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Huffington Post Gets Social. Why Don't Other Media Outlets?

Although it takes its share of whacks for news aggregation and crowdsourcing free blog content, Huffington Post (AOL) has doubled down on social media, according to a GigaOM report. The site now makes it easy for readers to follow topics, reporters, and bloggers through a variety of social network platforms.

It's a smart move by a media group that actually gets social. That's true both in the sense that Huffington Post interacts with the audience and knows how to work social media to its advantage. So why are older media entities so loath to do the same? Because they think they're above mucking around with their readers.

AOL's acquisition of Huffington Post raised a lot of financial eyebrows, and for good reason. HuffPo's profit in its final year of independent existence nowhere near justified the $315 million price when AOL's status is so shaky. However, price aside, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had the right instinct. He wanted the group because Arianna Huffington and company understand how consumers approach modern media:

  • They want to be important insiders rather than inconsequential outsiders.
  • They want media delivered in convenient ways, including social media. The delivery mechanisms they favor will change over time.
  • They are interested not only in topics, but in personalities. That includes the people whose work they read.
These factors can combine in various ways. For example, people want to be able to interact with the "celebrities" (loosely defined) whose work they read. They want to be able to send a message to such a person via a social network like Twitter.

The insider principle is probably the most important. One big reason HuffPo took off as it did is that progressives and liberals adopted the site as one of their own. Reading Huffington Post became a way to publicly express an affiliation. In this sense, the site is no different from Fox News, which has played on a sense of shared identity with conservatives. Some tech sites like Slashdot.org and TechCrunch also show developed senses of communal identity. Readers come to see them as online homes.

Traditional media that want to avoid taking such sides have done so by keeping audiences at arm's length. They want followers, while the consumers want to be pals. You can clearly see the difference in page and story layouts. First look at the opening of a New York Times story (click to enlarge):


Click on Alan Cowell's name and you get a list of other stories he's done. You can make comments or recommend the piece on Twitter or Facebook. People can comment, but only on a separate page. Some news organizations outsource their comment moderation because they "probably don't want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool." Some will disable comments on certain types of stories, such as suicide, race, or gay rights.

Compare that with the HuffPo approach (click to enlarge):


You can immediately email the reporters, follow their work (Twitter, Facebook, email, or RSS feed), follow any of a number of related topics, emotionally react to the story, or leave a comment on the same page. Hover over one of the blue topic links and you can get follow it, as well. What comes at the end of the story is as important (click to enlarge):


You can also leave a comment, not just on Huffington Post, but on Facebook or your own blog. HuffPo hasn't just tacked on social media like a currently fashionable bit of trim. As Matthew Ingram notes on GigaOM:

The New York Times has writers who have started to develop a following through Facebook and other social media. Foreign correspondent and columnist Nick Kristof makes great use of his Facebook page to engage with readers, and reporter CJ Chivers has been using Twitter extensively while writing about the ongoing upheaval in Libya, as well as posting to a Tumblr blog. But readers have to already know about their use of these tools in order to find and follow them. Features like The Huffington Post has launched would make it easier for them to connect and get updates from their favorite writers.
HuffPo has integrated the social media concept and built a strong audience in a short amount of time. This is branding as it should be done, through action, not attitude and advertising. However, the approach makes traditional media nervous. Practitioners are no longer acolytes who receive The Mysteries of News and disseminate them to the unwashed masses. Unfortunately, that business model will lose relevance over time, as will the publishing ventures that use it.

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Image: morgueFile user clarita, site standard license.
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