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How Forbes Stole a New York Times Article and Got All The Traffic (nickoneill.com)
247 points by cnolden on Feb 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

Here's why the Forbes blog post worked: it was short and to the (most interesting) point.

I'm sure Duhigg (the author of the NYT piece) would agree that most neuropsychology research largely shows that readers' attention spans are short and easily influenced by the first few grafs of a story.

In fact, any HN user probably has seen the phenomenon where link-bait-titled stories get hugely upvoted despite the actual body text lacking adequate corroboration.

What the NYT should do next time is have one of its army of prominent site bloggers recap the interesting facets of the story. It's a testament to Duhigg's work that there are many pieces of it that by themselves could make for captivating posts. It's up to the NYT to capitalize on it.

What the NYT should do next time is have one of its army of prominent site bloggers recap the interesting facets of the story.

That is exactly what The Economist does. Most of their writers also have blogs, and when the magazine publishes a feature piece, their bloggers add commentary and try to show how the feature is relevant to their beat. It's a great way of letting readers know that they might be interested in a story that they'd never hear of otherwise.

In this case, perhaps the New York Times' political reporters could go into how this sort of behavioral analysis could be used by political campaigns to market their candidates.

(1) I object to the use of the term "stole" - there is no indication that the Forbes blogger did anything unethical. She gave links and full attribution to the NYT article and therefore helped to promote it. YES, the quotes from it are more extensive and lengthy than you would normally see but on the other hand it IS a NINE page article so I am pretty sure the excerpts still falls under Fair Use.

(2) The article in question is a feature article in the NYT Sunday magazine which is where they put the long in-depth articles which took months to investigate. These are meant to be Pulitzer Prize level pieces that will get people talking and make a big splash in the news cycle. This explains both the length and the title. There is NO WAY the NYT Sunday Magazine is going to lead with a sensationalist headline like “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.“ That smacks of The National Enquirer or something. The title they actually used (“How Companies Learn Your Secrets“) is not THAT bad either - it got me to click on it when I saw it.

(3) Most importantly, I don't see how Facebook Likes can be the sole metric of an article's "success." This weeks NYT Sunday Magazine is just officially coming out today. This is a front page article. Lots of people are going to be reading,talking and emailing it all week. And when they do they are going to send the link to the source and NYT will get the credit.

(4) Lastly, - no evidence is given that the TITLE was the SOLE reason why the Forbes post went viral. It is an interesting topic and the Forbes blogger adequately summarized it, making the post very "shareable." The promotion and SEO strategies of Forbes may also have helped.

So in summary the Forbes blog and the NYT magazine are very different types of publications and it looks like they both succeeded in what they were trying to do.

The Forbes "article" would have qualified as blogspam in every community I've been in. Giving proper attribution and linkback is a necessary but insufficient requirement.

The question is: how much did Forbes add to the original content to warrant a clickthrough? If nothing of value was added, then Forbes is just jacking clicks.

This is something many subreddits have had to deal with - the many, may spam blogs that simply aggregate links (even if properly attributed) without providing anything of additional value. In the subreddits I frequent we've started banning these, maybe the Internet as a whole should also.

It's amazing how prevalent it is these days to click on a link to read a tiny pithy excerpt of a fuller article. Click on that only to realize that it is also scraped content with no additional value or commentary. You have to get 5-7 clicks in just to find the original, interesting source that actually did any work.

"how much did Forbes add to the original content to warrant a clickthrough? "

Forbes filtered the article and presented the most enticing part.

Filtering/curation is of enormous value - on the web and in app stores. It's ironic that you post this on a news aggregator site. The corresponding (but perhaps more obviously absurd) argument is what value does Hacker News (or Reddit) add to these stories that HN/Reddit deserve your page views? Just visit all the target sites yourself! Skip the middleman.

"The question is: how much did Forbes add to the original content to warrant a clickthrough? If nothing of value was added, then Forbes is just jacking clicks."

I think a better question is whether or not the Forbes article actually took clicks away from the NYT article. I doubt it actually did. If anything the NYT article probably got more clicks than it would have gotten otherwise. Yeah, it sucks that the person who did all the work isn't the one who got the credit, but it's hard to see how they're worse off for the Forbes piece.

I read the Forbes article and shared it amongst friends.

