The main strategic takeaway for me from the CM Summit was the stark contrast between the two interviews John Batelle had with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Arianna Huffington.
I first met Arthur at a technology conference roughly 10 years ago. He had a big head-start in adapting to the changes from the Internet, he hired some excellent people to work on an Internet strategy, and I was optimistic that the New York Times would be a leader in making the transition to the digital age of publishing. His opening comment at the closing of yesterday’s conference may have proved me wrong. He said that “digital is the future – in the long run.” The addition of the term “in the long run” offers a glimpse of how things may be going in the New York Times transformation.
At the launch of the iPad, the New York Times proudly presented their news app. Of all the more than 100 apps on my iPad, I would have to put it near the bottom. The name of it tells the whole story – Editor’s Choice. If there is one thing we all know about the Web, it is that the long tail prevails. In other words, readers make their own choices as to what they choose to read, and it may be something quite obscure to other readers. The New York Times app includes just a handful of the many stories that they produce. To even consider a name of “Editor’s Choice” is not even close to the way empowered users of the web are thinking. Especially when it comes to news — it is the reader’s choice not the editor’s choice that matters.
Arthur also made it clear in his comments that the follow-on app and web access to New York Times news will require payment — there will be a cap placed on how many New York Times articles can be read before the reader has to pay. Wired Magazine ran a story the next day about the New York Times decision to convince Apple to remove the new Pulse app from the app store. Pulse, developed by two students at Stanford, is one of the best applications on the iPad. It provides a very user-friendly way to read news feeds from multiple sources in a very enjoyable way. The New York Times has concluded that having their news feeds in Pulse is a violation of their policy. This is ironic, since you would think the more readers, the more apps — including the New York Times — the more pageviews, the better, since all of their stories include paid advertising. Also, given that most Times news is available in news feeds, why would someone pay for news through a Times reader when they can get it through a free news reader? One senior Times person told me they are not sure RSS feeds are going to survive. I would say that RSS feeds going away is about as likely as email going away. If you think I am harsh take a look at what Wired had to say about this.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Arianna Huffington as she came on stage for the closing day conversation with John Battelle. I had last seen her during a campaign speech when she was running for governor. She did not strike me at the time as very saavy about business but I was sorely mistaken about that. She has an incredibly diverse background, both politically and career-wise, and I was highly impressed with what she had to say. In fact, her view of the Huffington Post was exhilarating. She described the future of news, whereby their 130 employees, supplemented by 6,000 bloggers, are creating a new “Internet newspaper” online. The bloggers are not random. They have a process through which the submitters are vetted and in a sense compete to be a HuffPo news provider. Arianna claims the company to be profitable, and I have no doubt that it is, as advertisers are seeking to connect with readers in a rejuvenated way. Her vision of employing and leveraging the social networks was right on as far as I am concerned, and I believe that we will soon see that the Huffington Post exceeds the readership of all the major online news media, perhaps including the New York Times. At 28 million estimated unique monthly visitors, it already exceeds Fox News, Reuters, the LA Times, ABC News, and USA Today.
Based on what the two leaders of these news organizations had to say, my conclusion is that the New York Times will be offering the news model of the past, and the Huffington Post will be offering the news of the future.