THE SOURCE: “Six Degrees of Aggregation” by Michael Shapiro, in The Columbia Journalism Review, May–June 2012.
Publications across the Internet are struggling to keep their heads above water, but The Huffington Post appears to have made it safely to land. The New York–based Post attracts 1.2 billion page views a month. It won its first Pulitzer Prize, for a series of features on severely wounded veterans, in April. A struggling AOL plunked down $315 million for ownership rights last year. How in the world did the crazy-eyed news site formerly thought of as a “glitzy thief of journalism” ascend to such heights?
If HuffPost’s success could be boiled down to three words, they would be network, network, network, writes journalist Michael Shapiro. The first version of the Web site to hit the Internet, in 2004, featured commentary by an unlikely pair, comedian Larry David and the late Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., both friends of the site’s linchpin, left-leaning socialite Arianna Huffington. The fount of contributors, fed by Huffington’s substantial Rolodex, has never dwindled. Celebrities and ordinary people alike now clamor to place unpaid articles on the site, gaining only exposure and the chance to be perceived as part of the Huffington Post club.
HuffPost’s first traffic guru, Jonah Perretti (who has since moved to Buzzfeed.com), believed that most content had to be both “viral and sticky”: It had to encourage people to visit again, and had to be so “engagingly simple” that the average reader, trapped in front of her office computer, would dispatch it to a friend with little comment. Often these pieces were links to more traditional journalistic sources with a new headline and HuffPost’s logo slapped on them. But the site also offered original reporting. HuffPost was particularly smart to cultivate reader comments, an afterthought at most online publications that is now gold in the eyes of advertisers. In the past year alone, HuffPost attracted 54 million comments.
Add to all of this a fanatical attention to the mechanics of Internet visibility. Forget the standards of yore: The time from conception of an original HuffPost article to posting is minimal, and editors may continuously tweak a piece in light of traffic reports to maximize page views. They also double down on search engine optimization, relentlessly seeking out new methods for “winning the Google search.” After actor Heath Ledger died in 2008, for instance, HuffPost’s traffic monitors discovered that many people were searching for Keith Ledger. Editors added “keith” tags to their items, and traffic boomed.
It’s not been all roses, of course. The site has received a bit of pushback from unpaid contributors, some of whom filed a class-action suit after the AOL deal, claiming that they deserved compensation. (The suit was dismissed in April.) And perhaps most important, HuffPost has yet to reap big profits. Its first year out of the red was 2010, and even then profits only amounted to $30 million. Of course, that number looks good in this day and age, and at a time when many journalists are staring down pink slips, it pays the salaries of more than 300 writers, editors, and reporters. Is HuffPost’s success scalable? Probably not, says Shapiro. The timing and actors were just too unique.