I wasn't even aware it was originally a NYT piece; I thought it was original to Forbes.

If you find yourself paginating your summary, you're definitely acting in bad faith.

Forbes article was great and there is a link to the source. I tried to read NYT article, but it was too long. NYT articles in general are full of the fluff.

(4) ... all the required elements for attracting attention are there:

  teen girl
It is true that the title would smack of a national enquirer post than NYT. However, NYT probably could have their own bloggers crafting juicer headlines and summaries that lead to the main article.

This illustrates the business model NYT is pursuing. The NYT simply cannot put out an article with a headline like that. They would lose subscribers. People who subscribe to the NYT expect a higher level of discourse than "Target knows you're pregnant". Interestingly, Forbes pursues a dual strategy. I doubt they would publish a title like that in their magazine. On the web though, they might as well be The New York Post.

Disagree. Forbes now print comments in the magazine. It's awful. I unsubscribed.

When you've paid your $2 for the Times, you've committed to the paper, and you have a big broadsheet (although smaller than it was), so you can scan a lot of complex headlines and ledes pretty efficiently.

When you're online, every other website is competing for your time and attention, screen real estate is limited, and good chance you're using an aggregator like HN, reddit etc.

Online, publishers have to go for linkbait Twitter headlines. If the Times doesn't find a way to do it, this is what will happen, and everyone will read their stuff via Huffington Post or Business Insider.

The Daily Mail (UK) has a similar approach. Their site is the most popular newspaper site globally and while it shares content with its print edition, the site focuses hard on mass market and celebrity stories. The print edition, on the other hand, is IMHO mostly "immigrants are evil" and Fox News-style scaremongering that its retired, middle Englander audience relishes.

The Guardian is almost as bad. When I loaded their page just now, the top story in the sidebar was also celebrity news:


I think it's clear this kind of "news" plays across all age groups and classes, not simply "middle Englanders." Even wealthy elites have their forms of lowbrow entertainment. If the goal is to get readers to click on ads, scantily-clad women work wonders.

Its London Fashion Week which is why that story got a lead - and Stela Macartney frocks are way out of the "middle england " price bracket.

Why do you think it strange that a rare example of the UK actually making stuff is featured?

I don't think it's strange. I'm suggesting the opposite: it's normal across most newspaper websites in every Western country. The parent was making the claim that only certain classes respond to this kind of marketing.

No, I said the Mail's Web site is general and mass market ("the site focuses hard on mass market and celebrity stories"). It was their paper I said focuses on middle Englanders :-)

"Forbes pursues a dual strategy"

not convinced forbes is capable of a higher level of discourse

Let's see... the NYT article was the cover story for the New York Times magazine, a high-quality long form read with a circulation of 1,623,697/week [wikipedia]. The high quality of these long form articles are one reasons why people pay to read the Times. Presumably, the Forbes post will not be in print.

The NYtimes.com has 16.3m monthly US visits, Forbes has 10.5m. [Compete] The NYT article has 435 comments (sign of high engagement) v. Forbes' 155.

I'm not sure how he pulled the total FB share data for the NYT article - they don't display that sharing information in the same way Forbes does.

In short, despite the validity of Nick O'Neil's main point - that a more descriptive title and a synoptic treatment can travel well - his rhetoric is more than a little overblown. Details matter, and what the Times article includes is deep context, originality, and above all, diligence.

As far as a regurgitative blog post making anyone's career... ha, I guess? Only if you want your career to be limited to that activity. The Forbes writer knows it - that's why she includes 6(!) links to the original article, as well as a plug of the original writer's upcoming book. Careers are built on respect, and the most valuable quality a writer or article can have is credibility. Otherwise, it's rubbish, no matter how many people buy it.

And, ultimately, the people who you want to respect you will know you make rubbish.

Oh man -- he got the title of the magazine wrong! It's Forbes, not Fortune.

Anybody care to edit the title of the HN submission for accuracy?

TFA has the title wrong as well - changing the title on HN won't really change much.

Fairly ironic given the content of the article!

Lol, I'll fix it ... sorry about that :)

Edited the HN submission, the permalink tricked me too for a sec

The title was better for Forbes, but the article length was more relevant I think. Forbes article was two short pages while the NY Times was 7 long pages. I have half a dozen long NY Times articles bookmarked to read later. I don't know if I'll ever get around to it.

