HuffingtonPost

HuffPo tries the newspaper model

July 12, 2011: 1:25 PM ET

By churning out loads of lowbrow celebrity gossip and the like, HuffPo hopes to be able to draw the traffic necessary to finance more serious content -- just like newspapers do.

FORTUNE -- The Huffington Post, which built its business largely by aggregating and summarizing news stories reported and written by others, on Monday suspended a young technology writer for aggregating and summarizing a story written by someone else. Also on Monday, HuffPo unveiled its new HuffPost Celebrity and HuffPost Culture pages.

Together, the two events highlight the changes the Huffington Post is undergoing: it's transitioning away from aggregation (cheap) and toward original reporting (expensive), which it is financing, in part, with fluff.

That's just what newspapers used to do. Sadly, though, most newspapers, especially troubled regional papers, can't replicate the model because it only works at scale. Margins at HuffPo, now owned by AOL (AOL), are thin, as they are all over the Web, and the only way the site can make enough money to pay all its new reporters (cheap) and editors (expensive) is by selling ads against massive traffic volume.

For all the criticism HuffPo and its founder Arianna Huffington take for being lightweight and shallow, the site seems to genuinely want to take on serious issues in a serious way (along with being lightweight and shallow elsewhere). As media consultant Clay Shirky pointed out last week in a widely circulated blog post, most people don't care very much about serious issues, so it's hard to draw the amount of traffic necessary to finance coverage of them if that's all you have.

Shirky also noted how the newspaper business thrived for decades because it sold its products in a bundle. Most people were interested in sports, gossip, entertainment features, comics, classified ads, coupons and the like; relatively few were interested in what was supposedly the main product: news. The other stuff – the stuff people actually cared about – financed coverage of serious news, something that we need whether or not many people actually want to read it. The Web is unbundled by its nature (you can get classifieds at Craiglist, sports at ESPN.com, and celeb gossip at TMZ.com), forcing news, in most cases, to make it on its own.

But Huffington Post is, in a way, putting the bundle back together for the Web. There is a reason the site calls itself "The Internet Newspaper." By churning out loads of lowbrow celebrity gossip and the like, HuffPo hopes to be able to draw the traffic necessary to finance more serious content. (HuffPo did not respond to an offer to comment for this article.) The serious stuff, in turn, helps give the site cachet. Newspapers wouldn't have done nearly so well if they contained no news.

Of course, "serious" is in the eye of the beholder. HuffPo has been a major channel for spreading the proven-false idea that vaccines cause autism (a notion that, at this point, is tantamount to a lunatic conspiracy theory). A few years back it ran a semi-regular column by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (not coincidentally, one of the vaccine-autism mongers) and Brendan DeMelle called "Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Report," in which nearly every item was linked to a mainstream media report, somewhat undermining the premise.

But just as HuffPo has been winding down its aggregation, it also has been slowly getting more serious in its coverage of hard news events. Its news, business and tech channels could be described as at least middlebrow, for example. At the same time, they are uneven, as the incident on Monday revealed.

The post for which reporter Amy Lee was suspended consisted "a short but thorough paraphrasing/rewriting" of a post written by AdAge.com's Simon Dumenco, Dumenco himself complained. Lee didn't add anything or provide any analysis or anything other than a summary of someone else's work.

Gawker's Ryan Tate observed on Tuesday that this isn't novel, and he provided a few examples of similar posts by other writers – some of them recent. What he didn't say was that such "overaggregation" is becoming more and more rare at HuffPo as it transitions into producing more original, staff-written content. He also didn't mention that HuffPo is far from alone in doing this. (On Monday for example, The Hollywood Reporter published a long summary/paraphrase of a New York Times article about Bruce Springsteen, complete with several quotes from the original story's sources.)

The only question is whether HuffPo and its new corporate owner, AOL, can afford that transition. It's paying high salaries to many of its new hires (several of whom it poached from the likes of The New York Times and the BBC), but it tends to hire young, inexperienced writers who are expected to churn out as much content as possible to help achieve the massive scale HuffPo needs to succeed.

It might take a lot of celebrity fluff to make that happen. Welcome to the newspaper of the 21st century.

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