The story that appeared in the Billings Gazette back on Aug. 25, 2009, had a boring headline: “Enzi gets earful on health care plan.” Most of the piece was a ho-hum rundown of a health-care forum in Gillette, Wyoming, hosted by Republican Sen. Mike Enzi.
Yet the information contained in paragraph No. 11 counted as big national news: “If I hadn’t been involved in this process as long as I have and to the depth as I have, you would already have national health care,” Enzi told his constituents.
In swooped the Huffington Post. The first order of business was to bag the “earful” headline and try something that’d resonate with people. Like this: “Mike Enzi, Gang of Six Republican, Admits He’s Simply Blocking Health Care Reform.” That seemed to work---the item would go on to claim more than 2,000 comments.
The Huffington Post has been providing these services for more than six years. It’s journalism’s punch-up desk, a place that finds the gold nuggets buried by snoozing reporters and editors everywhere. Once those nuggets are packaged and presented properly---in Huffington Post style---they actually get consumed.
That formula is coming under fire at Huffington Post, a development that has its roots in a round of hiring that predates the website’s February merger with AOL. Peter S. Goodman, a New York Times emigre who joined Huffington Post last fall, caused a ruckus earlier this month when he announced the suspension of a staffer for allegedly misaggregating an Ad Age story. The alleged offender has now returned to work.
Shame fell on the website for scapegoating a working-level employee whose style of aggregation resembled that of other editors. Proof that the staffer’s aggregation didn’t offend longstanding Huffington Post practices comes from the site’s silence since the suspension. Though a management source reports that a high-level conference call recently addressed aggregational standards at Huffington Post, that session didn’t result in new written directives on the subject, according to the source.
Official word jibes with that depiction. When asked about the recent discussions about aggregation, Huffington Post spokesperson Mario Ruiz responded, “As for the meetings...conducted last week, they were a refresher on our current guidelines, and a reminder of the best practices that we aspire to. Following a period of rapid expansion, it was a great opportunity for us to refocus our energies and reiterate our editorial approach and standards.” Ruiz further noted that the site’s aggregation “guidelines did not need to be re-written.”
Status quo, then: Aggregators are supposed to link to multiple sources and provide as much value added as possible. If they fail, maybe no one will notice or maybe they’ll be suspended and Romenesko’d.
The return of the unconscionably treated aggregator means that the issue will go away for a time. The long-term outlook for aggregational tranquility at Huffington Post, however, looks poor. It’s a cultural thing.
The site rose to prominence via cleverness and technology. Editors fashioned a model that involved spotting stories on politics, entertainment/celebrities, media, and other areas. They repackaged them and topped them with grabby headlines. Traffic went through the USB port.
Soon Huffington Post’s aggregation broke out into verticals---those tabs arrayed across the top of the page: Politics, Business, Entertainment, and Media. “We grew, we learned, we changed, and we figured out...the way people use the web,” says Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group.
Name partner Arianna Huffington took pride in the site but didn’t bleed for the web-skimming content model, according to former Huffington Posties. “She was never behind the aggregation,” says a former Huffington Post employee. “She wanted to be the New York Times.”
Arianna Huffington’s rebuttal, via Ruiz: “Arianna is indeed passionate about building a great original reporting team, but she is equally committed to curating the best content from around the web for our readers. Her editorial vision has always included a combination of original reporting, aggregation, and blogging -- all of which are important components of the ‘link economy.’”
Thanks to the buzz, traffic, and revenue driven by her site’s aggregation, Huffington would get the opportunity to be the New York Times. In paying out $315 million for Huffington Post, AOL chief Tim Armstrong waxed indulgent on Huffington Post’s currency and community on the Internet — but it was the aggregational cachet that had made the site an acquisition target. Once the paperwork was complete, though, Huffington went out and hired more reporting talent away from the New York Times, Yahoo, and elsewhere.
The addition of each reporter is a homepage crisis in abeyance. Early Huffington Post aggregation thrived on neutrality. When an editor saw something awesome from another outlet, it got a prominent spot at Huffington Post.
