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 itâs 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, itâs been clear heâs 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, âpiratesâ andÂ âcounterfeiters.â 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 NYTâs toes to become the most widely-read news site on the Web, and yes, Huffington has poached some of Kellerâs top talent in recent months, but the truth is that part of Kellerâs animus must come from the knowledge that he helped create this monster of a site by refusing to engage with the Internet on the Internetâs terms. Itâs not just Keller who ceded ground to The Huffington Postâitâs the news publishing world as a whole which, like the music industry, didnât revolutionize fast enough and saw a new entity arise to classify their content.
To be fair to Keller, heâs right about a few things. Many of the editors Huffington claimed to employ pre-AOL were really content producers more than journalistsâthey 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 journalismâmy 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 didnât Keller do it too? Even if the NYT doesnât want to aggregateâwhich is going to be an increasingly hard decision to defendâthere 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, thereâs SEO. HuffPost sometimes goes over-the-top with its content farm-y headlines, but thatâs 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 donât have the storyâs key terms in the headline or in the first sentence, a user wonât 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 doesnât 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 arenât really good stand-ins as they donât 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 Kellerâs distaste for aggregation and blogging by extension. As Felix Salmon wrote on this site:
The biggest thing thatâs 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. Itâs 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) theÂ 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 donât take enough risks with the site itself and therefore lack several traffic boosting features. Theyâre missing good internal link promotion (as Felix Salmon said âthe NYT page is like walking into a library, while the HuffPo page is like walking through Times Squareâ), 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 âwe werenât allowed to read the Huffington Postâthey say itâs the least reliable source on the Internet.â That summed it up for me: We donât like their content model so weâre going to ignore what theyâre doing right. The hermetic nature of the Times just doesnât 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.