for sports that, with all the handwringing about the AOL Fanhouse/SportingNews thing or Gawker Media/Deadspin’s role (Deadspin is merely middle of the pack for Gawker in terms of pageviews), is that sports media is an incredibly small piece of this market and further that online margins remain atrocious.

The upshot is that while it might be possible to make enough money online with grueling effort and lots of pageviews to run a successful blog, it’s still not clear — and both the NYT and the Aol/HuffPo deal show this, in their own way — that it will ever be possible to make enough money online with content to run a successful business and actually pay these people to write. Maybe the best that can be hoped for is the SBNation factory-output model: pay lots and lots and lots of part-time bloggers minimum wages (with a few flagship sites at full salary) to build yourself a pageview assembly line, hoping that your economies of scale vacuums up the online advertising nickels.

*** For one journalist/blogger perspective, I recommend this.

  • Free news is great and all, but if you’re limited for time and care about what you read, it’s a lot easier just to subscribe to The Economist than root through 50 websites – and I say this as someone that spends a fair amount of time online. I think people will pay for something to filter out the noise. Felix comparing Huffpo to Times Square is apt, as they both should be avoided.

  • it appears what Chris was getting at with this post was not any statement about NYT or HuffPo corporate politics but simply using them as a metric to gauge where / how the Internet media currently is.

    1 Interactiveness of a site (active community); how much do stories cater to the ‘flavor’ of visitors, either through humor, graphics, video, etc to the degree that entices new and old visitors to spend time on the site (instead of being drowned in a wall of text). The spontaneity of social media cannot be ignored (facebook/twitter/etc) to keep the brand exposed to viewers throughout the day.

    2 Accessibility of a posts/stories; are the stories available and easily found [and shared]?

    All these relate to web-traffic and clicks (equals advertisement revenue potential).

    Thats where his comment about SBNation comes in. You have all these elements at work as it straddles the line between exclusive subscription content with informal inclusive topics (that sports junkies can readily get ‘their fix’).

    With that, the bond between audience and writer (provider of content) becomes more intertwined (interactive)……rather than “old guard” system of media delivering content down from on high, the Internet has evolved into a call-and-response relationship with content consumer and content provider [and someone/somehow is making money off this].

    Does this new meme incentives an entirely new way to interpret how media delivery is handled? And is, as the NYT has done, easier to just swallow up the competition rather than adapt to the consumer’s behavior?

  • Yeah my point was that as SEO comes to dominate news sites, their layout becomes cluttered and unappealing, and this in turn drives people that are actually looking for insight toward cleaner websites and print media. Pure web traffic as a goal is a race to the bottom, which is why sites like huffpo, business insider and bleacher report overuse slideshows for clicks and in turn drive down web ad rates.

    Social media & robust comments can certainly help a page but their are diminishing returns after a certain point. Have you ever had actually had a serious discussion about a political issue on huffpo?

    In the end, we need certain media outlets to report on important things and not just pander to the lowest common denominator. There will always be a market for quality. And if information is valuable, you don’t give it away.

  • zlionsfan

    There will (most likely) always be people who will pay to filter out the noise, as Matt says. The problem for the Times is that there is also a significant percentage of the market that is apparently not interested in paying for something that has a free equivalent of reasonable quality. There are (and will continue to be) far too many sites with free news for that portion of the market ever to switch to pay sites … yes, it’ll be work, but there are a number of ways that you can sift through stories to find the ones you want without a lot of overhead.

    With respect to news, I think it’s not so much the information that’s valuable as the way in which it’s presented. There are very, very few stories that you can find in only certain places. It usually doesn’t take long for a story to spread and for opinions to follow it. Investigative pieces would seem to be the exception, though: aside from links, there isn’t much another site can do with a story that’s built at one site.

    Sports, on the other hand, seems to be a completely different area (but then that could just be a reflection on the depth to which I follow news). Even though there are any number of free sites from which you can get quality information about sports (like this one), there also seems to be a point past which people will definitely pay for information/training/whatever. (It applies to other media as well: how many people would pay an a la carte price for CNN? How many people subscribe to Sunday Ticket or Extra Innings?)

    There will, of course, be bad examples in any market; I’m not sure that it’s necessarily true that the current NYT layout is the major problem they’ll face. (It may also be true that the section of the market the Times is trying to secure is also accustomed to that kind of navigation.) After all, layouts can go through small or large changes with little or no notice. Look at the Gawker family of websites, for example. (The family, please: obviously Gawker and Deadspin are basically HuffPo-type sites or worse, but other sites like io9 and Lifehacker shoot quite a bit higher.)

    I think it’s more an issue with where the paywall is set. I feel like the ESPN (and WSJ?) model is a better one, but then that’s not really different from what the Times did the last time it tried to set up a paywall, and that apparently didn’t work. This seems to be more like the Zynga approach (without the incessant popups), in that the idea is to get heavy visitors to cover the expense of casual ones. I’m not convinced that the mechanics behind it will be implemented successfully, but then I suppose an industrious person will always be able to work around paywalls.

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