Go ahead. Say it. Importance is subjective. Well, exactly.
The following list details the 100 online publishers we deem most important right now in order of significance. What goes into this editorial judgment? you ask. Of course you do.
We factor in traffic data, though we don't base our assessment on only that. We consider prestige, share of voice, content quality, overall design and UX, innovation and, well, importance. We could get into complicated formulas here (as we have in the past) and be accused of being wonkish numbers crunchers (as we have in the past), but it's really just this simple: If you don't like it, make your own list.
#1 The New York Times
Somebody has got to set the tone. And, apparently, it can be a thankless task. The New York Times may have become the poster child for print publishers challenged by the economic shift from analog to digital publishing, but in an ironic twist, it also is becoming more contextually relevant than ever before. As the sea of content published online expands and fragments, the NYTimes.com stands out as the standard bearer of quality journalism, informing its readers and feeding countless derivative reports throughout the blogosphere. It's also found ways to present content in new ways online, such as the election-day infograph that kept many transfixed last November. The Times may be struggling with its business model, but it remains the model for the Fourth Estate -- in print, online, or anywhere else.
Google may stand for just the opposite of what The New York Times does in regards to online publishing. When it comes to Google News and other tools, it doesn't tell us what we should be reading, but rather what we are reading. And in many ways, it is the wolf at legacy publishing's door.
But there is one place where Google aggregates a truly mass audience, and in that place its editors tell us what they think is important that day or week. That place is the Google.com homepage, where Google Doodles display.
Google may be known best for organizing the world's information, but the search engine, on occasion, is known to create some, too -- six characters at a time. And while it doesn't do so all that often, when Google turns its trademark logo into content, it can have a profound effect, reminding the world's information users about some important holiday, milestone or anniversary, or maybe just the birthday of a beloved scientist like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Google has proven that a doodle sometimes can be worth millions of hits. Whether it is a week-long takeover featuring a different "Sesame Street" character to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the long-running public television series. Or whether it is turning its logo over to user-generated renditions created via its periodic Doodle competitions, Google proves that you don't have to publish a lot of content to convey a lot of meaning. It all began in 2000, when Google Webmaster Dennis Hwang, then a company intern, began celebrating various global events and holidays with crude doodle iterations of the Google logo. Recently, Google added applications functionality to its commemorative logo publishing, marking the May 21, 2010 30th anniversary of the Pac-Man video game with a playable Pac-Man version of its logo, which could be played directly from a Web browser.
Besides the content Google frames for users on its home page, it's a powerful contextualizer of news and other Web content. Previously, part of OMMA's definition of an online publisher was that it employed editors. In the case of Google News, the algorithms play the role of editor. For instance, a robo-editor created a package as a lead story about the BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, pulling a headline and blurb from a Wall Street Journal story and adding an in-page video of the underwater saw malfunctioning from Google's YouTube. And the story got there in the first place through an analysis of Web activity that found the story to be topical, newsworthy, and important. The page then displays that content amongst other relevant content giving a quick impression of the news of the day at a glance, and allows more depth with a few clicks.
More advanced developments from Google Labs, such as Spotlight, provide even more sophisticated editorial functions. Spotlight, much more than just a repository of most-popular features, according to Google Labs, indexes "in-depth pieces of lasting value." The algorithm resurfaces stories that it deems have "enduring appeal," slowing down the news cycle in which stories that take more than a glance to comprehend end up getting skipped, and by surveying online activity, find stories a reader might have missed, but may want to read.
Sounds like something an editor would do.
In fact, the original stated editorial goal of Henry Luce when he created Time magazine was to provide the busy modern reader with a news weekly that aggregated (though of course with original writing) all the week's important news in short, easily digestible blurbs. In an age when information can overwhelm, and content has been dethroned by clutter, through innovation the engineers at Google are contextualizing news in the 21st century in much the way Luce did in the 20th.
If Jimmy Wales's social experiment Wikipedia did only one thing, it proved that people could collaboratively produce valuable content. Of course, it did, and continues to do, much more. Wikimedia's for-profit counterpart Wikia (whose biggest hit so far has been the mind-bogglingly exhaustive Lostpedia) expands the concept with a consumer publishing platform.
#4 The Wall Street Journal
Murdoch and Co. are the only newspaper publisher that has figured out how to make money online (though, perhaps, they are the only newspaper publisher which is in anything like a tenable position to do so).
#5 Demand Media
The publisher of eHow (which gets 50 million visitors a month), Livestrong, Cracked, Trails.com and others populates its sites efficiently with the help of a crowdsourcing mechanical assignment desk. Headlines are generated algorithmically to generate the maximum traffic. Stories then go through an editorial process that wouldn't be unfamiliar to anyone who ever worked a slot desk -- though it's all been automated.
#6 Madison Avenue
The role of the publisher has always been to provide audiences for advertisers via content. The content is created, but the end is the audience. How about circumventing the content entirely? One of the most significant revolutions involving Web publishing has not taken place in a way that any Web user might necessarily detect. It has been going on behind the scenes as a myriad of third-party intermediaries have begun leveraging Web technologies to parse and re-parse both the audiences and the content generated by first-party publishers. It didn't take Madison Avenue long to catch up to the game and figure out a way to leverage it on behalf of online advertisers - profiling, buying and targeting their ad messages to users instead of the traditional approach of buying content adjacencies. Havas' Adnetik likely was the first in this game, but it was Interpublic's Cadreon that has taken the concept of "demand-side platforms" to new heights, establishing a business proposition of "buying audiences instead of media," and developing an infrastructure that eventually will enable Interpublic agencies to do the same thing with addressable TV advertising systems.
If you wanted make an argument for building search-friendly content, this would be exhibit A.
While gimmicks like iReport might tie the online and television news products together and Rick Sanchez's tweeting can be annoying, you have to hand it to something called the Cable News Network that is still as much of a cultural touchstone online as it was on cable when Ted Turner still ran it.
After swallowing up BussinessWeek Bloomie's juggernaut has only increased its velocity and relevance.
The most-read newspaper in America may be outside every hotel room, but it's also on a whole lot of laptops and, increasingly -- with a suite of apps -- mobile devices.
#11 Washington Post
If Washington Post Digital was only the online home of the broadsheet from which it gets its name, it would be significant, but its stable includes Newsweek and Slate (which got its start on MSN).
Arianna Huffington's "Internet newspaper" continues to grow in leaps and bounds, far outstripping its initial political blogginess. No more is it the liberal Drudge Report, but instead it's a veritable, if unfocused, traffic machine. It also continues to develop and iterate by experimenting with distributed content (developing topical widgets) and social media (such as its new Twitter editions, which cull content from the microblogging service).
Recruiting top columnists and talent was a good start. Creating compelling interactive game-day content and adding video and vibrant fan communities helped. Coming up with an iPad app that pulled it all together is the go-ahead run in sports publishing.
#14 CS Monitor
Stopping your 100-year-old presses, saying it's inevitable, and making the move from print daily to online daily is one thing. Sure it's brave. But making it work makes you a trailblazer.
Yahoo has maintained an unsplashy sort of consistency as a publisher. While it amasses tremendous amounts of traffic, its content has always been about the equivalent of muzak in a chain restaurant. In May it purchased content farming company Associated Content for a reported $100 million, and seems to have every intention of integrating the model into its own. This could get interesting.
Whether anybody bothers with its check-in service or not, Yelp still has an impressive footprint.
Fairchild, which operates WWD.com is technically a division of Condé Nast, but we won't hold that against them. W, its glossy sister mag has not been so lucky, and was spun off this year on its own into Condé's consumer mag division. WWD has soldiered on, and not long after a snazzy redesign, the leading fashion industry voice online erected its very own velvet rope -- a pay wall. It will be a bellwether to watch.
The fading grande dame of social media is still publishing plenty of original entertainment content, still a force with MySpace Music and is still a favorite homepage takeover target for reaching 12-24 year olds.
#19 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
#20 Web MD
With its iPad app Disney's Marvel division has lead the way onto tablet devices -- not just for comics publishers, but for all publishers. Sure there has been plenty of talk about what tablets can do to save print, but when Marvel debuted its app, the chatter actually turned into wondering what print can do to show just how good tablets can be. The dynamic reading interface Marvel used adapted the reader experience to the device in a way that neither forgot what was best about the print books nor wasted the capabilities of the tablet. Then, with a built-in store, it provided the content to back it up.
If digital magazines are the wave of the future, Zinio is positioned strategically to benefit from the craze for ereaders. Since it's compatible with everything, it could wind up being the standard. Also, they are clever for figuring out how to do the fun, full-of-potential part (publishing digital editions of magazines) without having to carry the burden of the dying legacy print products. In addition to creating digital editions for other publications, they have their own publication targeting high-income ladies, Viv magazine, which is neat-o.
In the spirit of Time magazine's infamous "You" person of the year cover, we are going to go out on a limb here and say, that for many of you, the best editor is probably you. Instapaper is really just a technology that allows you to save anything you want to read online in one place until you have the time to read it. And it lets you read it anywhere, even offline later on your mobile device.
Michael Wolff quickly built himself a contender in the HuffPo aggregation model. He's made no friends, particularly with the New York Times, but making friends has never been his strong suit. In addition to a massive aggregation engine, the site boasts sharp and provocative commentary columnists (particularly Wolff) and some headline writers who'd do the New York Post proud.
Condé Nast's precocious youngster has always been a trendsetter. In the mid '90s it pioneered online publishing with HotWired, which set the standard for publishing in a browser. And it's at it again with the "savior of print." The iPad version Wired has produced is way more like a digital magazine than Web content, and -- again -- setting the standard for what a digital publication can be.
#27 Condé Nast Digital
#28 Gilt Groupe
Private shopping network Gilt Groupe, and especially its newest offering Jetsetter, is an ecommerce platform that is run like a lifestyle publication. Or is it a lifestyle publication that is run like an ecommerce platform?
#29 American Express
In the last year New York magazine has expanded its online coverage into Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco. It might just have to change its URL.
#31 Food Network
Esquire continues to create interesting and unique content for the Web (and we don't just mean those "Women We Love" slide shows) and occasionally, as with last year's AR issue, that content will relate back to the magazine in meaningful ways. After months of speculation, Hearst finally sealed the deal on its acquisition of digital marketing company iCrossing, and is said to have paid $250 million for the search-marketing specialist.
Look no further than the depressing widget Newshour created and the video feed it adapted to keep the public informed about the BP Gulf oil spill disaster and you'll see why Public Broadcasting still matters online.
#38 Associated Press
The Publish2 News Exchange represents an open challenge to the AP, by allowing publishers to create customized content-sharing networks of varying size, with members agreeing to syndicate content for mutual benefit. CEO Scott Karp made this threat clear with his description of Publish2 as a platform "aimed at disrupting the Associated Press monopoly over content distribution to newspapers." Using Publish2, publishers can create their own news wires and distribute content directly to the print edition of any newspaper (provided it's also a member of the Exchange). Publish2 expedites the process by handling the logistics of file transfers, graphics and tailored story formatting. It can also automatically import syndicated digital content to the print editions of newspapers. The network is scalable, meaning that publishers can create networks with as many members as they like - from hyper-local content clubs with just a few members to consortia that are national in scale. When it launched this May, the Publish2 News Exchange included newswires created by TechCrunch, Engadget, Politics Daily, Daily Finance, AOL Small Business and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.
#41 The Weather Channel
The brand is seeking to reinvent itself as a content company, and even created its own Demand Media-style content farm, cheekily dubbed Seed.
#44 The Daily Beast
Because, while Arianna Huffington may have created an "Internet Newspaper," Tina Brown created an elegant magazine online. It also stands apart from its IAC brethren, and has created its own publishing ecosystem with the vertical Beasts (including Hungry Beast and Art Beast). As well, Brown came up with an intriguing plan to publish timely books across multiple platforms. On paper even.
It's the home of CityGrid (né CitySearch) and College Humor for starters (and of course, the aforementioned Daily Beast), but Barry Diller has got his fingers in an awful lot of other sockets, not least of which is the next-gen production studio headed by Ben Silverman, which may start to make some waves this year.
Its significance as a portal and a social media presence is undeniable. Its significance as a publisher, however, is. Still, many established online publishers are using Facebook effectively as a publishing platform. And who's to say that your niece living in Australia documenting every facet of her life isn't a publisher? Well, we just did.
In the hyper-local news racket since way back.
All-in on the hyper local scene, it's literally got your block covered.
With the flashiest toys, might be the most intriguing player in the hyper-local news game.
#52 Whiskey Media
The publisher of community-contributed but editorially controlled niche content sites Giant Bomb, Comic Vine, Anime Vice, Tested and Screened has found ingenious ways of turning content creation into a sort of form of social gaming. Founder Shelby Bonnie likes to say that their system "amplifies" the skills of their professional editors, making them capable of turning a community of enthusiasts into content creators and contributors. They've also found genuine, transparent and honest ways of integrating brands and advertisers that provide viable alternatives to display ad buys.
Again, like Facebook, Twitter has proven immensely useful at driving traffic to publisher sites. And, it's also proven a valuable first-person reportage platform.
Rodale, publisher of Men's Health, Women's Health, Bicycling, and a slew of other (largely formulaic) titles, might have some traffic in traditional online publishing, but its iPhone, and now iPad, apps have proven monstrously successful. And even occasionallymonstrously useful. If nothing else, the publisher is adapting its franchise products and staking a strong claim with content and lifestyle apps.
#56 Consumer Reports
#57 Fox News
Talk about thinking globally and acting locally. NPR has more foreign bureaus than ABC, CBS and NBC feeding its more than 800 local affiliates, but anyone from anywhere with Internet access can listen to their reports. In addition to catching up on the news, they can also listen to live music recorded in NPR's studios, read blogs and commentary, download podcasts, or buy products, the proceeds from which go to supporting it all.
