The Salmon-Cottrell HuffPo bet

By Felix Salmon
February 23, 2011
Robert Cottrell took issue with my post explaining why the NYT is lagging behind the Huffington Post in terms of reader engagement.

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A couple of weeks ago, Robert Cottrell took issue with my post explaining why the NYT is lagging behind the Huffington Post in terms of reader engagement. Robert is one of the great curators on the internet; he seems to read everything as soon as it comes out. It’s therefore unsurprising that he’s single-minded in how he reads and loathes distractions:

In Felix’s own terms, if you want to do a bit of reading, chances are you’d rather do it in a library than in Times Square. If I have a complaint about the NYT layout, it’s that the page is still too noisy, even now.

I agree that if the purpose of a web page is to facilitate the best possible reading experience with respect to a certain piece of writing, then the NYT is better than HuffPo and there are sites which are even cleaner and better than the NYT. (Robert’s Reader being one of them.) On the other hand, plugins like Readability do a fantastic job of that kind of thing as well. And when you’re designing a sticky, interactive, compelling website, you have to do a lot more than just put up content and hope that people will magically come and read it.

In any case, this disagreement between Robert and me has now been upgraded to a full-scale bet — or rather, two bets. The stakes are, well, steaks: “Loser buys dinner for the winner’s nominated guest. In New York or London, whichever is closer for the buyer. And a decent dinner too. No ducking. No skimping.” And the bets come from this passage from Robert’s post:

Do you seriously think Arianna Huffington will be working diligently at AOL a year from now? Or that the Huffington Post will still be in business, except perhaps as a gibbering wreck, two years from now?

So here are the official terms of the two bets:

1. On February 9, 2012, will Arianna Huffington be working diligently at AOL? If so, Robert loses, if not, Felix loses.

2. On February 9, 2013, will the Huffington Post still be in business? If so, Robert loses, if not, Felix loses. With the proviso that if HuffPo is in business only as a gibbering wreck, Robert will have won the bet and Felix will have lost.

The winner of both bets will be determined by a third-party referee — in this case, John Gapper of the FT, whose column on the HuffPo sale to AOL is here.

I’m pretty confident that I’m going to win both bets. I can’t imagine that Arianna is going to exit her eponymous publication before the 2012 election campaign is over, especially now that she has more control over it than ever. And with all the resources of AOL at her disposal, HuffPo is surely going to be bigger in 2013 than it is now. Now I just need to start planning my trips to London — it’s been a while since I had a nice dinner at Bibendum.


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There are far too many confounding variables in your bet to be able to say with any degree of confidence that winning proves your point (or losing disproves it). However, I stand by my assertion that serially consuming information isn’t how the human brain operates. Even though I don’t care for the HuffPo page, we want ready alternatives that we can choose whether or not to pursue. And I think that the library/Times Square analogy is deeply flawed.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

How about a bet on whether Arianna will be liberal or conservative in 2012?

Posted by skeptonomist | Report as abusive

Surely a lot will have to do with how successfully the format is reproduced/strengthened/broken in the new AOL home or as the marketplace shifts externally due to technology?

There was an interesting discussion on BBC’s Newsnight last night on the future of the printed press v online. The HuffPo wasn’t mentioned once, but one snippet of interest came from the Editor of the Financial Times “the average time a visitor spends on our webpage is 2 to 3 minutes; on our iPad app it’s more like 10 to 15 minutes.”

Where will your bets be if the HuffPo website turns into an iPad app?

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive