The Awl vs HuffPo

By Felix Salmon
April 21, 2011
David Cho has a smart post on web publishing today, which in many ways encapsulates the criticism that Bill Keller should have made of the Huffington Post model:

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The Awl’s David Cho has an interesting post on web publishing today:

There’s a trend on the internet now to talk about how great you are…

The current rules in place to win at having a New York internet publishing entity are stupid and wrong, both in terms of perceived and actual success…

As far as actual success and how we are sort of too stubborn for our own good, it essentially comes down to the now standardized model that exists for how to build a large, behemoth, words-based content website. It’s sort of easy? Create a huge mountain of garbage statistics of audience and inventory, and then place a tablecloth of seemingly intelligent content to cover it like a veil. There are obviously exceptions to this model, the most exceptional, non-old publication to do this being Gawker, but when it comes to your HuffPo’s or whatever, that’s essentially the shady ass blueprint, and you know what, it works incredibly well.

If I were inclined to give Bill Keller the benefit of the doubt here — which I’m not — this is what I’d think that he was driving at with his talk of “adorable kitten videos”. Yes, there’s extremely high-quality original content on HuffPo. But there are lots of sites with high-quality original content. What differentiates HuffPo from those other sites is its sheer size: the astonishing number of pageviews it generates. And while some of those pageviews come from its page architecture, a lot of them come from pretty lowbrow content.

lowbrow.tiffIf you look at the most popular stories on HuffPo right now, it’s possible to find something like the screenshot at left. White stuff on a starlet’s finger, mobile homes changing hands for millions of dollars, Chain Restaurants Worth Visiting — this is all pretty much garbage content, which is very cheap to produce and which can generate enormous amounts of traffic and ad impressions.

highbrow.tiffOn the other hand, if you look at the actual most popular stories on HuffPo right now — the first “most popular” page, rather than the second — it seems significantly meatier. All of them have more than ten times as many Facebook shares as those chain restaurants do, and they’re all real stories.

That said, none of these stories is HuffPo-exlusive reporting. And that’s probably what Cho is driving at — the really great content which HuffPo produces on its own is very worthy, but it’s really only a thin tablecloth compared to the mountain of cheap aggregated inventory which it produces and sells so effectively.

Now I happen to like cheap aggregated inventory. I think it serves an important and useful function — and millions of HuffPo’s readers agree with me. Still, when the thing you’re most proud of is relatively peripheral to your business but core to your self-image, there’s a disconnect which can look to outsiders somewhat hypocritical.

Truth be told, however, the NYT is not as far away from that model as Keller might like to believe. The expensive international reporting Keller’s rightly so proud of never pays for itself: it’s essentially cross-subsidized by glossy ads in T Magazine, and the neverending procession of lifestyle sections and supplements which accompany the main news section.

Here, for example, is the latest piece of journalism for the NYT by its former media reporter, Alex Kuczynski. The first thing you see when you visit that page is the photo, with a caption worth quoting in full:

INVESTMENT PORTFOLIO — With one outfit like this, you’ve got a wardrobe. Brunello Cucinelli jacket, $2,090. Call (212) 813-0900. Theory dress (worn as top), $295. Go to theory.com. The Row pants, $1,950. At Barneys New York. Call (212) 826-8900. Phineas Cole pocket square, $70. At Paul Stuart. Call (212) 682-0320. Hervé Van Der Straeten cuffs, $750 each. At Neiman Marcus. Call (888) 888-4757. Photograph by Sebastian Kim. Fashion Editor: Ethel Park. Fashion Assistant: Adam Ballheim. Hair by Syd Hayes at Premier Hair and Makeup using Bumble and Bumble. Makeup by Yadim using M.A.C. Manicure by Maki Sakamoto for Valley NYC. Model: Missy Rayer.

You see that $2,000 Bruno Cucinelli jacket? It’s an investment! And you too can buy it! Call (212) 813-0900! Now! (And, NYT, it’s Rayder, not Rayer.)

I’m a big fan of the Awl, and to its credit it doesn’t play the cross-subsidy game. It’s not relentlessly highbrow, by any means, but it does what it wants to do and is proud of doing, and that’s it. I wish David Cho the best of fortune in trying to turn this property into a real and profitable business — it certainly deserves to be one. But I’m also a fan of HuffPo, and the NYT, and ProPublica, and Reuters, and all the other business models that people use to put important and interesting content online. And frankly it doesn’t redound to anybody’s credit when an important employee at one of them starts calling a rival’s business model “shady”.

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