Stephen Foley: This spicy feud between HuffPo and The New York Times will keep on running
Saturday 12 March 2011
US Outlook: Who knew that Bill Keller, editor of the prim and proper New York Times, could zing?
With a few coruscating phrases about Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post online media group, he just kicked off the news business's bitterest feud.
HuffPo began life as one of those "aggregators", harvesting stories from other websites, but it has become a decent-sized news operation in its own right and challenges the Times as a forum where political heavyweights and loyal readers alike come to debate leftish ideas.
But here's Mr Keller: HuffPo's building a team of original journalists is like "hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters," he says. Oh snap! And it's personal. Ms Huffington annoyed him by seeming to pass off as her own views, ideas that he had expressed on the future of news.
An incensed Ms Huffington, after a long day sacking 900 staff following HuffPo's merger with AOL, took the time to pen a 1,100-word attack on "lame" and "laughable" Mr Keller. His piece, she said, began by "patting himself on the back so hard I'd be surprised if he didn't crack a rib". Oh snap, back at ya.
Whose zings had the biggest sting? Go read for yourself. What is certain is that Mr Keller's attack is a Really Bad Idea. What is the head of the venerable and irreplaceable New York Times doing, stooping to swoop at a rival?
Ms Huffington's six-year-old operation doesn't come close to doing the colossal news-gathering of the 150-year-old Times, which lays claim to being the world's most comprehensive single news source. But HuffPo is treading on the Times's toes (well, maybe just its little toe so far, but Ms Huffington has big and ambitious feet).
By raising her hackles, Mr Keller is raising the stakes, energising HuffPo's staff and readers, and setting her up as a rival sooner than he need.
Most worrying for the Times editor, HuffPo is creating a growing community of readers-cum-commenters-cum-citizen journalists. This is just the kind of heavily-engaged, interactive news experience that top-down producers such as The New York Times instinctively distrust, but which I'm sure will prove its viability and importance in next year's US presidential election, if it hasn't already.
HuffPo was bought by AOL last month precisely so that the ailing internet company could claim to be creating valuable journalistic content. It has a long way to go. After all, it is starting at rock bottom. AOL was a journalistic joke. A leaked internal manual instructed its editors to commission articles based on combining trending Twitter topics ("Ten reasons Justin Beiber should replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men" – that sort of thing). Ms Huffington's site has done a fair bit of that itself. But it's not where her heart has been, and it is not where her head is telling her to go.
Her first move in charge of the combined HuffPo/AOL editorial operation was to cull writers on its obscurest sites, whose only raison d'etre was to harvest search engine traffic. Revenue from these sites is under threat because there are so many such "content farms" across the web. Advertisers seem increasingly willing to pay up for access to trusted, high-quality sites with well-defined, loyal readerships.
The unlimited scale of the web has allowed mushrooming amounts of, frankly, crap. Economics will eventually dictate that less is more.
And while hundreds of less well-secured news brands will no doubt be swept from the internet, I bet that HuffPo and The New York Times will remain standing. That is why this feud is so spicy. It promises to run and run.
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