Monday, September 29, 2008

How to think about the new WaPo political news aggregation site

Last week, The Washington Post launched a new offering called The Political Browser, a site to aggregate the best of political news from around the Web. Say what? Yeah. Just like The Huffington Post or Real Clear Politics.

So here's how it works: The Post scours the Web for great political stuff and posts its favorites on their site. And then various members of their political team weigh in and comment on that other stuff.

Say what, again? You mean, all that stuff that the traditional media has been railing against, the Post is now doing? Yeah.

So how should folks in the traditional media think about this?

Here's what I like about it:

  • The Post is experimenting.

    And you all know how I feel about experimenting. Anything that might help us figure out the future of news is a good thing.

  • The Post has turned around and embraced a practice that for so long was discredited and derided among the traditional media.

    This is a good sign. It means the leadership there is breaking out of the inside-the-box thinking that will sink any enterprise that is trying to adapt to new conditions.

Here are some things the Post should consider, as they move forward:

  • Is the person who's leading the effort wildly passionate about new media, and do they have a near-maniacal vision about how they want to execute the project?

    The site won't work if the folks at the Post are merely copying what's being done elsewhere. If the conversation behind the site went something like this, "Hey, look at those other aggregation sites. They seem to have some legs. Hey, you, random person over in the corner, tag you're it. Take this on and figure out how to make it work." If that was the conversation, then the site is doomed to fail.

    The Huffington Post and Real Clear Politics and all the other (successful) aggregation sites work because they have a driving vision about what they want to do and especially about the kind of content they want to post. The selection process becomes a voice, if you will, and it's the voice that builds audience loyalty.

    Here's an analogy. Let's say you want to open a sporting goods store. One of the things that will drive your success is if you have a vision of the kind of sporting goods you want to sell and the "personality" you want your store to have. A store that has no selection criteria, that just kind of takes whatever, will never have the success of, say, a lululemon, the wildly successful yoga apparel retail chain that builds devoted followers because it does, in fact, have a personality that buyers identify with and want to be part of.

    So to succeed, to build a devoted audience, The Political Browser is going to have to have a personality. And the personality is only going to come from someone with a driving vision of what they want it to be about.

  • The visionary who drives The Political Browser must be given complete latitude to execute how they see fit.

    This won't work if there's some committee looking over their shoulder, questioning various decisions or getting jittery and asking them to pull back. The project needs to have the latitude to try all sorts of different things. And yes, many of those things will be duds. And some of them might even end up embarrassing the Post. But this is par for the course, and there is no way but through. The Post are like newbies at soccer right now. You got to give them time to learn the game. And any time you're learning a new game, you fumble a lot more than you score.
Here are some red flags:

  • The site is much too purty.

    That's good right? No, it's bad. A site that looks as polished as The Political Browser means one of two things: The creators think they've figured out the formula (when they really should be in "throw it up against the wall mode," or they are placing an undue emphasis on design (when it really needs to be about the content). Take a look at Huffington Post or RealClearPolitics. They've been around for years, and they still look like were designed by somebody's brother-in-law on his day off.

  • Talk about revenues.

    The site's executive editor, Jim Brady, told Editor and Publisher that he hopes the site will become political junkies' first-stop shop for political news from around the Web--and generate revenue via ads.

    There's nothing wrong with trying to drive revenue, of course. That is the name of the game: How to find ways to drive traffic that will generate revenue. I just hope that the Post will give The Political Browser a little time and not immediately evaluate it based on revenue earned. No site whose primary goal was "generate revenue" ever succeeded in building a loyal audience. The first goal has to be to create a great site full of great stuff that people become addicted to. Then worry about the money.

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