Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A template for an Australian HuffPo

The thought of an Australian Huffington Post is one that has occupied the minds of those greater than I ever since HuffPo laid down the template for a professional group blog that would become so huge as to rival newspapers for size of audience and breadth of coverage.

I've been thinking about how to deliver this concept in the Australian market for a number of years now. On various occasions, I have tried to interest others with complementary skill sets in the local Web community to start this venture with me, Voltron style. Building an MTUB supergroup seems to be in the too hard basket for now, and I'm busy with FanFooty for the moment, so I think it's safe to publicise my thoughts on this without fear of giving up precious defendable IP.

The first and most important thing to note about building a HuffPo for the local market is that the model will have to be significantly different to the original, if only because Australia doesn't have nearly the same economies of scale that publishing in America does. With a population 15 times that of Australia, American publishers can afford to appeal to relatively narrow niches and make traffic targets up in volume. Crucially, American news blogs can also afford to have a relatively low number of pages per visit due to their high number of unique browsers. Local blogs like News Ltd's The Punch, Fairfax's National Times, Text Media's Crikey and New Matilda (deceased) survive (or not) on a handful of page views per user. This is unacceptable, given our lack of critical mass of users in the target market for such publications. Thus the site must be built around generating repeat visits, user loyalty, and interactivity to keep them engaged.

I'm assuming here that anyone who wants to build such a site is not going to have anything beyond basic seed funding, with maybe a bit of angel money. Such person/s would probably have experience in both the journalism industry and also be a part of the local Twitterati. These two factors would mean that the vexed question of how to generate content early doors from limited financial resources would lead to reliance on one or both of these constituencies, without payment. This was the case for BackPageLead, for instance, whose contributor list was built from the old journo contacts of ex-journos Ashley Browne and Charles Happell. The Punch's contributors are mostly News Ltd hacks slumming it online, politicians and other spruikers pushing a line, with David Penberthy recruiting the occasional Twitterati superstar like Bronwen Clune to spice things up now and then. Crikey's attempts at blogging beyond their core politics beat (and their paywall) have been abortive, to say the least.

The HuffPo model has always been not to pay contributors anything, even now when the enterprise earns millions of dollars in advertising revenue per year. They have been able to do this because there is a large number of urban intellectuals in the US who get shut out of the opinion columns of mainstream newspapers like the New York Times but still want to have their voices heard, regardless of remuneration. This has lead to accusations that HuffPo is a mouthpiece for celebrities and the rich.

In my opinion, this lack of ability and/or inclination to pay contributors in the Australian context leads to an unsatisfactory result for all concerned. The spruikers are participating for their own selfish reasons, so they aren't interested in building your business, only pushing their own barrows. Their disconnect with the audience, at whom they are barking their message, leads to a lack of comments and a lack of follow on page views. Readers have something to bitch about in the short term, but ultimately it hurts their engagement with the brand. Slumming MSM journos also have their own agendas, be they political or professional, and they are not trained to produce that subtle blend of srs bsns and troll that constitutes quality comment-generating linkbait in an online environment. More to the point, they seem unwilling to learn such skills, with their heads still mired in newspaper country.

No, the only way to develop such talent is to pay them, I reckon, so that you have complete editorial control over their development as specialist bloggers. At the very least, if you want to maintain the HuffPo model for scaling content outside your core of paid bloggers, that's fine, but you have to set the tone for the rest of the site by instructing those bloggers to blog the way you want the publication to go. These are probably not going to be MSM journos who are retrained, because it would require abandoning the habits of a lifetime, not to mention actively attacking the basic tenets of newspapers if not their business models. They are probably not going to be recruited from the upper echelons of the Twitterati either, as I have found from my (admittedly feeble) efforts.

There's a chicken and egg situation here: how to make money in the short term to pay these bloggers? News Ltd and Fairfax have the money, but they're not going to give it to the likes of Penbo to spend on actual bloggers, because they have a hard enough time justifying paying all the old journalists on their books as it is. The Punch and the NT are milksops of the online community, emasculated by their parent companies so that their only possible goal is to block a real HuffPo clone from destroying their hosts. Crikey doesn't have the money either, limited as it is by its newsletter income and unable to bootstrap the content outside its paywall to sufficient levels of traffic to garner significant advertising revenue.

All of these factors lead me to believe that a successful HuffPo clone in Australia has to start outside the strict HuffPo model of journalistic-style blog content. The Punch has come the closest in its ongoing liveblogging of Question Time, but it's still way behind the one I think has the only chance to work in the Australian context. This technique is stolen shamelessly from my own experiences at FanFooty, so feel free to denigrate it on that basis, but it's what I know and I think it could work outside the sports ghetto.

The key is to liveblog as much as you can. Liveblogging, when done right in a technical sense, is arguably the greatest page view generator you could have on a blog. This means developing your own code to run your liveblogging pages. Specifically, chuck that CoverItLive crap, or any other Flash-based solution, straight to the shizenhausen. Flash chat is unwieldy, ugly, unmanageable and, most importantly, restricts your repeat page view count to make it almost counter-productive to liveblog in the first place. You must invest in creating an AJAX solution with autogenerated page refreshes to drive up ad impressions. I can not stress this point enough. This includes video- or audio-based liveblogging through sites like Ustream or, where you can still have an auto-refreshing text chat in a frame with the live Flash app in another frame (for an example, see the live audio podcast page I built for the weekly Coaches Box podcast).

For those thinking that this is a rather evil little trick to inflate page views that would hurt advertiser ROI, I would argue that if you get people watching the same page with its dynamically updated AJAX liveblogging content for five or ten minutes and continuing to watch that page after it refreshes, doesn't your site deserve the CPM from that extra page view? In the absence of any other method to reward the extra stickiness and time-on-site that comes from AJAX content, the page refresh is the best way to ensure publishers get value for such high levels of engagement.

Right, with that out of the way, what do you liveblog? The simple answer is: any experience that people can share in that moment. Most usually, this will mean live events that people are aware of through other media, like television or the radio. Of course, you're not going to liveblog AFL because FanFooty's got that market covered ( :P ) but sports are an obvious target for what is called two-screen solutions. Perhaps more crucially, there is a massive opportunity to liveblog primetime TV shows. Back when Big Brother was in its hey day, Southern Star Endemol did an excellent job creating tie-in Web content to the show, but ever since then there has been not much at all to distinguish the local TV industry's online efforts. Q&A integrates with Twitter somewhat by publishing highlights of tweets including the #qanda hashtag, but much more could be done along these lines, especially with highly structured shows. Game shows like Masterchef, Spicks & Specks and Good News Week are low hanging fruit waiting to be picked. Panel discussion shows such as The 7PM Project, Q&A and Insight are ripe for liveblogging for those frustrated couch jockeys who want to participate in the debate. Even drama shows like Sea Patrol and Underbelly are suited for liveblogging, though you'd probably have to restrict that to local productions for fear of trolls spoiling the endings to shows that have already aired overseas.

Beyond TV-based liveblogging, there are some news events that demand their own liveblogging, which may include other media but are not reliant on it. Weather events like bushfires, earthquakes, heat waves and hailstorms are perfect for liveblogging, especially ones that happen out of the blue. Currently, there is no one Web site in Australia that people go to for instant information when something like that occurs, which to me speaks of a market opportunity for someone who can build a system that can react in real time to sudden news flashes like that. The history of news blogs on the Web is littered with publications who made their names on covering live events and garnered whole new swathes of new fans by providing information they weren't getting in old media. The key here is that the liveblogging screen must include all possible relevant information, linking where appropriate and keeping users on your own site where possible. Thus you can probably get away with hosting weather charts and alerts sourced from the BOM, but you won't be able to post live video of a prime ministerial resignation speech from Sky News or ABC News 24 - though a quickly typed transcription would be fantastic.

There are several points to make here about liveblogging. Twitter and Facebook integration can only take you so far. There is the right way to do it - Melbourne's own Duncan Riley managed to increase his page views per user on Inquisitr from something around 1.5 to 4 or 5 now after integrating Facebook commenting earlier this year - and there is the wrong way to do it, as in the AFL's integration of Twitter hashtag commenting in its live Flash app. The primary concern should be that all of your social media efforts should be geared to increasing visits and page views back at your own site. You're not in the business of growing Twitter or Facebook, you're leeching off their users. Don't be ashamed of that.

For users to want to come to your site to join in the chat, the mere fact of sharing the experience of whatever it is that you're liveblogging is not going to be enough to get traffic up to sustainable levels. You have to provide information that you won't get anywhere else, or at least not as easily. For FanFooty, the live stats are augmented by news snippets on each player written by me in real time as I watch games on TV or listen on radio, including injuries, matchups and form vignettes. For liveblogging a show like Masterchef, even though you wouldn't be an official partner with access to content before it airs, listing the ingredients of each dish as they are being prepared on screen would be a valuable resource. Online bios of guests on chat shows, abstracts of and links to news stories being discussed on panel shows, even thumbnail screenshots taken from live TV feeds of what the onscreen personalities are wearing... it's all up for inclusion in your liveblog as auxiliary content to add to the experience of watching or listening live.

In addition to your employees liveblogging all this content, they have to become experienced community managers, with particular emphasis on moderation of the chat on live blogs. Some liveblog subjects will appeal to a more mature crowd who will only require a soft touch, but I can tell you from my experiences moderating chats populated by rowdy teenage boys that a live chat on the Internet can get very willing if there is not a firm grasp by the publisher on what is and isn't allowed to be said. This does not necessarily mean having to approve every line of chat before it is submitted, as often happens in CoverItLive. Apart from anything else, this is unworkable when your site scales as you would hope that it would do. A simple swear filter and a frequent use of the ban stick is sufficient to set the tone of the chat, in my experience, and all but an easily squashed minority will follow the leader and act appropriately.

All of this content is well worth reusing to further drive up page views. Logs of your inhouse-sourced liveblogged material and edited highlights of the audience chat can be excellent traffic generators. Reaching out further to the Twitter and Facebook crowds can be very productive, such as republishing all of the #qanda zingers that didn't make it past the ABC censors to the live TV scroll.

Free content contribution is the core of the HuffPo model, but that doesn't mean that you have to source that content entirely through the old newspaper model of editors sifting through freelance submissions, as HuffPo still does. That technique is still useful for certain types of content, of course, but opening your site up to live, (somewhat) unfiltered participation from non-professionals who are enjoying themselves on your site is an invaluable way of generating both content and page views at the same time. In the Australian industry, hamstrung as it is by a small population and a tiny pool of skilled bloggers, I would argue it is mandatory to look outside the basic structure to make the business work in local conditions.

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Anonymous Tony said...

You make it sound like hard work.

Good post, but.

12:44 pm, November 13, 2010  

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