Why the NYT will lose to HuffPo

By Felix Salmon
February 8, 2011
Tom McGeveran asks an important question, in his analysis of the AOL-HuffPo deal:

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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.

The NYT, by contrast, keeps such numbers to itself: you can see the number of posted comments, but you can’t see the number of comments which have been submitted and have yet to make it through moderation. (Which is why Pell saw zero comments when he tweeted last night.)

Both the NYT and HufPo stories are blog posts, but there the similarities end. It’s worth just looking at the two, side by side:

comparison2.jpg

McGeveran says the NYT doesn’t look more like HuffPo because “their very existence is justified by their obligation to readers to vouch for the content they produce,” including widgets from Twitter and Facebook and the like, if the content from those widgets appears on the NYT website. And I daresay that the NYT sells that Killington ad at a much higher rate, per thousand pageviews, than HuffPo is getting for its ProFlowers and Lufthansa ads and its Bing tie-in. But the HuffPo page is clearly generating lots of pageviews, and has more ads on the page. (The second ad unit on the NYT page is a house ad for its own iPad app; HuffPo also has a house ad, for its Blackberry app, but runs it separately in a blue bar along the top of the page.) And of course HuffPo doesn’t need to pay for the expensive original reporting of Bill Carter and Brian Stelter.

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.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that the NYT paywall is really, at heart, a navigation fee. The side door is always open: if you get to the NYT website from, say, the HuffPo story, then you’ll be able to read that story no matter how many other stories you’ve read that month. The NYT has said that 80% of its visitors don’t read enough pages per month that they’d have any need to subscribe at all. But it’s pretty obvious why that is: the NYT is making precious little effort to encourage people to want to click around the site and view more pages.

The fact is that readers come to the NYT — or any website — because they want to read its stories. They don’t much care about branded sections, or deciphering the difference between a news story and a blog entry. (The Olbermann story is a blog post, for reasons which even I don’t fully understand.) But the NYT site architecture seems built around the peculiar way that the news is produced inside 620 8th Avenue, rather than around showing the NYT’s readers the exact stories they’re most likely to want to read.

One the paywall goes up, it’s certain that non-subscribers — the vast majority of the NYT readership — will read fewer pages per month than they did before. The NYT’s navigation was never very sticky, as we’ve seen, but from here on in there will actually be a substantial economic incentive not to explore the site, and to save up your precious quota of pageviews for when you need them most.

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. The NYT is distancing itself from that conversation, standing proud and aloof. It’s a strategy which is doomed to fail.

28 comments

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Oddly enough, I prefer the NYT page: I prefer content over distracting guff around the edge.

What I don’t like is the difficulty of navigating the site. My sense is that the second half of your post is spot-on, and the first half, about page layout is irrelevant.

Posted by DrFuManchu | Report as abusive

I disagree that “Sites like HuffPo make navigation effortless.” Maybe Paywall NYT will be hard to navigate. Current NYT is not.

HuffPo is horrible to navigate and the principal reason I avoid it unless I see a link from a blog to a specific HuffPo article (and can immediately spot the article at the other end of the link). Once you get into the site, you can see headlines for other HuffPo articles. But when you click the links, you don’t go to the articles. You go to some aggregation page and have to hunt for the article you want. And the article is often listed under a different title.

Posted by cassidy | Report as abusive

You know what this articles fails to highlight? There’s a gem of a point sitting lodged in the surrounding ore:

“…so let’s take Dave Pell’s suggestion and look at the NYT’s Olbermann scoop last night, and HuffPo’s reblog of it.”

So already we wouldn’t even be looking at Huffpo if not for the NYT “expensive, original reporting”. Now let’s consider the paywall Mr. Salmon is cautioning against.

The amount of aggregating that goes on at HuffPo makes a free and all-accessible internet vital to their survival. Now, I’m not sure how the NYT paywall is going to work, but assuming they are as “proud and aloof” as Mr. Salmon posits, I think it’d be safe to say that their content will not be all that easily accessible.

But perhaps this is irrelevant…What we should really be asking, is how frequently and often does HuffPo link to NYT articles? That’s a stat I would be interested in.

Posted by justvince87 | Report as abusive

I think your analysis is very interesting. But as a counter theory, maybe people are just more comfortable with low-brow.

HuffPo doesn’t look that different than TechCrunch, Engadget, etc.

If I comment on the Times then maybe I’m worried about the level of the chatter. Reading the comments, I shouldn’t be, but who says logic has to be the decider. The ego says, Paul Krugman might read this!

But the HuffPo has no stodgy air about it. It’s all part of the drive-by internet. I stop (or stumble upon it), pretend to read, and comment. With the Times you have to scroll to the bottom.

Going back to the central tenet of the post though, is the HuffPo more easily aped than the Times? IE, might it just be a flash in the pan. How difficult would it be to compete with them? And if it is easier, might the Times still have the last laugh?

