huffington post

Transfer of Value

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

The Traffic Bubble

The new high tech-bubble might not be the one you’re thinking of. Measuring the bubble’s size and inner pressure of is a delicate exercise. For today, we’ll consider two sectors: social networks and online media — such as the Huffington Post acquired last week by AOL for a stunning $315m.

In the valuation game, social networks are in a league on their own. A month ago, Sharespost, the ghost-trading site for private companies, gave Facebook a valuation of $82.9bn (see this Bloomberg story). Now, for unknown reasons, the figure is back to $53bn. Twitter is said to be worth $5bn to $10bn, depending upon Facebook’s or Google’s competing appetites. Ordinary rules of arithmetics don’t apply when pondering the wisdom of such figures. To sort this out, let’s see if we can come up with other metrics.

With Facebook, investors buy size and dominance. 600m members all over the world; more than 60% of all web users; on some markets, a quarter of users’ internet time. Facebook is the nets’ biggest gravitational attractor, the web’s ultimate rizhome: sooner or later, most of the world’s sites will be connected to one or more of Facebook’s services.

The main danger lies in the usual toxins of success: arrogance, inability or unwillingness to   give more than lip service to users’ concerns and sensitivities, defiance of written and unwritten market rules. Facebook’s biggest threat is Facebook itself. But none of the above matters today and high expectations lead to a stunning valuation of $80 per member.

Is it excessive? Well, in october 2007, when Microsoft assigned a $15bn value to Facebook by investing $240m for a 1.6% slice, everyone mocked both the move and the number. At that time, each Facebook member carried a valuation of… $300, almost four times more than today’s — and the company was losing money.

In other words, Facebook looks (relatively) cheap today, especially since it is now profitable. On the operational side, though, Facebook’s ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) remains at around $3 per year and per member, quite high by internet standards.

Twitter’s ARPU is about one tenth of Facebook’s: $0.28 vs. $3.30. But the microblogging service carries a stunning valuation. If Facebook and Google are indeed about to wage a bidding war for the little bird and willing to cough up $8bn to $10bn, it could put a valuation of $50 to $60 on each of its 160m members (actual users are a fraction of that). For a company that doesn’t have a proven business model and  is hemorrhaging money, this feels ridiculously high. But Twitter’s simple yet extremely powerful medium could be a natural fit for Facebook and, to a lesser extent, for Google — as long as the search engine is able to get out of its current one-trick-pony situation.

The third strong player in the social network field is LinkedIn. The social network for professional is now preparing for its IPO (see story in DealBook and its SEC prospectus). Sharespost sets its value at $2.51bn. Each one of its 90m registered members carries a valuation of $28 and generates an ARPU of $2.00-$2.50. What investors are about to buy is a unique position in the professional social network sector, and a three digits annual growth rate which now threatens the highly lucrative business of jobs classifieds.

Is this a social network bubble? I’m not so sure. Thanks to its size, to its footprint on the internet, Facebook effectively bars anyone from getting into its own business. Twitter seems overvalued as a stand-alone business (no viable revenue stream), but not necessarily as complement to one of the web’s behemoths. And LinkedIn is likely to possess the greatest potential for growth.

If there is a bubble, it must lie in a collective hallucination over traffic and audience valuations. See what happened last week with the Huffington Post. The $315m acquisition by AOL puts a value of $13 per unique user, each bringing an ARPU about of $1.20. These numbers are in line with most news-related internet properties. (I already said what I think about the journalistic dimension of the Huffington Post; see Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters.)

The HuffPo is a digital sandcastle. Its three pillars are:
- Unabashed aggregation machine recycling roughly 300 stories a day from other medias;
- A modest amount of original production (largely drawn from newswires) that forms the kernel for a vast debating space involving thousands of unpaid bloggers (who now feel cheated and are about to create their virtual Tahir Square);
- A powerful and well-managed stream of celebrity stories, thanks to Arianna Huffington’s connections in Hollywood and in left-wing political circles. (See blogs by Alec Baldwin and by Bill Clinton’s former Labour Secretary Robert Reich).

