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.

The future of newspapers and what comes next

I moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1978. Before I moved, I picked up a copy of The Washington Post from my local newsstand. I wanted a taste of the area that I would soon call home.

I found it fascinating. The newspaper in Daytona Beach (where I was living at the time) was unaffectionately known as The Mullet Wrapper, because about all it was good for was wrapping mullet. It has almost no news in it, and what “news” it had was dreadfully uninteresting. Even back then, you had to hunt for a movie review within its pages. As for culture and arts, there was no virtually no such thing in Daytona Beach. The Washington Post, on the other hand, was awash with news: national, international and local. It was hard to find a wire service article in the paper because they had staff deployed all over the world who were reporting it firsthand. The Post bulged with insightful information.

In 2009, The Washington Post bulges a lot less. Like most American newspapers, it’s declining and in its case it is particularly painful to watch. I still have it delivered daily. Retrieving the newspaper off my driveway first thing in the morning is reflexive. Most recently the Post’s business section was shrunk and subsumed inside the A section. The comics were shrunk too, from three pages to two, and were reduced further in size as well. The Metro section is looking thinner. The Sports section has trimmed coverage and reduced the number of stories and tables. In short, while it is not close to being The Mullet Wrapper, it becomes less valuable every day. Only on Sundays does the full glory of what The Washington Post used to be reappear.

The economics of the shrinking newspaper market give The Post little choice, although their actions are counterproductive. The more they shrink The Post, the less content it has and thus the less reason there is to buy the paper in the first place. The way things are going, one of these days I will be canceling my subscription too. They will have reduced the value of its information below what I am willing to pay. I sure don’t need to wrap any mullet.

Newspapers look like goners, but I am not so sure. The Washington Post has a good chance of surviving, and I expect certain other major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal will as well, although they may evolve into electronic-only copies. I also expect many niche community newspapers will survive and possibly thrive. It is a lot less costly to deliver bits to a display screen than it is to physically print and distribute a newspaper, and electronic versions are doubtless far more carbon-friendly. I am dubious that any electronic version of a newspaper will provide quite the same experience as its physical manifestation. Newspapers can be browsed; they invite your curiosity. Electronic versions are far less so, simply because you are limited by screen size, resolution and portability.

Newspapers are all desperately searching for the right formula to survive in the information age. What form of electronic content would be good enough to make you want to spend a quarter or two a day (plus the advertising) to get it? Based on the websites I read none of them is quite there. My suspicion is that a completely new revenue model will evolve. The bad news for the newspapers is that they will probably will not control it.

What timely news might we pay money for? The closest on-line entity that resembles a newspaper to me is The Huffington Post. It is part opinion, part news (with a left-wing slant) and part entertainment/scandal sheet. Aside from its opinions, much of its content comes from elsewhere. Their layout has opinion (blogs) in the left column, news in the middle column and entertainment in the right column. It also has a big and somewhat garish headline (usually with an image) at the top of the page. In general, the most topical news is toward the top of the page. As you scroll down the news gets a little bit less interesting and less timely.

Huffpost though is missing a few things you really need to replicate the newspaper experience. First, it has no sports section. For many it is the only reason to buy a newspaper. What it is really missing though and what makes newspapers so valuable is timely local news. If a content provider like Huffpost could figure out a way to integrate sports, local reporting and reviews of the local arts scene, you might have something that is functionally equivalent to a newspaper.

Perhaps what is most valuable about Huffpost is its template. The right newspaper template for the web can serve as a substitute for any newspaper and Huffpost’s is real close. Once we agree on the best newspaper template, it might make perfect sense to let a company like Google provide the web hosting, but let various content providers fill up parts of the template. Let users decide the slant, if any, they want from their news. The Huffpost template would work just as well for The Drudge Report (which IMHO is a seriously ugly and garish site). Say you want your center column to have news from The Drudge Report. Matt Drudge could provide the content (and the advertising) for that portion of the site. Say you like your sports from ESPN. The sports section (say on the right column) could contain its news and ads.

Some of the more tech savvy of you are saying, “What you are describing is a portal. It’s already here!” That’s true, however it is hard for an out of the box portal to give quite the same look and feel as the Huffpost template. We need that right mixture of typography, white space and pictures. We also need editors to uphold quality standards and to select appropriate imagery, something sorely missing from most news web sites on the web. It would be jarring if the content style looked one way in one column from provider A and another way in another column from provider B. Hence, to work, content providers and editors would have to adhere to common stylistic standards, and we would need some style czars to make sure integrated content is consistent. We are not there yet.

Local news is a harder nut to crack. However, I can see teams of regional reporters forming local content syndicates. Just as many towns are now one-newspaper towns, many areas are going to be small enough where only one content provider could survive. Cities though should attract many local content syndicates. Hopefully, there would be enough revenue from the advertising stream to support a quality content, although that remains to be seen.

Would you pay extra for featured comics like Dilbert, prominent advice columnists, local reviews and obituaries? That remains to be seen, but I suspect many people would not mind paying a bit extra for these features providing they were already on the web page and they did not have to go hunt for them. Just as it is inefficient to subscribe to multiple local newspapers to get a full spectrum of news, it is also inefficient to visit multiple web sites to get your news. You will prefer it in one web space tailored to your needs. The time savings from having it in one place may be worth paying for.

Many like me still crave a quality newspaper. We are frustrated by having to visit so many web sites to get the information we want. We also want the opportunity to learn about issues beyond our parochial interests. The right metaphor for the electronic newspaper may be closer than we think and my suspicion is that Huffpost is close. You will know which one it is when it works. (I might add that Huffpost is now one of the web’s biggest web sites, which may say something.) Meanwhile, if I were an unemployed journalist I would be working with other journalists to create rich local content like what used to be available in our newspapers. Providing there is a market, being first to market could be the key to not just surviving, but thriving as a journalist in the 21st century.

The information age gives us many more information choices than we had before, and we are busier than every trying to keep up with them. We will still want timely and relevant summarized information that is well written, insightful and well researched. Give that to us on the web and we will not only come, but open our pockets too.