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Arianna Huffington’s new platform strategy has one big problem

June 29, 2015, 5:31 PM UTC
The Alliance for Women In Media Southern California Affiliate For An Inspiring Evening With Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington presents at The Alliance for Women In Media Southern California Affiliate for An Inspiring Evening With Arianna Huffington at CBS Studios on July 23, 2014 in Studio City, California.
Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage—Getty Images

If we know one thing about the media business right now, it’s that hardly anyone wants to be just a publisher any more. Everyone would much rather be a platform—or, failing that, hook up with a giant platform like Facebook (FB) that can achieve the kind of social distribution required in today’s media environment.

For The Huffington Post, the goal seems to be to turn the site into even more of a platform than it already is, by boosting the number of unpaid contributors to the one million mark.

This, according to media analyst Ken Doctor, is what founder Arianna Huffington has settled on as the next landmark goal for the company, which also recently announced that it is expanding into video by launching a 24-hour news network and a film division. Doctor said in a recent piece for Capital New York that Huffington talked about the million-contributor goal in a recent discussion with company staff.

Later this year, the company plans to release new technology for publishing on the site as well as a new app, which Doctor says will “open the floodgates.” The plan—codenamed Donatello—is to add 900,000 freelance, unpaid writing contributors to the current 100,000, which the site says account for about 15% of traffic. Sam Napolitano, vice-president of engineering, said the plan is to give users the ability to publish to the site with little or no editing:

“We’re putting the entire power of our content management system into the pockets of our bloggers and our editors in a way that allows people to report in real time on events as they unfold. Upload photos, upload videos. We don’t have to scour Twitter or Facebook for that content.”

Sources close to the company question some of the numbers behind the strategy. They say while it’s technically possible that HuffPo might have 100,000 contributors—in the sense that this many people may have once written something for the site, it’s extremely unlikely that those contributors account for more than about 5% of the site’s traffic, if that. Which means that counting on such unpaid contributors for a huge traffic boost is probably also unwise.

“Ultimately, I suspect the 100,000-contributor number is somehow technically true,” said one source. “Maybe it’s the all-time number of bylines in the database, such that it includes anyone who’s ever published anything on HuffPost, including robot-style cross-posts from partner websites. But there’s no way that accounts for 15% of the site’s traffic.”

A spokesperson for Huffington Post, however, said that the 15% figure is accurate, and comes from the site’s internal statistics, which are provided by Omniture.

Whatever the actual numbers might be, Huffington’s plan seems like a logical extension of the approach HuffPo took from the very beginning. It started as a platform for celebrities and friends of Arianna, then it opened up to anyone and for a time it became the go-to site for someone who wanted to write but didn’t have a blog. In recent years, however, the site has focused more on being a fairly traditional news entity, hiring journalists from places like the New York Times (although many of them have since left).

But the big problem for Huffington when it comes to executing this strategy is similar to the problem it faces with its video strategy: Namely, that everyone else is already focused on doing the exact same thing, and so the competitive landscape has grown increasingly crowded.

When HuffPo first launched, there were few alternatives to having your own blog — and certainly few that could offer the kind of audience reach and broad distribution that Huffington Post could. But now, there are plenty of alternatives, many of them with a lot more to offer: Medium, for example. The startup run by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams seems to have become for many people the default place where you go to write about your company or provide your take on a matter of public interest. And there’s Tumblr, which pop star Taylor Swift used to great effect to put pressure on Apple recently.

LinkedIn has also become a combination of platform and publisher, offering anyone the option to distribute their thoughts to a broad audience within their field — as well as the chance to become part of the Influencers program. Then there’s Gawker Media, which offers anyone who comments on the site their own blog-style home on the web, and the opportunity to perhaps have their content featured on the home page (although even Gawker’s platform strategy doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact on traffic).

On top of all of those, there are literally hundreds of sites — both from digital and traditional news entities — who are desperate for content and more than happy to have contributors offering free material. Some will even pay a tiny amount for the privilege of printing someone’s opinion on the news. And if it’s breaking news photos or video, why would users choose to post their content to HuffPo instead of Twitter or YouTube or Snapchat?

As for what the Huffington Post has to offer by comparison, it doesn’t have the reach of Facebook or Twitter, its writing tools and design aren’t as appealing as Medium’s, and it doesn’t have the professional targeting that LinkedIn has, or the cachet of Snapchat. It may have 200 million unique monthly visitors, but it is no longer top of mind when it comes to platforms or publishers, and that is a mountain Ms. Huffington will have to climb in order to reach her goal.

Is it possible? Certainly. She managed to build HuffPo into a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, something many critics were hugely skeptical about when the site first appeared, and that is no small feat. But the stakes are much bigger now, and the landscape has changed dramatically.

Follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi. You can read his coverage of the media industry by going here, or you can subscribe via his RSS feed.