DJ Media Conference: Wapo, Huffpo, MSO

James Brady, Exec Editor,
Nora Ephron, blogger,
Susan Lyne,  CEO, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO)
Susan Whiting, EVP, Nielsen

Moderator Michael Schrage from MIT leads by asking the panel to tell us the single most important thing we ought to know: Susan Whiting: Content matters (phew!). Susan Lyne: Should have recognised that personalisation is really important to consumers earlier than we did. Everybody wants their Yahoo, their Martha. James Brady: Distribution is crucial. Can’t use the field of dreams principle. Nora Ephron: We adapted – thought of ourselves as the “not Drudge” site, but Huffpo ended up becoming a community. A real surprise to me as a blogger. Good and bad – commenters have been great and awful, and we now moderate them, both to make authors feel better and to elevate the community.

What about letting people post unmoderated comments on the site, James — doesn’t that dilute the Wapo brand? Maybe. But it increases loyalty to the site. We do have a filter, but we don’t pre-moderate comments. Doing that would make us more liable, for one thing. As important: People want to see their comments immediately, and to be able to respond, in real time, to others’ comments.

Michael tries tossing a bomb: He thinks content is overrated. He praises Wapo not just for its content, but for its interactive tools. Rest of panel baffled by this, so now he’s trying to explain: A decade ago content was 60% of the equation, now it’s 20%. Nora: “None of this existed a decade ago.” And now she’s on a roll. “I hate using the word ‘content,’ because it sounds like a word for something you can run an ad by.” We think of it as news, or commentary.

Michael is still pushing his tech-trumps-content argument, so Susan Whiting takes a shot at debating him. DVRs, for instance are an important piece of technology, but only because they allow people to record the content they want to watch. Hey Susan Lyne, now that you’re not at ABC, are you fast-forwarding past ads on your DVR? Yes, I am. But people always left during commercials, so it’s not a huge change.

James: One of the problems we have is that more and more of our readers coming from the side-door (Google, Drudge, etc) and it’s hard to keep them on the site and turn them into Washington Post readers. If we can get each reader who comes in that way to read one more story, it’d be a big deal for us [this is a truism across the web, btw]

Nora, do you think about metrics? No. OK, well, do you find yourself being more provocative to generate more comments? No. Really? No. One of the things about blogging is that if you take too long, you’re doing it wrong. Blogging is different from the writing I do for the NYT oped page in that is isn’t polished, and that’s good. You’re there to start a conversation. You’re not there to be the last word on the subject. If I find myself taking more than 25 minutes on a post, I figure that it’s not working.

James on metrics: Don’t want to overreact to our minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour data. Don’t just want to line up our home page based on popularity, or we’d always lead with Tom Cruise news. Digg is great, but if the Wapo turned its home page into Digg, we’d lose a lot of our audience. In short-term we’d get a few more page views, but long-term we’d lose what we are. We try to look at numbers mid-term to long-term: If a writer always pops on the oped page, we’ll promote them more. But if something is popping just because Drudge links to it, that doesn’t mean as much.

Q&A: A question about monetization sparks a freewheeling conversation. Susan Lyne talks about packaging web buys with magazine, tv properties, etc. James Brady, do you think that you guys should have invested in Huffpo instead of buying Slate? Slate’s been great for us, both on edit and revenue side. Whether or not we should have invested in Huffpo is a different question. By the way, on the web, the amount of contact between the business side and the editorial side is daily. It’s dramatically different than the newspaper business, where you weren’t supposed to acknowledge a sales guy if you bumped into him at the cafeteria.

Tell us where you’ve screwed up: Susan Lyne: When I got here I thought we should have had DVDs — they were big winners at Disney, ABC. So we spent a ton of time on them. But turns out that the special interest market we were targeting (food, gardering, etc) was tiny. James Brady: We make lots of mistakes. You have to make mistakes on the Web. If you’re not failing several times a year, you’re not stretching. Nora Ephron: Again, we started with the idea that we’d have celebrity bloggers, but we’ve found that the site is really about relatively unknown bloggers, and the commenters, many of whom think — rightly — that they’re writing for Huffpo.

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