Posted by pcad | Report as abusive

Human beings are associative creatures. We catch things out of the corners of our eye, or because something we hear jogs a dim and peripherally related memory. It enables our lives to be rich and creative, and at the most basic level is a survival trait.

This characteristic makes the serial approach to content consumption a historical anomaly. While I don’t particularly care for the design of the HuffPo page, I bet no two people navigate from the page in the same way. This is how our minds work. Any attempt to enforce structure or direction will result in failure.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

I’ve occasionally read HuffPo blog articles, but more often than not they leave me cold… Not particularly high-quality content. Nor do I visit the site as an aggregator. Too annoying for that.

I suspect it will fade in time, replaced by something newer and better, and AOL will be blamed for mismanaging the investment. But in truth, the “moat” for an operation like that is so small that any ten-man shop can set up an alternative with a chance of out-competing the “industry leader” within five years.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

My experience is that the Times is much more difficult to read online than in paper form. I like reading the paper, and I would be happy to read it online, but it just seems kludgy and difficult to browse more than two articles. The paper form I can read the whole thing cover to cover.

I agree with Felix that the paywall will make it more difficult and time-consuming to read the online edition.

Posted by jqr71234 | Report as abusive

I don’t think it’s fair to say that “the NYT will lose to HuffPo”. That’s like saying the NBA will lose to the NFL. Both leagues want sports fans’ dollars, but they’re not mutually exclusive, and they target different audiences. They can both be successful, or they can both fail.

the NYT is primarily a source of news, that lets people provide some feedback. The HuffPo is primarily a giant bar, full of opinionated and often intoxicated people who want to tell the world what they think about every news item. It is as much gossip, entertainment, and opinion as it is news, and people who want those features will go to there. Those who want less noise will go someplace like the NYT.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

This blog looks a lot more like the nyt item than the Huffington post. I like it that way.

Posted by Mr.Do | Report as abusive

I am struck by the greater scan-ability of the Huffington Post piece: picture of Olbermann and his full name in bold sans-serif.

Posted by SamPenrose | Report as abusive

“That’s like saying the NBA will lose to the NFL. Both leagues want sports fans’ dollars, but they’re not mutually exclusive, and they target different audiences. They can both be successful, or they can both fail.”

^this. While I agree with felix’s take, they are totally different customers and should be viewed as such. HuffPo has a younger readership, and capitalizes on a more “today’s” internet, with less focus on actual good content. Today’s HuffPo reader may turn into tomorrow’s NYT reader.

Posted by y_u_no_work | Report as abusive

I wonder if the mechanics themselves don’t aggravate the NYT problem (actually, in my opinion, the most aggravating problem at the NYT is upper-level management in every sector, but that’s a side issue). The NYT page is simply not something one wants to read on a computer screen. It’s like microfilm with the black/white reversed. If NYT wants to go up against HuffPo and have a chance, it should use its iPad iteration across the board.

Posted by midasw | Report as abusive

Felix, my man.
1. The HuffPo takes in 30M in revenue each year. That’s as large as a mid-sized car dealership.
2. Furthermore, go onto their site and look at all the stories. Half are ripped off from other sites.
3. Free News has ALWAYS been around- The metro, every city weekly. They make less money…or no money… cause they SUCK.
4. People pay for guaranteed quality and convenience over a free alternative all the time- ever drink bottled water or buy a Britta filter?
5. Everyone yucks at the paywall idea, but ever crunch the numbers on the fact that the 15-20 million dollars that Murdoch gets from paywall subscribers to the Times of London is far far more than he probably ever got from internet ad revenues?

Posted by Tron | Report as abusive

The more stuff there is to click on, the more I feel I am being duped by the website. Do they want me there because they have something I should read or am I only there to click on/be served ads.

Even though both the NYT and HuffPo are probably after the same thing (my pageview), the NYT doesn’t make me feel like I accidently typed in twtter.com and got served some fake website filled with horrible ads and aggregated content.

Posted by bschaeffer | Report as abusive

I think you mean “OnCe the paywall goes up…” You know. Once with a C.

Posted by Holltastic | Report as abusive

This article assumes the same audience is as likely to go to either site for news about Olbermann. But it seems much more likely that the audience for the Times’ Media Decoder is different to the Huff Po reader in several important ways, such as being less likely to care about Olbermann qua politics than Olberman qua business. Thus all the argument about the relative merits about design and interactivity is moot. Know your audience.

Posted by eudaimonia17 | Report as abusive

Well, Mr. Salmon, have you had a look at your web page with its black, white, and a very little blue? And yet we all still come here to read the best analysis around. Content matters more than all the pretty colors.

