The Huffington Post trio of Ryan Grim, Zach Carter, and Paul Blumenthal dropped their 6,800-word take on “Google, Microsoft, and the War for the Web” Sunday night, and like all of HuffPost’s deep dives, the piece was chock-full of good reporting. Among the nuggets of news large and small:
• Google’s influence-buying spree has pushed the number of lobbyists in its employ up to ninety-three, spread across eighteen firms. (An antitrust investigation of the company led by the Senate Judiciary Committee is jokingly known as the “Leahy Full Employment Act,” after committee chairman Pat Leahy.) And the company’s new commitment to bipartisanship means that not only GOP-aligned lobbying shops but conservative think tanks like Heritage Foundation and AEI are now getting Google cash.
• The leading Chinese search engine, Baidu—named on the US Trade Representative’s “Notorious Markets” list for the way it facilitates counterfeiting and piracy—has hired the firm Sidley Austin to lobby the White House’s Office of Management and Budget on its behalf. Meanwhile, Baidu is also forming new partnerships with Microsoft, which is notable because Microsoft has a long history as a hawk on digital piracy issues within the US.
• A recent Google ad push is almost comically aimed at its political interests. A couple of important subcommittee positions are held by Wisconsin politicians? Let’s make an ad showing how Google helps cheesemakers! We’ve gotten scrutiny from Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal? Let’s spotlight a Connecticut music store owner!
• The revolving door is alive and well: Sidley Austin’s web lobbying operations are run by former Representative Rick Boucher, who until this year chaired a House subcommittee with Internet oversight responsibilities. And sometimes it revolves across the oceans: one of the lobbyists who pressed Baidu’s case with the White House is a former official in the Chinese government.
• Google’s loudly announced retreat from China and its oppressive political regime doesn’t extend to the mobile market, where Android-powered smartphones do big business.
• It’s good to be the chairman. From his Judiciary Committee post, Leahy doesn’t only rake in campaign cash from corporate content producers—his top donor, Time Warner, has also given him cameo roles in three movies.
• And one for the media obsessives out there: a sponsorship of Politico’s daily “Playbook” e-mail, recently purchased by Google, reportedly retails for $30,000(!) a week.
There are plenty more good details in the full story, plus an earnest if not-quite-successful attempt to grapple with the way “monopoly power” works on the web. And yet, I can’t really recommend the piece, because it’s got something else in common with many of HuffPost’s long takes: it’s too darn long.
This is an issue we’ve flagged before. HuffPost may have built its audience in part by aggregating the good bits of other people’s reporting and stripping away the unnecessary baggage, but in its own original reporting, the site seems to be guided by the principle that more is more. In a generally favorable post on Grim and Arthur Delaney’s April 2010 opus on the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I suggested that the 11,000-word article “may be a tad too long.” And in a rave about Grim and Carter’s 7,800-word beast of a piece on the great “swipe fee” showdown of 2011, Audit chief Dean Starkman wrote that the article could have been cut by 2,000 words.
At least in those earlier articles, there was a coherent, if overgrown, narrative. That’s not really the case here. When HuffPost media writer Michael Calderone tweeted about the article Sunday night, he billed it as a story on “Google ramping up DC lobbying efforts and giving more to conservative orgs.” That is in fact how the article opens, but before long it moves on to other subjects. (As a result, the sexy claim in the second graf about how “Google’s investment in the infrastructure of the conservative movement goes much deeper than what’s been reported” comes across as oversold; giving money to old-line conservative think tanks like Heritage and AEI to balance your donations to La Raza makes for tepid investment.) Readers who forge through the whole story will find sections on the roots of the Microsoft-Google feud, the tech companies’ forays into China, more on Google’s lobbying push, more on Microsoft and China, the policy debate over monopoly power and web search, the PROTECT IP Act and the fight over patent and copyright legislation, more on Google and China, more on patents and the software industry, and a kicker quote that’s pretty good but can’t knit all the fragments that preceded it into a cohesive whole.
There are three good 1,500-word articles in here: one on Google’s ramped-up lobbying efforts, another on Google and Microsoft’s battles in China and the way business imperatives there cloud the stories they like to tell here, and a third on what’s really at stake for consumers and businesses when one company dominates web search. (Most of the patent stuff, which isn’t new and has been well-reported elsewhere, could be scrapped.) But as published, there’s no narrative through-line to connect those stories together. What we have instead reads like one huge newspaper article that’s crying out for the old Huffington Post’s “we-read-it-and-found-the-best-parts-so-you-don’t-have-to” treatment. (Business Insider, where are you when we need you?)
None of this is to suggest HuffPost should abandon long-form work. I’m only an occasional reader of the site, but I sought out this article precisely because I knew it represented a lot of effort on an important topic by some talented journalists. Whatever the limitations of the genre, long-form reportage offers a way to focus attention on a subject, and to signal that you’re demanding readers’ attention, in a way that shorter articles can’t. (It can also be, more cynically, an exercise in journalistic status-seeking.) But HuffPost should focus on bolstering its storytelling skills. There are still plenty of anonymous editors at places like The New Yorker, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere who know how to shape and trim raw copy. The next time Arianna feels like poaching journalistic talent from an establishment outlet, she might forgo name recognition and give one of them a call. It’d be a step toward making HuffPost’s well-reported long reads really worth reading.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.