Thinking about it - in last couple of months I've done this with every long article I've come across. My Instapaper has a week of reading.

If anything, the Forbes reblog shows how oversensationalized media is expected to be. Even in academia and many peer-reviewed journals, there is a shift towards witty or funny titles in the form of "attention grabber: what this paper really is about". The colon is an imperative. I give an example: "Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn". You can find these examples all throughout peer-reviewed journals and books -- this one came from a textbook: A companion to Asian American studies, published by Wiley.

Even academics need to grab attention, too, and it's part of the product of the information economy (where there is a surplus of information) and a scarcity of time (i.e, attention).

I don't see how Forbes "stole" the New York Times article. If anything they helped drive traffic to it, anyone interested in reading the 9 page article will do it. The 9 page NYT article itself was based off a 400 page book that is about to be released. The NYT article isn't stealing the book, anyone interested in reading 400 pages on the subject will. The NYT has a blog about news articles (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/), if they wanted to blog about their own article they could have.

There are good reasons to have the same information published with different levels of detail, they target different people, and can help lead people who are interested into reading the more detailed versions. For example the NYT wrote a 2 page article entitled "Flaw Found in an Online Encryption Method," which was based on a 17 page research paper. The NYT didn't steal the research paper. I personally think the NYT article on encryption was a scare story lacking in almost all technical detail, but it helped publicize research so people interested in the subject could read the full paper.

Personally, I tried to share the original NYT article, but it was behind a registration-wall so I shared the Forbes one instead.

One of my Philosophy professors was extremely adamant about paper titles as he argued that a paper will be read only if it has a clever or thought provoking title. After each assignment we critically reviewed all class paper titles while he provided feedback.

Tangential, but lede is an interesting word and I always thought it was just "lead". http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lede Example: In the era of Linotype and hard copy, an editor might rework a paragraph (or graf) in a story, circle it and give instructions to composing to have it moved to the top by using the word "lede." If the editor wrote "lead," the typographer might think the editor simply wanted "leading" or spacing inserted.

It's definitely relevant here on HN -- a good article with a bad title probably won't go anywhere. A good article with a great title will stay on the front page for hours.

That's the main downside to HN's "don't rename the article" policy I think; it keeps people from editorializing the submissions, but favors submissions from publications that already chose more linkbaity titles to begin with.

Also perhaps a downside of not having Slashdot-style summaries, in that it encourages blogspam. If I find an interesting academic paper that I think HN might like, just submitting it by itself rarely goes anywhere, because there isn't space to explain why I think it's of interest to HN. Oddly enough it actually stands a better chance on Reddit, because you have about one sentence worth of space in the submission title to explain it. On HN, it's better if you reblog the paper with a one- or two-paragraph blurb, catchy title, and then submit that instead of the original paper. People will then complain that you submitted blogspam instead of the original, but most of the time they'll upvote it more than they would've upvoted the original despite the complaints.

HN's "don't rename the article" policy

The guidelines state:

You can make up a new title if you want, but if you put gratuitous editorial spin on it, the editors may rewrite it.

I frequently write better headlines for items I submit to HN and they are not often changed by the editors.

You left out the worst part; a hyperbolic title will stay on the front page for day or two.

I would like it if HN included a short description field, so that I'm not clicking articles with opaque linkbaity titles like "Stop fucking coding", and "You're killing yourself".

How Nick O'Neill Stole An Article Forbes Stole From The New York Times And Got All The Traffic

Are Forbes writers paid per post/traffic like Gawker writers are? I can only imagine this is the incentive that lead to this kind of crap.

According to Forbes' managing editor, their bloggers are paid a flat rate for a minimum number of posts and comments, but that yes, they are given incentives for monthly uniques and repeat traffic:


I'd be curious to know how much views are accounted for in writers' compensation too. I would hope the editors of more reputable resources like Forbes have more sense than that.

I asked the Forbes blogger about the rules, if any, that govern repurposing content from other publications.

No reply: https://twitter.com/ryandeussing/status/170337298695720960

I think there's a Cold War of plagiarism suits the way everyone and their dog seem to be copying from each other. That must be the only reason the NYT aren't throwing a fit - I know I would, if someone did that to my blog articles.

