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The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post

When The Huffington Post announced earlier this week that it was being acquired by AOL for $315 million in cash and stock, one group felt slighted: a set of unpaid bloggers for the site, identifying by the Twitter hashtag #huffpuff, which claims that The Huffington Post has “built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists.”

Some analyses in the mainstream media have echoed these sentiments. “To grasp The Huffington Post’s business model,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Tim Rutten, “picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

I have enormous sympathy for anyone writing about public affairs, whether as a hobby or as a career. And I’d encourage people to think very carefully about where they are doing their writing, and what they are getting paid for it.

The fact is, however, that sentiments like Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much.

The Huffington Post receives huge amounts of traffic: about 15.6 million page views per weekday, according to Quantcast. But it also has a huge amount of content accounting for those page views. It publishes roughly 100 original pieces per day — paid and unpaid — in its politics section alone. And politics coverage, according to Arianna Huffington, reflects only about 15 percent of the site’s traffic.

How many page views, then, does an individual blog post receive? And roughly what is it worth to The Huffington Post?

A spokesman for The Huffington Post, Mario Ruiz, said that he was unable to share numbers more specific numbers than the the ones that have been released publicly. However, there is enough data in the public domain that we can make some reasonable inferences.

I will focus this analysis, more specifically, on the politics section of the Web site. The first step in our calculation is easy. Ms. Huffington says that politics represents about 15 percent of The Huffington Post’s traffic; 15 percent of 15.6 million daily page views is 2.3 million.

Those 2.3 million page views are split between about 100 articles per day. But the distribution is highly unequal: unpaid blog posts receive much less traffic than those that The Huffington Post is paying its staff to write or curate.

No, The Huffington Post — like virtually every other Web site — does not release page view counts for individual articles. We do, however, have a reasonable proxy: the number of comments that each post receives. Articles on the site receive prodigious numbers of comments, and it is safe to assume that they are fairly strongly correlated with page views.

Early on Friday morning, I counted the number of comments in two types of Huffington Post articles — those, respectively, in its news (paid) and blog (unpaid) feeds. The count covered articles that were published over a three-day period from Tuesday, Feb. 8 through Thursday, Feb. 10, and which the site had labeled as politics pieces.

Over the course of these three days, The Huffington Post published 143 unpaid blog posts. Collectively, they received 6,084 comments, or an average of 43 per article.

By contrast, it published 161 articles in its politics news feed. Not all of these reflected original reporting, like that of Sam Stein or Howard Fineman, but they were all articles that The Huffington Post was paying for in one way or another: whether to reporters, or to editors who curate and repackage content (sometimes brushing up against fair use guidelines) generated at other Web sites, or to news wires like The Associated Press.

The articles in its politics news feed received 133,404 comments: more than 800 per article, and roughly 20 times as many as its blog posts. Some of the numbers are truly astounding — an article by Mr. Stein on proposed cuts to energy assistance programs in President Obama’s budget received almost 13,000 comments just on its own.

Overall, there were about 140,000 comments between both types of posts, which received what we estimate, based on Quantcast data, were about 7 million page views. That means that there were about 50 page views per comment. (That is a very low number, by the way; the ratio at FiveThirtyEight is at least an order of magnitude higher, but The Huffington Post cultivates comments in a way that few other sites do.)

At this 50:1 ratio, the average blog post, which received 43 comments, got about 2,150 page views. This distribution, however, was highly inequitable. The top-performing blog post — one by the former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich — had received 547 comments (tantamount to about 27,000 page views) as of Friday morning. By contrast, more than 40 percent of the blog entries received 5 comments or fewer.

This distribution reflects a classic power law relationship, with 20 percent of the blog posts accounting for about 80 percent of the comments (and, we are assuming, the traffic). The median blog post, on the other hand, received just 11 comments, which equates to only about 550 page views.

Next question: how much are those page views worth? The Huffington Post had revenues of about $30 million last year, they’ve reported, almost all of which was from display advertising. This revenue was generated on roughly 4.8 billion page views over the course of 2010, according to Quantcast data. That means the average page view was worth a little more than six-tenths of a cent, or that 1,000 page views were worth about $6.25.

Do the multiplication, and you find that the average blog post — which we estimate generated a couple thousand page views — was worth about $13 in advertising revenue. The median blog post, with several hundred views, was worth only $3 or $4. Even Mr. Reich’s strongly-performing post was worth only about $170, by our estimates.

I’d imagine there are occasional instances in which blog posts hit the jackpot and generate thousands of comments and hundreds of thousands of page views. For the most part, however, they do not move the needle very much.

But even if The Huffington Post makes relatively little money from these blog posts, could not they pay their bloggers something? Of course they could — and maybe they should. But the mechanics would get a little tricky.