Now the winnowing is prone to corruption; if a Huffington Post writer has written something on a breaking news topic, how do you tell him it’s not getting prominence on the homepage? On the morning that Rupert and James Murdoch were due to testify before Parliament, for example, the site fronted a tee-up story from its own media unit. The piece was well-written, thorough, and contained some helpful links.
Was it the best Murdochian item available at that moment? I’m not sure I trust the Huffington Post to tell me anymore. “They can’t coexist peacefully,” says a former employee of mixing original reporting with the site’s derivative bread and butter.
The confusion among various Huffington Post content styles spilled out of a Huffington Post self-explanatory piece that hit the site not long after the merger with AOL. Titled “How the Huffington Post Works” and penned by Jason Linkins, the tract claimed that the site’s original content “drives the entire business.”
How so? Was Linkins saying that Huffington Post’s originally reported Capitol Hill and media stories, for example, were outdriving aggregated stuff on people like George Clooney? Traffic figures would seem to vacate any such claim. A breakdown of the most-clicked-on Huffington Post URLs from September 2010---the most detailed data I could access---showed that the top three stories were all derived from stuff on other websites.
All the current and former Huffington staffers to whom I put the question spat at it: No way were Huffington Post reporters beating aggregators on audience share. Even Sekoff termed that notion “insane.”
So what was the deal here? Linkins declined to answer questions about his own work, but Sekoff took a stab at it: “I believe that aggregation and curation done right can be original content.”
Translation: What Linkins had called “original content” consists of at least two components: 1) Original reporting by Huffington Post staffers; and 2) Curated aggregation by Huffington Post staffers. That means, for example, taking a story from another outlet, picking it apart, grabbing a detail or two, and hitting “publish.”
Curation as original content: Make that argument at a newspaper conference, and a mob will be tugging on your lanyard. The media establishment views its work as the product of sublime industry. Any abridgement thereof doesn’t qualify as original.
Simon Dumenco, the AdAge columnist who whose complaint somehow put Huffington Post editors in a scapegoating mood, says the key is whether the “aggregator is ADDING something.” Invoking a hypothetical, Dumenco adds, “if somebody posts a 500-word item and 450 words of it is copy-and-paste block quotes and/or heavy paraphrasing and the remaining 50 words consist of drive-by disagreement/agreement/etc.... well, that’s pretty pathetic and it’s probably not going to drive much traffic to the original source.” .
Whether it’s enterprising, lazy, or somewhere in between, aggregation is what has given the Huffington Post $315 million of stature. Knocking it off-rhythm amounts to an existential crisis for the property. To the extent that the Huffington Post’s hiring spree is stacking the masthead with editors who don’t buy Sekoff’s worldview, it’s threatening the site’s contribution to journalism. That is, a no-holds-barred aggregation machine upon which millions of readers rely.
That machine, too, looks a lot like what the newspaper industry set out to build at the dawn of Internet journalism. In 1995, nine newspaper companies launched the New Century Network (NCN), a coalition that set up a site called NewsWorks. When asked about the parallels between Huffington Post and NewsWorks, former Washington Post digital executive Mark Potts wrote, “Structurally, it’s very similar to NCN’s NewsWorks site, which aggregated the best reporting from around the country’s newspapers and drove traffic back to those stories.”
A coalition of media companies doesn’t own the Huffington Post, which decides what to aggregate and how to aggregate it. But it gets some help, as in the case of the Billings Gazette piece on Sen. Enzi. The reporter of that story pinged Huffington Post and pointed to the news tidbits that had been buried in the original version. The guy was dying to be aggregated.
And the resulting post on the site went in the books as an act of original content: “I think highlighting an Enzi comment in a local paper is as important as grabbing Enzi in the Capitol hallway and reporting what he said,” comments Ryan Grim, Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief. “One isn’t more glamorous or important than the other, or shouldn’t be.”