Bill Keller’s war on the Internet keeps the Times down
By Alex Leo
It seems every time Bill Keller takes pen to paper (or hand to keyboard) these days it’s to express displeasure with some aspect of the Internet. Last week he tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. discuss.” Without delving into the irony of using the trappings of the Web to attack it, you can see this man is spoiling for a fight. Ever since Keller started his column in the Hugo-Lindgren-revamped Sunday Times magazine, it’s been clear he’s swinging at Arianna Huffington. (Full disclosure: Before coming to Reuters I was a senior editor at the Huffington Post.)
In his first such column, he called The Huffington Post, and aggregators in general, “pirates” and “counterfeiters.” This level of vitriol is something Keller normally reserves for despots and the Bush White House, so why the exception here? Yes, HuffPo is nipping at the NYT’s toes to become the most widely-read news site on the Web, and yes, Huffington has poached some of Keller’s top talent in recent months, but the truth is that part of Keller’s animus must come from the knowledge that he helped create this monster of a site by refusing to engage with the Internet on the Internet’s terms. It’s not just Keller who ceded ground to The Huffington Post—it’s the news publishing world as a whole which, like the music industry, didn’t revolutionize fast enough and saw a new entity arise to classify their content.
To be fair to Keller, he’s right about a few things. Many of the editors Huffington claimed to employ pre-AOL were really content producers more than journalists—they made slideshows, polls, quizzes, they wrote headlines for AP stories, added images to blogs, embedded videos and aggregated outside news. With the influx of AOL money, Arianna has started to do what she always wanted: Hire prestigious journalists and bloggers and build an empire that earns as much respect as it does page views. This in no way means the page views will come from the respectable journalism—my guess is that Peter Goodman brings in 1/10th the traffic of a kitten-posting associate editor who earns 1/10th his salary does, but they serve different purposes and both are important for the brand.
But this begs the question: If what Arianna did was so easy why didn’t Keller do it too? Even if the NYT doesn’t want to aggregate—which is going to be an increasingly hard decision to defend—there are many things that Huffington Post did under the technological leadership of Paul Berry and the editorial chutzpah of the young content creators that made it a popular destination.
First, there’s SEO. HuffPost sometimes goes over-the-top with its content farm-y headlines, but that’s not what SEO has to be. Search Engine Optimization, used correctly, can make someone a better headline writer and is important from a reader standpoint. If you don’t have the story’s key terms in the headline or in the first sentence, a user won’t be able to find it internally or externally. NYT headlines are problematic for social as well: Having a vague, boring header may work in print, but it simply doesn’t fly on Twitter or Facebook.
Secondly, while some of the NYT blogs are great, they have not invested in or cultivated blog stars. They have no Yglesias, Klein, Linkins, etc, and their columnists aren’t really good stand-ins as they don’t interact with the Web the way bloggers do. (The notable exception to this is Paul Krugman whose blog is frequently updated and often cited.) This may stem from Keller’s distaste for aggregation and blogging by extension. As Felix Salmon wrote on this site:
The biggest thing that’s missing in the journalistic establishment is people who are good at finding all that great material, and collating it, curating it, adding value to it, linking to it, presenting it to their readers. It’s a function which has historically been pushed into a blog ghetto, and which newspapers and old media generally have been pretty bad at.
Lastly, (and most importantly) the Times has fallen behind in product development. Yes, their design is one of the best, their slideshows are gorgeous and their interactive graphics are unparalleled but they don’t take enough risks with the site itself and therefore lack several traffic boosting features. They’re missing good internal link promotion (as Felix Salmon said “the NYT page is like walking into a library, while the HuffPo page is like walking through Times Square”), social integration (Twitter widgets, lists and editions populate HuffPost, those things are rare on nytimes.com), and community engagement (the news flows one way).
While having brunch with an ex-Times employee in January she said to me “we weren’t allowed to read the Huffington Post—they say it’s the least reliable source on the Internet.” That summed it up for me: We don’t like their content model so we’re going to ignore what they’re doing right. The hermetic nature of the Times just doesn’t work for a web company, and in the juxtaposition to the Huffington Post, nothing becomes clearer. If Keller had embraced the nature and demands of the Web five years ago, the Huffington Post might not be as big as it is today.