Amazingly, one of its staffers candidly exposed the Huffington Post’s M.O.

First, the aggregation process.

“All day long, [front page editors] receive emails from reporters, editors, publishers, publicists and flacks from organizations that include but are not limited to, the following: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, McClatchy Newspapers, the London Guardian, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, C-SPAN, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, etc. Those emails all ask the same thing: Would you consider placing this content on The Huffington Post? The front page editors work each day to separate the wheat from the chaff, and get the most timely and interesting stuff on the web. (And depending on how specific the section you are working in, say Books or Entertainment, the sorts of sources expand dramatically.)”

Great. Most of the HuffPo’s editorial tinkering consists in repackaging the work of others, producing stand-alone stories whose only aim is generating comments and internal blogging. In effect, original publishers are giving the “aggrelooter” the rope it will use to hang them.

And then :

“All of the above — the original content that drives the entire business and the aggregation that sends readers out into the world of news and information — helps to build an architecture that enables thousands of other people to have a space to come and write and play and inform and start conversations. Those people are the Huffington Post bloggers — who flock to the site for a chance of being heard.

If you are, say, the communications director of NARAL, you get paid for your contribution to the Huffington Post… by NARAL, the organization that gives you a salary to disseminate your message.”

How naïve is this exposure of the Huffington Post’s ethics! Put another way, the HuffPo doesn’t mind propagating the “message” of lobbies such as the pro-choice NARAL organization presented as a blog! (It could have been worse, a Sarah Palin affiliate for instance).

What ailing AOL bought is vapor. About 35% of the HuffPo’s users come form Google. They land on cleverly optimized content: stories borrowed from other (and consenting) medias that mostly generate blogging and comments. This is the machine that drove 28m unique visitors in January, which makes the HuffPo close to the New York Times/Herald Tribune audience of 30m UV.  With one key difference: each viewer of the NYT websites yields an ARPU of $11, ten times more than the Arianna thing. Based on the HuffPo’s valuation, the NYT Digital would be worth billions. That’s a consolation.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters

News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.

My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)

Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.

In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.

At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.

In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring. More

Blogging, a new journalistic genre ?

Over this new year, one of the most interesting developments on the Internet will be the continued evolution of blogging. Starting as little more than populist rants, blogging has already transcended its origins and grown into a fresh new journalistic genre, one that is likely to become the main engine of modern news sites. Two recent anecdotal observations lead me to this conclusion. More

Light at the end of the pure player tunnel
(it’s not a locomotive)

As the newspaper industry is unraveling at frightening speed, something is emerging on the pure player front, something that could (I’m being cautious) lead to the seeds of a business model.
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But, before going any further, I want to make sure readers of the Monday Note have fully abandoned all hope for any turnaround whatsoever in newspaper business. Let’s face it: our beloved trade is spiraling down. We’ll see many fatalities and, of course, a few survivors. Latest headlines: The Miami Herald (good regional paper, solid journalism with 19 Pulitzer Prizes, strong readership) is said to be for sale by its owner, the McClatchy Company, the third-largest newspaper publisher in the US. With a $2bn debt load and a market cap down by 97% since 2005, McClatchy has no choice but to unload its most precious asset (one that is still making little money, btw). E.W. Scripps has put another big regional paper on the block: The Rocky Mountain News ($11m loss in 9 months). For these two good papers: no bidder in sight. More

Redefining journalism

With the violently agitated context of so many platforms and of a potentially unlimited supply of agents, how do we update the definition of journalism? Where do craft or trade begin, where do they end? Inevitably, the profession reacts by circling the wagons, hoping to hold its own against hordes of writers now fragmenting what used to be cozily monolithic, easily understood audiences.  This is the time, more than ever, to revisit notions such as news reporting and news treatment.  This rethinking can’t be centered around yesterday’s corporatism, or legal definitions.  Instead, we must look at the following three concepts:
-    ethics
-    practices
-    training
We could also mention types of journalism, nature of the players, media… But, for today’s discussion, these are just sub-chapters.
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