Although all digital news organizations live in a brutally competitive environment, some companies do much better than others because their managers respond more deftly to opportunities.
Arianna Huffington is in that category, and The Huffington Post’s growth in audience and influence is an example of a sustained idea and management attention. The venture capitalist Eric Hippeau was an early investor and was CEO of the site for several years, until its sale to AOL in February 2011. He was struck by the conviction of the founders—Huffington and Ken Lerer, a corporate communications executive turned venture capitalist—that much of U.S. society had lost trust in authority and in journalism. When The Huffington Post launched in 2005, blogs were resonating with consumers. “They didn’t have to go through gatekeepers—journalists,” Hippeau said. “Blogs could democratize news.” Logically flowing from this idea was a focus on encouraging reader commentary, and HuffPost hired people to help ensure that the conversation would be democratic and open. “It is expensive to moderate,” Hippeau said. “We have twenty-five full-time in-house moderators.”
What HuffPost’s founders didn’t know at the beginning was how rapidly social media were going to grow. After all, in 2005, YouTube was just getting started and Facebook was still confined to colleges and universities. But HuffPost’s management quickly realized that the social media trend fit with their original convictions. “As the audience embraced social media, we followed,” said Hippeau. And that attention to engaging readers—who now contribute four million comments a month on the site—led them to spend more on technology and less on content.
The Huffington Post also developed an ability to respond quickly to the data that it was getting on traffic and usage—something that is a crucial component of success in digital journalism. Indeed, data analysis has moved from being a required skill in media companies’ finance departments to being an essential part of the résumé for editors, writers, and designers.
At CNNMoney.com, “Everyone on the staff has access to page-view and traffic data,” says executive editor Christopher Peacock. The staff gets daily e-mails listing the top fifty stories by section as well as by the entire site. And, he says, “We have real-time metrics. We have a proprietary system to tell us how engaging our headlines and home page are.”
LIN Media, with its thirty-two local TV broadcast stations, has an integrated content-management system that distributes content (and allocates costs) across all its markets and platforms. Its daily report on the previous day’s metrics is sent around to business and editorial departments each morning. “Sometimes this report affects broadcast TV decisions as well,” says Robb Richter, senior vice president for new media. “It’s like having a great focus group all day long.”
Forbes chief product officer Lewis DVorkin writes a blog about the company’s evolving business practices, often noting the integration of previously independent departments, functions, and platforms at the company. DVorkin sees this integration as essential to Forbes’s digital growth. “The Web and social media turned everything upside down. Knowledgeable content creators, audience members, and marketers, too, now possess tools to independently produce and distribute text.” Expanding readership, once the job of circulation experts, is now done by business and editorial employees who develop “audience growth strategies,” which shape coverage. When they decide which topics (say, college tuition) are likely to attract more readers, or different readers, that affects the recruitment of bloggers, and the efforts of staff and contributors to find followers and fans.
Forbes also encourages its largest advertisers to contribute content directly to the magazine and the site as part of their advertising buy. The companies are given tools to publish content—text, video, and photos—on their own page on the site. This might startle journalists who expect strict separation between the editorial and business sides, but DVorkin sees this effort as a logical way to bring in advertisers who know they can create digital content elsewhere, through websites and e-mail. Labeling the material as coming from advertisers helps inoculate the company from violating the church-state divide, DVorkin says, adding that Forbes’s approach allows marketers not to be confined in the “ghetto” of freelance-written advertorial. The advertisers’ material is not edited by Forbes and appears online and in the magazine as “Forbes AdVoice.” (If it’s for the print edition, DVorkin reads it for tone, but says he does no more than that.) The print AdVoice column—limited to one per issue—appears in the table of contents and may run next to a related story. An online column is featured near relevant editorial content.