#61 The Drudge Report
The Chronicle (which publishes at SFGate) began publishing online in 1983. And still going strong.
The acquisition of Rotten Tomatoes made Flixster a two-sport athlete: an ecommerce engine with editorial purview and community reviewers.
If investigative journalism is a dying art, Wikileaks might keep it on life support for a while. The site vets and publishes otherwise secret or confidential documents, but, allegedly founded by Chinese dissidents, takes its mission much more seriously than, say, The Smoking Gun. The site has broken stories on procedures at Guantanamo Bay and a U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed two Reuters photographers.
The flavor of the moment in the flavor-of-the-moment biz, AOL's multimedia gossip-monger seems to have every EMT in Los Angeles on its payroll. [Correction: TMZ is wholly owned and operated by Warner Bros.'s Telepictures. Though TMZ continued to be featured on AOL's home page for some time thereafter, Warner Bros. took control of the gossip site when it spun off AOL late in 2009.]
#69 Glam Media
#71 Break media
Six Apart, creator of the Moveable Type platform, wields its Typepad blogger service like a publishing network, offering client campaigns that bloggers integrate in genuine ways. Its track record, such as the custom campaign it did for Avatar, is pretty good. In May, the company bowed Typepad Conversations, a tool aimed a launching discussions for marketers across its member bloggers.
This consortium of hip-hop and R&B artists was started by Questlove of the Roots years ago, when he first came to the realization that they could have much more clout together as publisher and community than any one of them would on a single-artist promotional site.
#76 Observer Media
#77 Al Jazzeera
#78 South Park Studios
With no direct affiliation with Comedy Central, the home of Kyle, Stan and Cartman provides content experiences stretching far beyond playing the latest episodes and greatest hits.
#80 NBC Local
#83 Journalism Online
Steven Brill's pay-per-play baby is still gestating, but give it time.
Their endgame may be nefarious, but few would argue that malvertisers aren't also ingenious in their use of online publishing as a means for disseminating their code. They've mimicked mainstream marketers and impersonated advertising agency media buyers to place "direct" buys on premium publisher sites ranging from The New York Times to Focus News and Gawker. They've also launched redirects to pages (full of aggregated content designed to draw search hits) that essentially infect unwary visitors with malicious code. They may be the most detestable part of our business, but give them credit for innovation, and for forcing the ad ops departments of legitimate publishers to innovate their business practices -- if only to keep up with the bad guys.
#87 Sugar Media
#89 National Geographic
#90 U.S. News and World Report
#91 LA Times
#93 The Wrap
Sharon Waxman's Tinsletown blog has managed to disintermediate some of the industry heavy-hitters like Variety and Hollywood Reporter in the short time it's been around, breaking major stories such as Comcast-NBC Universal deal and quickly creating a name for itself.
#95 Edible Communities
The online hubs of loosely affiliated regional print mags have mobilized the Slow
Food movement in truly inspiring ways.
Not nearly as important (even in a bad way) as people think. There was a great deal of noise made over the fact that Newsday, a second-tier newspaper in New York, erected a pay wall, and much snickering when the paper announced in January that it had sold only 35 online subscriptions. However, selling online subscriptions was always besides the point. Access is free to any subscriber of the print paper and customers of parent company Cablevision. The pay wall was merely a tool to drive cable hook ups.
Acquired this spring by fellow hyper-local publisher Examiner.com, NowPublic is in a transitional stage, but its most exciting technology, the Scan Tool, which creates an infinite amount of newsworthy topical widgets based on various elements of the real-time Web and can be syndicated, remains tantalizing.
#98 Air Show Buzz
If you want to experience the next generation of Web-based publishing, you won't find it on Yahoo, ESPN or TheHuffingtonPost. You'll need to check out the improbable publishing destination of Air Show Buzz, a Web site catering to aeronautical enthusiasts. ASB.TV is the first site to utilize Black Box, a new application that transforms conventional Web publishing into a dynamic, multiplatform content experience that is more akin to advanced interactive TV systems than it is to conventional online publishing. Developed by Kurt Kratchman, a technology and design-minded aeronautical buff who previously was chief strategy officer of Schematic, the interactive design agency that has since been acquired by WPP Group, Black Box may be a prototype for Web 4.0 publishing.
A fortuitous horizontal visual navigation interface makes this women's luxury site especially iPad-friendly. Backing from MSN, BermanBraun and Hachette Filipacchi (executive editor Anne Weintraub previously served as online director for Elle magazine) make it viable.