Friday, October 8, 2010

HuffPo turns a profit by both stealing and rejecting journalism

The much-celebrated Huffington Post declares that it is turning a profit after five years a red ink, and the formula seems to be something like this: Steal the journalism of others but otherwise ignore basic journalistic principles.

Even though it doesn't release its detailed financial statements, by all internal accounts Huffington Post turned profitable in 2010 after five years of bleeding the angel investor capital that Arianna Huffington wrested from wealthy friends and associates. By some estimates, HuffPo is worth $100 million.

There's really no reason to disbelieve these numbers. As Forbes magazine writes this month, Huffington is a force of nature, able to get herself onto just about every talk show imaginable, then uses her own web site to report on what she said on TV.

So, how does one create a free-access, profitable web site? Here's Huffington's model:

1. Use 6,000 free bloggers.
2. Self-promote.
3. Steal content from both legitimate and questionable sources (HuffPo calls it "aggregation", but it is what it is).
4. Self-promote.
5. Include on your site a mix of liberal opinion, R-rated content (even better if it's about a celebrity: "Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore Have An Open Marriage, Enjoy Threesomes") and a "slapdash" mix of content.
6. Did I mention the importance of self-promotion?
7. And, finally there's the subtle blending of "news" and advertising: "HuffPo ... (is) selling ... 'social marketing,' which allows brands to attach a logo or marketing copy to blog posts that are marked as 'sponsored.' Coleman describes a recent sell to GE that centered on a campaign called 'healthy imagination'."

Here's the nut graph of the Forbes piece:
Lots of HuffPo's news pages come from and link to third-party stories from traditional outlets. Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. slammed sites like HuffPo as "parasites living off journalism produced by others." He attributed HuffPo's success to its appeal to partisan political prejudices and headlines about "titillating gossip and sex." (One wag says it's more like a frat club than a debate club.) Downie may be right about gossip and sex. Recent headlines on HuffPo's entertainment page: "Watch Naked Heidi Klum in Seal's New Video" and "Bridget Moynahan Dating McG?"
HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others."

HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others." Dare I say it? One way to put a stop to the stealing is for producers of legitimate journalism to restrict access to their web sites and enforce copyrights.

Meanwhile, HuffPo by may have found one way to become profitable on the Web, but it's not the future of journalism.

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