In Part One of this series, we discussed Techmeme and DaringFireball as two different but equally impressive examples of sites that rely on content curation as a major – if not exclusive – means of satisfying readers in the competitive tech niche.
For this post, we’ll look at two popular sites using curation to report on politics and the news: The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report.
The Huffington Post
There’s no way you haven’t at least heard of The Huffington Post, even if you don’t go there regularly. One of the web’s largest and most influential news site, The Huffington Post has achieved an Alexa ranking of #95, following only two news sites, Yahoo News and CNN.com, in that measurement.
As noted in a Mashable article called 5 Tips for Great Content Curation, Steve Rosenbaum noted:
The most successful curators include sites like The Huffington Post, that embrace the three-legged-stool philosophy of creating some content, inviting visitors to contribute some content, and gathering links and articles from the web. Created, contributed, and collected — the three c’s is a strong content mix that has a measurable impact. Why? Because your visitors don’t want to hunt around the web for related material. Once they find a quality, curated collection, they’ll stay for related offerings.
Although the content mix has evolved since 2005 when the site was launched, this “three-legged stool” has always been the basis of HuffPo’s strategy. The very first issue, May 9, 2005, featured a “Huffington Post Exclusive” story regarding controversial Saudi defense plans, 16 curated news stories headlined and briefly summarized on site with links to the originals at various established media outlets, and 14 “featured posts” by celebrity bloggers.
In a thoroughly researched and extensive article written for the Columbia Journalism Review, called “Six Degrees of Aggregation“, Michael Shapiro discusses the evolution of the Huffington Post from a germ of an idea into a Pulitzer Prize winning, blog-based news site that would provide a left-leaning counterpoint to the popular Drudge Report. In discussing the content considerations, this interesting commentary is included:
Huffington Post, they understood, was not an enterprise whose core purpose was the creation of works of journalism—as significant or mundane as that can be. It was in the content business, which created all sorts of possibilities of what it could gather and, with a new headline and assorted tags, send back out, HuffPost’s logo affixed. Content would come to mean original reporting by Sam Stein or Ryan Grim from Washington, as well as Alec Baldwin’s blog, Robert Reich’s rants about the forsaking of the American worker, a “Best Retro Bathing Suits” slide show, “Why Women Gladly Date Ugly Men,” David Wood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 10-part series on wounded veterans, “Nine Year Old Girl’s Twin Found Inside Her Stomach,” campaign dispatches from the Off The Bus citizen journalists, “Angelina and Brad Wow at Cannes,” and “Multitasking Wilts Your Results and Relationships”—as well as Nico Pitney’s blogging on the violence after the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections and the 111,000 comments it generated. Because comment was content, too. Comment was like blogging, but at scale.
Although the size and popularity of the site have necessarily changed the mix to some extent, the basic principles remain the same. The Huffington Post currently employs over 1,500 journalists, paid to report original content and/or provide context and depth to curated stories. They also rely on a huge network of over 9,000 bloggers who contribute stories in exchange for visibility via publication.
At this stage, with over 1,000 stories posted per day, The Huffington Post relies on thousands of blogs, the Associated Press, Reuters, individual news sources and submitted press releases to supply content on upwards of twenty major topic verticals daily. This huge volume of information can lead to a somewhat crowded and confusing home page, but a rotating “top story” headline dominates the top of the page:
Below that, readers could either enjoy (or be frustrated by) getting lost in the day’s additional stories:
In the middle of The Huffington Post’s Home Page – a little confusing
But each main topic has its own dedicated page as well, allowing readers who have a specific intent to focus on what they came to read:
The Footer on the Huffington Post – sources and attribution
The Huffington Post’s style of content curation and aggregation has been criticized because some of their content is submitted by bloggers and journalists who are not compensated, while the site makes significant profits from the content.
A lawsuit from last year brought these complaints to light, but the site continues to operate as usual and shows no signs of slowing down. In an interview with El Pais regarding HuffPo’s move into international waters over the last year, Arianna Huffington discussed the controversy:
The Huffington Post and similar new media companies are a combination of two things: we are journalism companies with professionals – in the case of The Huffington Post, including the local Patch sites, we have approximately 1,400 journalists who are pretty well paid. We are also a platform that offers distribution to thousands of people who meet our quality standards. We don’t let just anyone in. But if you do make the cut, whether you are well known or not, you can be on The Huffington Post platform. That way you can reach a wide audience, in our case enormous, thanks to our union with AOL. Comments are moderated, so that you join a quality conversation.
