This is a story of pride vs. geekiness: Traditional newspapers that move online are about to lose the war against pure players and aggregators. Armed with the conviction their intellectual superiority makes them immune to digital modernity, newspapers neglected today’s internet driving forces: relying on technology to build audiences and the ability to coalesce a community over any range of subjects — even the most mundane ones.

When I discuss this with seasoned newsroom people on both sides of the Atlantic, most still firmly believe the quality of their work guarantees their survival against a techno-centric approach to digital contents.

I’m afraid they are wrong. Lethally so.

We are a facing a culture shock. On one side, legacy medias: Great franchises who grew on strong values, such as “pristine” journalism, independence, storytelling, fact-checking, solid editing, respect for the copyright… Along the way, they made their share of mistakes, but, overall, the result is great. After all, at the height of the Fourth Estate’s power, the population was better informed than today’s Facebook cherry-pickers.  Now, this (aging) fraternity faces a new generation of media people who build their fiefdom on a completely different set of values. For instance, the notion of copyright has become exceedingly elastic. A few months ago, Flipboard began to aggregate contents from French news organizations, taking large excerpts — roughly capturing the essence of a story — along with a token link back to the original content. Publishers sent polite letters saying, in substance: ‘Guys, although we are fond of your iOS applications, you can’t simply pick up our stuff without permission, we need to talk first…’

Publishers’ attitude toward aggregators has always been ambiguous. Google is the perfect example: on one hand, publishers complained about the search giant’s power; and, at the same time, they spend huge sums of money optimizing their sites, purchasing relevant keywords, all to make the best use of the very power they criticize. In Belgium, publishers challenged Google in court for the Google News product before realizing they really depended a lot on it, and begging for reintegration in the Google traffic cauldron.

Another example of the culture shock: reliance on technology. It’s a religion for the newcomers but merely a support function for traditional editors. Unfortunately, evidence shows how wrong it is to snub the traffic building arsenal. Here are a few examples.

On July 5th, The Wall Street Journal runs an editorial piece about Mitt Romney’s position on Obamacare.

The rather dull and generic “Romney’s Tax Confusion” title for this 1000 words article attracted a remarkable 938 comments.

But look at what the Huffington Post did: a 500 words treatment including a 300 words article, plus a 200 words excerpt of the WSJ opinion and a link back (completely useless). But, unlike the Journal, the HuffPo ran a much sexier headline :

A choice of words that takes in account all Search Engine Optimization (SEO) prerequisites, using high yield words such as “Squandering”, “Snafu”, in conjunction with much sought-after topics such as “Romney” and “Health Care”. Altogether, this guarantees a nice blip on Google’s radar — and a considerable audience : 7000+ comments (7x more than the original), 600 Facebook shares, etc.

HuffPo’s editors took no chance: the headline they picked is algorithm-designed to yield the best results in Google. The aggregator invested a lot in SEO tools: I was told that every headline is matched in realtime against Google most searched items right before being posted. If the editor’s choice scores low in SEO, the system suggests better terms. In some instances the HuffPo will A/B test headlines: It will serve different versions of a page to a couple of random groups and, after five minutes, the best headline will be selected. Found on Quora, here are explanations by Whitney Snyder, HuffPost’s senior news editor:

The A/B testing was custom built. We do not, however, A/B test every headline. We often use it to see if our readers are familiar with a person’s name (i.e. John Barrasso vs GOP Senator), or to play up two different aspects of a story and see which one interests readers more. We also A/B test different images.

Other examples below will prove the effectiveness of HuffPo’s approach. Here is a media story about a TV host whose position is in jeopardy; the Daily News version: a 500 words article that looks like this:

The Huffington Post summed it up in a 175 words form, but introduced it with a much more potent headline including strong, Google-friendly locutions:

Results speak for themselves:

Daily  News original version : 2 comments, 1 tweet, 1 Facebook share
HuffingtonPost version : 4601 comments, 79 tweets, 155 share.

Like no one else, the HuffPo masters eye-grabbing headline such as these :
Watch Out Swimmers: Testicle-Eating Fish Species Caught in US Lake (4,000 Facebook recommendations), or: Akron Restaurant Owner Dies After Serving Breakfast To Obama (3300 comments) or yesterday’s home: LEPAGE LOSES IT: IRS ‘THE NEW GESTAPO’ displayed in a 80 points font-size; this adaptation of the Maine’s daily Press Herald generated about 6000 comments on the aggregator.

The point is not to criticize the Huffington Post for being extremely efficient at optimizing its work. They invested a lot, they trained their people well. Of course, the bulk of HuffPo’s content  comes from : a) unpaid bloggers — 9,884 new ones last year alone according to Arianna’s count; b) content borrowed from others media and re-engineered by 170 journalists, a term that encompass various kinds of news producers and a bunch of true writers and editors; c) a small percentage of original reporting.  Each day, all this concurs to “over 1,000 stories published” that will translate into 1.4 million of Facebook referrals and 250,000 comments. Staggering numbers indeed. With some downsides, too: 16,000 comments (!) for an 200 words article about Barack Obama asking to turn off Fox News during a campaign tour is not likely to attract enviable demographics advertising-wise. The HuffPo might make a billion page views per month, but most of them only yield dimes.

The essence of what we’re seeing here is a transfer of value. Original stories are getting very little traffic due to the poor marketing tactics of old-fashion publishers. But once they are swallowed by the HuffPo’s clever traffic-generation machine, the same journalistic item will make tens or hundred  times better traffic-wise. Who is right?  Who can look to the better future in the digital world ? Is it the virtuous author carving language-smart headlines or the aggregator generating eye-gobbling phrases thanks to high tech tools?  Your guess. Maybe it’s time to wake-up.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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