Posted by silliness | Report as abusive

Now it’s been sold for $315 million (HOW MUCH??!!!) I don’t think the Huffington Post will generate as much content as in the past, since much of it was written for free by others. There are a few articles around saying AOL are making another Time Warner sized mistake… I tend to agree with them. Here’s just one:
http://www.macworld.co.uk/business/news/ index.cfm?newsid=3259978&olo=rss

Having said that, if the NYT is so difficult to navigate, that is unlikely to live long either as an online news supplier.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

You must be kidding. The NYT page is beautiful and can be read easily without distraction. It can be shared via social media services using the small section of links.

The HuffPo page is a nightmare of ads and ugliness. It makes me want to surf away immediately, except for the fact that I use ad-blocking extensions anyway. Still yet, the NYT page has far more class and aesthetics, which my brain instantly interprets as far more trustworthy and content-focused.

HuffPo seems like they’re more interested in ad revenue than content, and that mantra shows in their page design. Social media, comments, and discussion are great, but they aren’t the point.

Give me only the news, unless I specifically ask for more.

Posted by brandonsadkins | Report as abusive

Not to mention that this is a terribly loaded and view-grabbing headline.

HuffPo and NYT aren’t in a direct battle. Yes, NYT may make a mistake in putting up a paywall, but their content seems more worth the money by far compared to HuffPo, which, despite some of their politics I agree with, is fairly low-quality in content.

When you distract your readers purposely from your content in the interest of making money, you don’t care about your content.

Posted by brandonsadkins | Report as abusive

Beyond the dread NYT paywall is a larger issue – it used to be called “top-fold” journalism.

The NYT website is boring and appeals to a (Barneys) niche audience. HuffPo is a mass-market Target, Inc. brand of journalism, with AOL playing the role of Dayton-Hudson.

Posted by flippant | Report as abusive

I’m not sure the argument here adds up to NYT losing to HuffPo, or what that even means really. But the analysis here is compelling and useful. And stepping back a bit, it makes all these sense in the world that HuffPo’s navigation strategy would outperform NYT. If you think about the core competencies of these two companies, NYT at it’s most essential would be called a content creator while HuffPo is a content organizer. HuffPo is simply more focused on navigation/link strategies and Felix’s suggestion that NYT consider the HuffPo model deeply and leverage relevant elements from it is a very good one.

Posted by chipk | Report as abusive

How many outbound links does HuffPo have to NYT each day? How many outbound links does NYT have to HuffPo each day?

One is a parasite. There is a finite number of high-nutrition hosts for the this parasite. Play this scenario out…

Posted by newfie53523 | Report as abusive

I might seem like a dinosaur but I see much more value in the sites that actually report things first rather than those that aggregate and link to original reporting.

Posted by Londonhack | Report as abusive

The more important question, in the post print world—which is certainly coming—how does the New York Times make any money, absent a paywall?

I still believe there is a market for well-written and edited reporting. For what it’s worth, in the examples provided above, I also think the NYT page is better designed than the gaudy, unfocused HP example. Though in my mind, in terms of presentation, a tablet focused app may be better suited to protected content than a web page filled with links and ad banners and driven by search engine optimization and click through rates.

I’m not convinced a closed model won’t work for quality content. And enough of the bigger players do it what the the aggregators offer in their place?

Posted by tgerdes | Report as abusive

Maybe I’m a snob, but HuffPost layout says “junk” to me, even when it’s not (which is often enough). I find the Times site easy to navigate and full of visual interest. The WSJ site has been behind a paywall for a long time and has remained easy to navigate. It’s true that Westlaw and its ilk are a pain.

Posted by adsprung | Report as abusive

I can’t imagine looking at that side-by-side and thinking that the HuffPo image is preferrable. I guess it’s probably a matter of personal taste but I’d say that those two layout styles are comparable to Google’s search page versus Yahoo or MSN or any of the rest. Google offers a super clean and focused page that doesn’t have a lot of extraneous distracting crap while Yahoo is a mess of ads and links. Obviously user traffic shows that Google won the design war.

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive

People need to stop using the term “platform agnostic” or “site agnostic”.
It really betrays the stupidity of modern leftists/pagans/atheists/agnostics/secul arists.

You’re saying that the Huffpo website coding doesn’t believe in different websites? The Huffpo brain can’t say whether those websites it links to exist or not? Could go either way?
You guys are like what you claim religious people were or what the Nazis actually were. You try to use language to brainwash people and alter the cultural landscape.
In your mind an agnostic is a smart, breezy, cool person who can switch from belief to belief with the utmost coolness and that’s what you think the word “agnostic” means. Or you think if enough of you use it that way we will have that connotation for agnostics.

Agnostic actually means you’re too afraid to decide. So I’m guessing by saying that Huffpo is “site agnostic” you meant that it’s too afraid to decide whether or not it believes in other websites.

Maybe the fact that leftists got big pretending to be wise and intelligent when they’re naive, uneducated, close minded leftists is what’s sinking the NYT ship! (But I’m eager to hear more of the wildly creative excuses that leftists come up with!)

Please stop hacking language just because you’re ignorant of anything that happened before 1960!

Posted by Nietzcheisdead | Report as abusive