It seemed particularly bad to plagiarize a feature article like that, though.

I wasn't confident that Forbes benefited more from the article than the NYT which is why I looked up the Likes myself as that was the most unbalanced comparison metric, and just didn't seem correct. After the look-up, the Likes are close in number (I prompted the update), and the comments on the NYT are greater.

Forbes lists the page views, but it's a metric against nothing as the Times does not.

There's some pretty heavy quoting in the Forbes post (9 paragraphs from the NYT), but it's all sourced, linked and even encouraged to be clicked-through to.

While Forbes did well with the post, I'm not convinced they did any better than the Times (on the web) with it.

The NYT has a registration wall that seems to pop up at random. At the moment with FF I can't get through unless I had r_=1 to the article url, but with Chrome it's not there at all. Strange...

Shows who is more interested in intellectually stimulative journalism (honestly, I found that tidbit a honeypot -- other parts of the article are far more interesting)

The NYT article was also several different themes, somewhat related to each other, put together. The Forbes re-blog stuck to the one most link-bait theme.

This can't be the NYTimes first brush with this business model, it powers every major blog these days since The AOL Way leaked and everyone outside of AOL realized they were doing it wrong.

Engadget have tags for "New York Times", "NewYorkTimes", "NYTimes", "NYT", "The New York Times" and "TheNewYorkTimes" for the articles they hijack.

Can 600k page views really make a writers career? Is that how they measure success in online writing?

Hasn't pageviews, online or print, always been the metric by which writers have been held to? I'm sure even the best journalists are pushed to write about stories their editors think people want to read. At the end of the day, the number of views/eyeballs you get, the more you can charge for advertising and the longer your business stays afloat.

I liked the NYT article a lot more. I'd rather read one article for 10 minutes than 10 articles in the same amount of time.

In the end, I think the market agrees: people pay real money to read the New York Times, but nobody pays real money to read Forbes blogs.

Also, while I would theoretically be interested in the NYT version, it is 9 pages long. So it sits in my "to be read" tab indefinitely. The Forbes article was doable in a short time frame.

With so much on the line, you'd think NYT would A/B test article titles. Anyone know if this is done with modern journalism? Is is feasible?

[from business perspective] The news cycle, attention span, and ability for anyone anywhere to blog/twitter about topic and "steal" your traffic. Makes breaking news and reaching crit-mass attention now! Makes A/B unrealistic and not worth the investment. Even on "static" items like this researched article you see how they failed to be firstest with the mostest and lost the traffic.

[from journalistic perspective] They A/B "test" at the journalist level. They hire several, the ones that write popular / prize winning articles are kept, the others get downsized.

We considered this with NewsTilt, but never got far enough along to actually try it. The aim wasn't actually A/B testing them, but to use machine learning to predict how well the article would do given certain criteria: title, what time of day it was released, etc, to allow journalists to tweak those criteria. I think that was actually PG's idea.

Of course. It drives HuffPo's success.

With this sensationalist headline, the article is a case in point.

Forbes got my traffic because they didn't require me to register, log in, pay them money, or whatever it was that NYT was trying to get me to do instead of just showing me the damn article.

It should be free to read, because it was free to write, right?

Nowhere did I say I thought it should be free to read. What I am saying is that if there's some barrier to overcome before I can read a news article, I am very probably not going to read it. Especially when there's another article on the same subject, or even summarising the very article I am trying to read, which does not put any barriers in my way.

I've got 40-odd news articles in my feed reader waiting for my attention. I'm just not going to spend 5 minutes figuring out how to read any particular article. That doesn't scale and I'll miss out on a whole bunch of the other 39, some of which are probably at least as interesting as the article with the barrier I've got to get past.

I'm not averse to paying for content. I'm seriously considering getting a subscription to LWN.net just so I can read the paid articles a week earlier than I do now. But that's because LWN has proven over a period of many months to have a consistently high quality of reporting, and I find a huge majority of the articles interesting. I'm not sure about NYT's quality of reporting, but even if it were uniformly excellent I'm fairly sure it would contain a lot of articles I frankly don't care about, so I'd still be paying money to sort signal from chaff myself.

The NYT's article has nine (9!) pages. Are they looking for page views or what.

Forbes' article is one page.

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