Huffington Post breaks a glass ceiling

The Huffington Post must be getting uppity, or clever, or both. This online newspaper/mega-blog/news aggregator (it is hard to say exactly what Huffpost is) reached a couple significant milestones in September. Specifically, it overtook the online versions of stalwart newspaper web sites like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Or so reports, which tracks visits on many prominent web sites.

Neither The Washington Post nor the L.A. Times are going out of business any time soon, and they clearly also make revenue from their newspapers. However, the upstart Huffington Post is slapping them around. Amazingly, Huffpost cataloged more unique visitors than either of these sites in September, while also linking to interesting content on their web sites. Here are the statistics for September 2009:

  • Huffington Post – 8,350,417 unique visitors
  • Washington Post – 8,124,820 unique visitors
  • LA Times – 8,319,427 unique visitors

I find these statistics amazing. Neither The Washington Post nor The L.A. Times is some obscure newspaper. The Washington Post is the paper of reference for Washington D.C. and by extension the federal government. It can count among its accomplishments bringing down a U.S. president. The L.A. Times commands a huge metropolitan area and has had no local competition since 1989. Yet, The Huffington Post, which has been online less than five years, now receives more visitors than either of these sites and likely generates more online revenue as well. By contrast, first went online in 1996.

So this is just more bad news for the newspaper industry: a spunky online startup is doing a better job of communicating news and opinions online than they are. Most likely, Huffpost is doing this with fewer people and at less cost. At least the Grey Lady herself is not yet threatened in cyberspace. The New York Times web site recorded 19,546,618 unique visitors during the same period. One sign that the New York Times is sweating is that they recently announced layoffs of an additional one hundred positions in its newsroom. This may not be a great strategy in the end, given that The Huffington Post is hiring while both The New York Times and The Washington Post are firing.

Newspapers like The L.A. Times and The Washington Post do like to complain about sites like Huffpost. Mainly they feel like they should get a referral fee for their shoe leather journalism. I feel their concern is without merit. Unless a web site has an agreement with a newspaper, they link directly to the article, rather than embed its content on their web site. Moreover, Huffpost only adds or quotes a sentence or two from the actual article, which is legal. Newspapers that do not want their content accessible by sites like Huffpost merely need insert one line of text into their site’s .htaccess file to block them. Clearly, newspapers are talking out both sides of their mouths. They know they are getting more revenue due to referral from sites like Huffpost than they would if their content was not searchable. If they are curious, then as an experiment, they could block these sites and see if their bottom line improves. Only a fool would take this bet. The New York Times actually tried it by hiding its “premier” content (like columnist Paul Krugman) behind a paid firewall, and found they made more money by serving the content for free with ads.

Nor does Huffpost survive solely by pointing users to other sites. Granted, it remains a fair amount of their business model, but the Huffpost also has a large number of prominent bloggers and something that is starting to resemble a news staff. Moreover, newspapers like The Washington Post are engaging in pennywise but pound-foolish strategies. A few months back The Washington Post let go their most prominent blogger Dan Froomkin, who apparently drew considerable traffic to their site. Two weeks after being fired, Froomkin was hired by Huffpost and is now chief of their Washington bureau as well as a part-time blogger.

What is Huffpost doing that the other newspapers are not? Many things. Newspapers, with a few exceptions like USA Today (15,487,750 visitors) are regional in nature. Huffpost is essentially national, although it is taking steps to provide localized editions (New York, Chicago and Denver so far). Second, it feels like a conglomeration of various types of newspapers. By combining the sober with the sensational, it is sort of like getting a New York Times and a New York Post in one online experience. Huffpost’s left column is essentially the “blogger/opinion” section of its “paper”, and is sort of, but not quite as good as opinion sections of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Its sober side tends to appear in the middle column, although its headline screams Drudge Report style. The right hand column is largely entertainment news.

Huffpost also watches demographic trends and is aggressively playing to them, as is evident with its liberal bent. Like it or not in 21st century America we are likely to see governments and social policies that are more liberal than today’s. It is trying hard to appeal to Generations X and Y, while keeping enough solid content to interest baby boomers like me. Most recently, it opened up an impact section, where readers can contribute stories about people dealing with major life crises. It is smart not only because it showcases those who have fallen through the cracks in our society, but also because it tends to a ready and underserved market of people interested in these stories.

If newspapers like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times eventually fail, one has to wonder if Huffpost’s business model will fail as well, given how much of their business depends on newsgathering done elsewhere. It appears though that Arianna has a plan and is investing today’s profits to create staff and stringer-written national and local content.

In short, as I speculated recently, Huffpost may well replace traditional newspapers. It is smartly positioning itself to be the first mass-online newspaper. Even the venerable Grey Lady should quake. Tomorrow’s electronic newspapers will look superficially like today’s, but will be broader in scope and allow greater personalization. They will provide both general interest news as well as stories of interest to more specialized and local communities. Newspapers still clinging to old models are likely to end up outfoxed and out of business.

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