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Who's Afraid of Arianna Huffington?

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The New York Times has been gunning for The Huffington Post* lately, which makes me wonder what exactly Arianna Huffington has done to scare or anger them so. Or perhaps that's the wrong question. Given that our enemies are often those we don't understand, I wonder what the Times fails to grasp about HuffPost. That then leads to the question of what the Times can learn from this post.

Felix Salmon has done a skillful job covering this one-way war, this schoolyard taunting in two posts. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote two columns and a blog post going after Huffington -- once directly; once without (as Salmon puts it) the intellectual honesty to link to and allow his readers to judge those he criticizes; and once defensively, after Huffington called his bluff. Times staff loyally picked up Keller's spitballs to lob their own. Media critic David Carr wrote and then killed a tweet sniping about Arianna that he later conceded was "tasteless." Andrew Goldman didn't so much interview Huffington for the Times Magazine as he acted like a parody of a TV prosecutor trying to bait a cagey witness -- or perhaps it is better described as a comic homage to Joe McCarthy trying to elicit confessions of leftness. Then Salmon points out that the Times snagged a HuffPost scoop without credit. Just now Carr delivered a glancing blow to AOL/HuffPost, reading into a defection a defeat.

What is the Times' problem? I think it's that they do not understand what makes The Huffington Post successful, and they lash out at the unknown. Here, I suggest, is what the Times and Keller don't understand about HuffPost. Here is what they think is wrong with it:

The Huffington Post is not content. Content is what content people make; if they don't make it, it's not content. That, I believe, is the Times' cultural view of HuffPost: It cannot be content because the likes of the Times have not made it (no matter how many Timesmen Huffington hires). That, I theorized, is why the Times and other media temples did not start their own HuffPosts or buy the original: It's not real. Even if the Times were to give it credit for the one-third of HuffPost that is content -- by dozens of journalists -- they'd still say it's diluted by the other third that is aggregation and the last third that is comment. And that leads to...

Conversation is not content. When I had Henry Blodget speak with my class on new business models and disruption, he praised HuffPost for its understanding of the value of conversation. In the Times' view, conversation is what they enable -- no, tolerate -- when readers chatter under articles once they are finished. As I learn in every damned meeting with news folks I ever have, comments have cooties. All they can ever hear from the vox populi is the voices of the trolls. Blodget and Huffington have a broader sense of the conversation. That was Arianna's essential insight when she gave celebrities a place to speak; that is conversation. That was Henry's insight when he learned to listen to what people were talking about so he could join in and add to their conversation. Which leads to...

Aggregation is cheating. The Times thinks aggregation is not content. Worse, they are coming around to Rupert Murdoch's view that it is theft. As Jay Rosen tweeted, seen from the readers' point of view, aggregation is helpful; it adds value to coverage. Indeed, that's why the Times does aggregate and curate. But when looking for enemies, it's best not to look in the mirror. I talk (a lot) about the link economy and how there are two distinct creations of value online: the creation of content and the creation of a public (née audience) for it. Aggregators, curators, and commentators bring audience -- and value -- to content. If the recipient of those links can't build a relationship of value with the people who are clicking, that's their problem. At CUNY, I will soon finally have the time to start a research project on the value of links and how to optimize it. I'd like to see this debate about aggregation between the Times and HuffPost occur on economic rather than emotional terms and hope to inform that discussion with facts.

Free is offensive. Here's another area in which the Times is coming to side with -- gasp! -- Murdoch. Now that it has a meter -- and without a proven economic basis for it (not yet) -- Times people must put the case again in emotional terms of entitlement: Readers *want* to pay. Readers *should* pay. Times content *deserves* payment. People who question the strategy are demonized. (David Carr attacked me on NPR over just this... we've since hugged and made up; this is what I really have to say about the Times' meter.) Huffington created value -- we know the exact amount, to nine figures -- out of getting people to write for free (because they wanted to and found value in it). She's cheapening the valuable work we journalists perform, isn't she? No, like her free writers, she's valuing something else. She's valuing the relationships she has with the people formerly known as an audience.

Left is not right. Goldman's desperate effort to get Huffington to admit --CONFESS, I SAY AGAIN, CONFESS! -- that she's -- gasp! -- liberal, taken with Keller's paeans to himself and his kind of journalism, were as revealing as they were disingenuous. I find Arianna, too, disingenuous in her efforts to sidestep the word the way Roger Ailes won't own "right." All of them want to dump us, the people, in these two buckets, left and right, but they are above classification. The Times' real problem is not that Huffington is a liberal, but that she is an advocate of a point of view. So she tweaks the Times for WMDs and upholding antiquated definitions of objectivity and balance.

Fun is not allowed. Journalism is serious business. It's no place for kittens.

In my class, I've had my students pick a target to disrupt with a new business (after doing that, they'll turn around and act as the disrupted company to craft a defense -- it's a lesson in finding opportunity in change). The class picked their target: The Huffington Post (when I thought they would have picked the Times). Last week, they presented research, and what struck me was the difference in engagement at both sites. HuffPost users generate 18 pageviews per month on average. The Times is defining only a small slice of its uniques -- 10%? 20%? -- as that engaged, at 20 pageviews per month. I say the Times would have better used the $30-40 million reportedly spent on its meter finding ways to better engage its public -- multiplying pageviews (fourfold or more?) and consequent ad revenue -- while finding new ways to exploit these deeper relationships (data, commerce, events... ). The Times knows it needs to increase engagement; that's the industry's favorite conference buzzword. The irony of the Times' meter is that when it succeeds at engaging a once-casual reader, their reward is a wall. That is an economic and strategic question.

How could the Times increase engagement? By learning from The Huffington Post rather than snarking at it. Aggregation has value for readers. Conversation is engaging. Fighting for the people -- which is what newspapers did, in their good old days -- is the most meaningful way to engage with a community. Fun is fine.

I am reminded of the schoolyard, when the boy was nasty to a girl and some sage adult would see that he really just had a crush on her and didn't know how to say it. OK, Bill and Arianna, kiss and make up.

Note: I wrote this post on my blog, Buzzmachine, and first thought it a bit too meta to post on The Huffington Post since it's about The Huffington Post. Since it's also about the New York Times, it'd be good to post it in both places -- if I could. But when I asked, a few of my readers said I should go ahead and cross-post. So here it is.