Why Didn’t a Newspaper Create HuffPo?

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Amid all the discussion about whether AOL overpaid for The Huffington Post, how much founder Arianna Huffington made from the deal, and whether the kind of search-engine optimization the site does is losing its relevance, it’s worth taking a step back to look at what Huffington and her team have accomplished: in less than six years, they built a media operation that is second only to the New York Times in terms of traffic, and almost as valuable. Traditional news organizations like the Times, meanwhile, have not only failed to do something similar, but have struggled to grow online despite the lessons provided by The Huffington Post and others. Why? Because they have too much to lose.

When Arianna Huffington started the Post in 2005, she was known for very little other than her marriage to Republican congressman Michael Huffington, some political aspirations, and her web of social connections to a wide variety of people in the media, politics and business communities. When she started the website, as media consultant Jeff Jarvis noted in a blog post, it was widely ridiculed as a lightweight plaything for a rich socialite. It certainly didn’t look like much, and the content that appeared there — a strange and eclectic mix of commentary from film-makers, actors, bureaucrats and left-leaning intellectuals — didn’t appear to be much of a competitor for anything, let alone an established and dominant media player like the New York Times.

But thanks to some funding from Softbank and Greycroft Partners, and the web savvy of people like Jonah Peretti and CTO Paul Berry, The Huffington Post just kept growing and growing, and made use of all the social tools at its disposal, from comments and Twitter to Facebook’s social graph plugins. As more prominent writers started to post their thoughts on the site, that attracted others — even though the network didn’t pay any of them anything, something that has been a source of much controversy. But as some have pointed out, The Huffington Post didn’t have to pay anyone; thousands of people have been more than happy to write for nothing, the same kind of phenomenon that has helped other sites like Talking Points Memo grow from single blogs into new-media powerhouses.

The supply of media content is now infinite

The days when outlets like the New York Times and The Economist had a monopoly on commentary are long gone — for better or worse, the web has expanded the marketplace for columnists (and every other kind of content) to the point where it is virtually infinite. Meanwhile, media companies like the Times and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. continue to try and put up walls around their content, like someone stacking sandbags against a tidal wave. As media analyst Ken Doctor has pointed out, the combination of AOL and The Huffington Post is very much the antithesis of that approach — it is based on the idea that the supply of free content is effectively infinite.

There are risks to that approach, as Farhad Manjoo notes at Slate, including the fact that the SEO principles that the HuffPo and AOL use are facing some significant pressure from Google as it tries to improve the quality of its search results. But it is fundamentally a web-native strategy, not a rear-facing and defensive strategy.

Traditional media sees the web as a threat

Newspapers and other media outlets, however, have been effectively incapable of recreating what The Huffington Post has been able to build. The Guardian has probably come the closest, with its Comment Is Free network, which pulls in commentary from anyone who wishes to submit it — and as we have written, the British newspaper is also one of the most forward-thinking when it comes to things like crowdsourcing (with its MP expenses project) and also its Open Platform API, which allows outside parties to develop applications and services that use Guardian content and share in the revenue generated. But few other media entities have embraced the web in the kind of whole-hearted way that The Huffington Post has — and that’s because it sees the web (consciously or subconsciously) as a threat.

As author Clay Christensen outlined in The Innovator’s Dilemma, it is almost impossible for a company that has an established business in one market to successfully transition to a different market, particularly one that disrupts or cannibalizes its existing business. Newspapers have been caught in that trap for the past decade at least. Every bit of growth online comes at the expense of the printed product, and even though the writing on the wall has been obvious in terms of the slide in advertising revenue as readers move online, very few newspaper publishers have had the gumption to fully embrace the web — with the exception of outfits like the Journal-Register Corp., where CEO John Paton was able to launch a web-first approach because the company had already gone bankrupt.

For companies that have grown used to controlling the platform and distribution of content for so long, the web is fundamentally a threat rather than an opportunity. Arianna Huffington had nothing to lose and everything to gain — and gain it she did.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and World Economic Forum

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