Large media companies such as The New York Times and The Washington Post and independent companies like Flipboard are doing much the same thing—developing programs that can recommend stories and videos based on a user’s previous choices. Because of the wide variety of topics and the enormous volume of stories posted, this is a far more difficult problem than creating the algorithms that Amazon or Netflix use for recommendations. Some companies are also working on adding friends’ and networks’ reading choices to the recommendation engine.
On the other end of the spectrum, Huffington Post starts with algorithmic selections but puts them into the hands of human editors who set priorities for sections and then condense, rewrite, or bring several organizations’ versions of the same story together. HuffPost turbocharges the formula with a mix of social media, dynamic packaging, and photos and charts. These techniques lead to praise, criticism—and parody. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert told viewers that, to retaliate for HuffPost’s republishing without permission the entire contents of his show’s website, he would create “The Colbuffington Repost,” that is, the entire Huffington Post, just renamed. Its re-re-packaged content would make him the owner of the “Russian nesting dolls of intellectual theft.”
Newser.com, the aggregation site co-founded by Michael Wolff, represents much of what legacy media companies hate about the web: It has little original reporting, and its stories are short rewrites of information from several other sites, with a design that emphasizes graphics. Wolff, a media critic who is now editor of Adweek, has spent much of his career playing provocateur—and driving people in the media business a little crazy. This effort is no different. Andrew Leonard, a writer for Salon, wrote a story called “If the Web doesn’t kill journalism, Michael Wolff will.” Leonard says that Newser displays a “truly precious degree of shamelessness. Even the slide shows are repackaged, rewritten and abbreviated versions of content originated by other publications.”
Newser says out loud in its slogan what many aggregation sites hope their users will infer: “Read Less, Know More.” Its co-founder and executive chairman, Patrick Spain, says the site aims to limit its stories to 120 words. “The most time-consuming part of editorial is identifying which stories we are going to carry,” he says. “And we have to identify the one, two, or three major sources to use to write the story.” Wolff asks, “If you are a consumer, why would you go to a single source?” The New York Times, he says, “used to be seen as a broad view of the news” but is now regarded as “parochial and limited.” Newser publishes about sixty stories, or digests of stories, per day, though it has at times published as many as 100. “Cost is less of a driver than the affect we are looking for,” says Spain. “If you have hundreds of articles, it is not an editorial function; it is a fire hose function.”
Newser has business offices in New York and Chicago, but its writers are freelancers. They live in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and generally work from home. There are four full-time and about fifteen part-time staff members who perform editorial duties, working at rates of $20 to $40 per hour. Spain says “this is a gigantic edit staff compared to Digg” (a site where story placement depends on readers’ votes). “They have no editorial people. But this is tiny compared to The New York Times.”
For its other functions, Newser has eight full-time employees who work on marketing, administration and management, and technology. Its total operating costs are about $1.5 million per year, for a site with 2.5 million unique visitors a month. Spain and Wolff have both said that in 2011 they expect to break even—that is, to get to the point where advertising revenue is high enough to cover operating costs, though not to start paying back the initial investors.
Nymag.com does original reporting, as in the case of the Ailes/Palin story, but since 2007 it has also had a strategy of growing through four blogs that use third-party content combined with original reporting: Grub Street (on food), Daily Intel (political and media news), Vulture (culture), and The Cut (fashion). “These niches need editorial authority to be successful,” said Michael Silberman, general manager of nymag.com. In a given week, the site publishes only about thirty-five articles from the print magazine but 450 to 500 blog posts and thousands of photos. As a result, only 14 percent of the site’s page views are of content from the magazine. “Every time we increase the frequency of the blog posts, we can drive up the numbers of audience,” Silberman says. And since 2007, nymag.com’s audience has grown from 3 million unique users to 9 million.