False comparisons between New York Times and Huffington Post obscure true difference

We oxpeckers in media, to borrow a phrase from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, have fed on several tick-sized bits of news about the Times and The Huffington Post this year.

In March, Keller and Arianna Huffington sparred over the value of aggregation practiced on sites like The Huffington Post. The next tick was a report that HuffingtonPost.com had more unique visitors than nytimes.com in May, which many inaccurately described as Huffington surpassing the Times in traffic. And then we heard that Huffington employs more journalists than the Times.

Each of these headlines provided ammunition for the religious war of old vs. new media. Like many facts that are used in such debates, they were oversimplified or misconstrued, perpetuating a false comparison between two companies that operate near each other rather than against.

In writing about the misinterpreted traffic report, my editor Julie Moos put it this way:

“This ‘competition’ between HuffPo and the NYT is a false one … The question is not: Who is winning? The question is: What are their respective roles in the news ecosystem and why does that matter to their audiences and to journalism?”

I don’t think the key difference is aggregation, traffic or employees. It’s that one site values content in the service of conversation; the other values conversation in the service of content. Can you guess which site values what?

First, a look at the recent figures.

Staffing

The story that made the rounds a couple of weeks ago was, “AOL’s newsroom is now larger than The New York Times.” The origin, apparently, was a Forbes story by Jeff Bercovici about the risks and opportunities of AOL hitching its content wagon to Arianna Huffington. Bercovici wrote:

“Counting Patch’s 800-plus editors, [Huffington] now has around 1,300 full-time journalists working for her – more than either the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.”

He didn’t mention the Times, but Henry Blodget at Business Insider did, and others followed suit. This seemed to be another sign that new media is maturing and competing with old. But the comparison is inaccurate, if not meaningless.

That 1,300 figure counts all the journalists working at AOL under the new media group headed by Arianna Huffington: 312 at The Huffington Post and the various AOL niche sites; 982 at Patch, the network of hyperlocal sites, according to Mario Ruiz, AOL vice president for communications.

Patch is editorially separate from Huffington and the other AOL sites, although Huffington and Patch have worked together and shared content. There’s really no single “newsroom” at AOL that counts 1,300 journalists, unless by the term “newsroom” you mean everyone who works for Arianna Huffington.

A similar figure for the Times would be 1,855, which is all the journalists employed by The New York Times Co.: the Times (1,100), The Boston Globe (330), New York Times Regional Media Group (340) and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (85).

For further context, McClatchy’s 30 newspapers have more than 1,500 journalists (counted as full-time equivalents), according to a spokesman. (The company wouldn’t release an exact figure.)

The larger question is, what does it matter? What do we learn by comparing the size of a staff concentrated in New York, doing the journalism of a national paper, with the staff that puts out a group of niche sites, a national news and commentary site and 800 or so hyperlocal news sites?

Website visitors

The other recent misstatement was that Huffington had surpassed the Times in online traffic. Normally people mean “page views” when they refer to “traffic,” but in this case the metric was “unique visitors.” Many news sites – including Poynter.orgconflated the two.

Unique visitors, visits and page views are different metrics. One unique visitor can go to a site four times in a month and click on three pages each time, which is counted as one unique visitor, four visits and 12 page views.

Using “traffic” when you’re talking about “visitors” is like using “purchases” when you mean “shoppers.” They’re related, but not the same.

Ruiz said that Huffington has always used unique visitors as its barometer of traffic.

I find another comparison of website visitors more insightful in comparing the two sites. At nytimes.com, 97 percent of visits come from “regulars” (who visit a site 1 to 29 times a month) and “addicts” (who visit at least 30 times a month). At Huffington, “regulars” are more important, accounting for half of visits.

The breakdowns:

HuffingtonPost.com

nytimes.com

Note: Quantcast directly measures Huffington’s traffic but only estimates the Times’.

“Passers-by” (who visit just once a month) are much more important for Huffington, where they comprise 66 percent of visitors (and 24 percent of visits), than at the Times, where they comprise 34 percent (and just 3 percent of visits).

This bit of data may not be as tasty for the oxpeckers, but it does show an important difference between the two sites.

Two things bring infrequent users to a site: search and social media. Although my consumption of Huffington content puts me in the “regular” category, this is how I find most Huffington stories – when I’m searching for news on a particular topic and when people I know share them on Twitter and Facebook.

Times content, on the other hand, I seek out. I get the print edition three days a week, occasionally use the iPhone and iPad apps, subscribe to an e-mail newsletter of top stories, and follow home page headlines on Twitter via @nytimes.

I find Times stories at the newsstand. I find Huffington stories at the water cooler.

Content vs. conversation

I doubt Arianna Huffington would be surprised by this.

“Our mission,” she told me in an interview last week, “is building community around news, information and entertainment, inviting the audience to participate in the conversation and interact with each other.”

Keller didn’t have time to speak with me for this article, but I doubt he or other Times leadership would describe the Times mission similarly.

Then there was Huffington’s description of her site as a “platform”:

“We are a journalistic operation, with over 1,300 journalists [not quite] at the moment at the local and national level, but we are also a platform. We are a platform available to thousands of bloggers, millions of commenters … This is really at the heart of where we are.

“We believe that’s where the media are going, that real-time engagement and social are increasingly at the heart of media in this century.”

From its beginning in 2005, The Huffington Post has been a place for bloggers and commenters to speak their minds, and it has enmeshed itself in the social Web as it has matured. It’s content in the service of conversation.

You can see this on any content or blog page. Huffington stories can practically get lost among the multicolored tags, widgets, buttons and links.

A Huffington article page tells the user: “Check out this story. And this one! Don’t miss this – it’s huge; look at all the people who have ‘Liked’ it. What did you think of the story? Want to see more like it? Here’s what people are saying about this on Twitter. Did you see what your Facebook friends read? If you liked this post, maybe you should follow the author on Twitter, RSS or email. More than 2,000 comments on this story alone! Where’s yours?”

On an nytimes.com article page, on the other hand, the story or blog post is the center of attention. Yes, these pages have widgets for Facebook, most popular stories, those recommended for users, and other headlines around the Web. But there are far fewer of these links, and they are less central.

The message of a nytimes.com content page: “Here’s our take on this issue. By the way, you may be interested in these other stories. Oh, you’d like to comment? Let’s see…yes, we’re accepting comments on this story. Please discuss. And remember, you can subscribe to e-mail alerts on this topic, or follow this blog on Twitter.”

The content is paramount. When user comments are enabled – on articles, they’re often not – it takes place on a page separate from the story. The conversation is in service of the content.

Huffington’s presentation screams “talk.” It derives its authority from being shared and talked about – just as it did when it was principally blogs and aggregated content. The Times derives its authority from its reporting, as it has for years.

By Huffington’s account, her site and the Times started at opposite ends of a continuum and are moving toward each other:

“I never see this as a zero-sum contest, with The New York Times or anyone else. … I always thought there’s a kind of convergence happening now, a kind of hybrid future. And that is indeed what has happened – where we do more and more original reporting, The New York Times does more and more engagement.”

Even if the two sites adopt some of one another’s strengths – and even if The Huffington Post does at some point employ as many journalists and surpass the Times in page views – I don’t expect to see either discard the values that have garnered their audiences.

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