She also made an interesting comment on her personal view of the Huffington Post’s reliance on curation and aggregation:
As for aggregation, even if I had an unlimited budget I would still do it. It is a service to my readers. If I am committed to showing the best, some stories will be produced by us and others we will pick and filter from other sites. [italics added]
The Drudge Report
Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report holds a very unique place in online news aggregation. Now 15 years old, the site continues to follow the same content formula it always has.
With an Alexa ranking of #414, the conservative-leaning news page trails The Huffington Post in traffic, but still ranks among the most popular sites in the world, with a U.S. site ranking higher than USA Today or ABC News.
Perhaps even more impressive than the site’s traffic numbers (nearly 800 million monthly page views as per InterMarkets,) is the undeniable level of influence it wields in the news industry. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Journalism Excellence revealed these incredible statistics:
In some cases, Drudgereport.com is an extremely important traffic driver. While Facebook never drove more than 8% of traffic to any one site, for instance, Drudgereport.com provided more than 30% of traffic to mailonline.co.uk (the British newspaper site the Daily Mail), 19% of the traffic to the NYPost.com, 15% to Washingtonpost.com and 11% to Boston.com and FoxNews.com.
In other words, the Drudge Report’s influence cuts across both traditional organizations such as ABC News to more tabloid style outlets such as the New York Post. What’s more, Drudge Report drove more links than Facebook or Twitter on all the sites to which it drove traffic.
The Drudge Report’s format is very stripped down, having barely changed since it originally hit the web in 1997:
The Home Page of the Drudge Report – retro formatting for a confused look
Readers enjoy consistent editorial oversight by a small handful of people over the years, primarily founder Matt Drudge himself, who still runs the site from his home in Miami Beach. Drudge has included no “about” page or historical information on his site, but the following information from Wikipedia helps explain how he works:
The Drudge Report site consists mainly of selected hyperlinks to news websites all over the world, each link carrying a headline written by Drudge or his editors. The linked stories are generally hosted on the external websites of mainstream media outlets. It occasionally includes stories written by Drudge — usually two or three paragraphs in length. They generally concern a story about to be published in a major magazine or newspaper. Drudge occasionally publishes Nielsen, Arbitron, or BookScan ratings, or early election exit polls that are otherwise not made available to the public.
Unlike The Huffington Post, the Drudge Report relies almost exclusively on pure curation: linking out to news stories on other sites that Drudge feels will interest his audience. He writes the headlines and orders the stories according to his own editorial taste, but leaves out additional commentary 99% of the time.
In 2008, Jason Fried of 37Signals had this to say about the Drudge Report and its curation approach:
There’s actually no content on the Drudge Report. Well, sometimes he will post an email or a memo on his site, but it’s 99% links out to other news sources. His site is designed to send you away to bring you back. The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more. This is one of the secrets to building traffic: The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.
15 years into consistently following a similar content curation strategy, Matt Drudge controls one of the most potent voices in the competitive online news industry and likely generates over a million a year in advertising revenue, certainly providing a solid answer to any who may doubt curation’s power.
In conclusion, The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report follow two very different strategies for reporting the news:
- HuffPo is building an ever-expanding network of journalists, contributing bloggers, and an extensive editorial staff to create, curate and aggregate upwards of 1,000 news stories on a host of topics every day.
- The Drudge Report relies almost exclusively on a relatively small number of headline-driven links to outside news sources in a stripped down design that focuses on sending people to the stories that matter most.
Both, however, have succeeded where many sites fail: in building a loyal audience of readers who return again and again to learn about the world in an interesting and engaging way.
While the Huffington Post works hard to keep people on the site, the Drudge Report sends them away as quickly as it can. In both cases, people keep coming back. While they are operating on different scales – HuffPo as a multi-million dollar subsidiary of AOL and The Drudge Report as a one-man, home-based operation – both have been able to turn news aggregation and curation into a basis for income and long-term, sustainable businesses.
And both, to their respective audiences, have become trusted news sources to rival any century-old newspaper.
In the last part of this three-part series, we will look at two corporate blogs that rely heavily on curation: CMO.com and Intel’s IQ e-zine. Please stay tuned for that!
This is a guest post by Justin P Lambert. Justin is a content marketing specialist and freelance copywriter. He is also a ghostwriter, speech writer and consultant.