If they were to pay a small flat fee, for instance, they might run into some problems with adverse selection. An amount like $10, for instance, would provide more of an incentive to people who were producing relatively low-quality posts than to someone like Mr. Reich, who could probably command several hundred dollars for a freelance article if he were so motivated. The presence of well-known writers like Mr. Reich, also — along with the armada of politicians and celebrities that blog at The Huffington Post on occasion — brings up the group average. The expected figures for a typical piece from a typical freelancer, instead, is probably closer to the group median: a few hundred page views, worth just a few bucks in advertising revenue.

The Huffington Post could instead compensate writers based on a revenue-sharing scheme; perhaps they are vulnerable to a competitor that might elect to adopt such a business model. Still, even if The Huffington Post were to lose most or all of its unpaid bloggers, this would have a fairly negligible impact on its bottom line. Those posts make up only about 4 percent of the traffic in their politics section, according to our estimate.

When I shared a version of these calculations with Mr. Ruiz, the Huffington Post spokesman, he could not confirm them to this degree of specificity. But, “I can tell you though that you’re right,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The large majority of our traffic comes from news, not blog.”

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I am not a fan of everything that The Huffington Post does, and have had a couple of disagreements with them over the years — for instance, over reproducing original photography from fivethirtyeight.com with what we felt was inadequate attribution.

The site’s decision not to pay volunteer bloggers, however, is far from unique within the industry. Many popular blogs, ranging from Daily Kos to Hot Air to Talking Points Memo, also have areas for unpaid, user-generated content (and some feature it much more prominently than The Huffington Post does). Even those that don’t let readers blog generally encourage them to leave comments, and at some sites — ranging from Marginal Revolution to Gawker to (I would hope) FiveThirtyEight — the comments are often every bit as much worth reading as the articles themselves.

Not all of those sites, granted, have recently sold for nine-figure valuations. But what about a site that has an 11-figure valuation: Facebook? Or Twitter? Or Yelp.com? These sites rely entirely on uncompensated, user-generated content — content which is valuable because of the engaging technological infrastructure that their engineers have developed around them (magnified, sometimes many times over, by network effects).

One reason that The Huffington Post gets a lot of criticism for not paying its bloggers is because most people think of it as a publishing company, when really — like Facebook — it is more of a technology company. Whether the content is paid or unpaid, the site is able to generate a comparatively large amount of revenue from it because of things like search engine optimization, and the way that its editors use their page space: a poorly-performing article will all but disappear from the site almost as soon as it is posted, while a strong one can hold its 32-point headline for hours. The Huffington Post, also, makes itself “stickier” by providing an abundance of links to other articles and to social networking tools.

It isn’t pretty — the design gives me a headache — but it’s innovative, and effective. And The Huffington Post is good enough at it that it finds it profitable to pay for a large number of Associated Press articles, which certainly do not come cheaply.

Another reason, perhaps, that the “slave ship” allegation sometimes sticks to The Huffington Post is because there is a discrepancy between the “250 million unique visitors” that Ms. Huffington pitches her bloggers on, and the much, much smaller number who have any realistic chance of encountering, yet alone reading, any given post. Their median blog post, by our estimate, gets only about 550 page views. That equates to about 1 in every 450,000 of the unique visitors that Ms. Huffington says AOL and The Huffington Post will have each month once they combine forces.

If the case that The Huffington Post were making to its bloggers were a little more frank, along the lines of the following:

Sure, we’d love for you to post here. And there’s the chance that your post could do very well. But odds are that only a few hundred people will see it, and we’ll be lucky to sell enough ads on it to afford a slice of pizza.

…there might be fewer complaints that it doesn’t pay its bloggers. But promises of a huge audience are what persuade people to blog at The Huffington Post rather than somewhere else.

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Finally, a bit of advice to bloggers and freelance writers. Having written for quite a few different publications over the years, I suspect that many of you vastly overrate the correlation between the number of visitors that the site you’re writing for receives, and the amount of traffic or attention that your post in particular will get.

I have written at various points in time, for instance, for ESPN.com (always for compensation). If the post is featured prominently, it might generate hundreds of thousands of page views. But if it is consigned to a backwater — and there are many at sites as large as The Huffington Post or ESPN — even my parents might not notice that I’d posted anything there.

I’ve also done a fair amount of uncompensated or undercompensated writing — there is certainly a time and a place for it, particularly if you’re trying to establish or re-establish your brand. But look beyond a site’s traffic numbers and consider how it presents your material and how prominently it is featured, as well as the sort of audience it is likely to attract. Being a small fish in a very, very big pond isn’t always the way to build up a name for yourself, much less to make money from it.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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