Make no mistake: Lydia Polgreen understands she has her work cut out for her. Named The Huffington Post’s editor-in-chief in December, Polgreen brings to the job an enviable reputation as a journalist, as a colleague, and as someone who cares passionately about the issues of our time.
At 41, she left a 15-year career at The New York Times to become only the second editor of a publication that can seem a bit of a puzzle in 2017. In replacing eponymous founding editor Arianna Huffington, she takes over a big global news organization of 600 that’s won a huge U.S. and international audience over the years. But at 12 years old, it feels like the older, less-hip relative of the BuzzFeeds, Voxes, Business Insiders, and Mics. And it has a bit of a reputation; as John Oliver extolled the craft of journalism last year, he knew his audience would get the jab he threw at The Huffington Post. Clearly, as it has struggled with both its raison d’être and audience growth, the site demanded an update.
Phase One of that updating launches today. The Huffington Post — now renamed HuffPost — gets a new look, which Shan Wang explains in more depth here. It’s a modernization that looks sharper; the scowls of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are more reigned in and better packaged. What’s most compelling, though, is what’s to come, and the rebranding/redesign doesn’t tell us much about that thinking.
As I’ve talked with Lydia Polgreen over the last two weeks, it’s that next stage that’s most intriguing. To that extent, this redesign, as necessary as it is, serves mostly as a platform for her vision of journalism.
Many of the news stories about her appointment focused on her individual identity: “Huffington Post welcomes Lydia Polgreen, a queer woman of color, as their new editor-in-chief!” Yet this granddaughter of an Ethiopian farmer seems much more interested in whatever it is that’s so badly dividing the country. She’s all about reaching out, journalistically, and that will make the next iteration of The Huffington Post essential to watch.
In our talks over the last couple of weeks, combined and lightly edited here for clarity, we focused on her evolving editorial vision and that hope to transcend divisions. Is it blue and red? Is it have and have not? Is it something more culturally deep that’s seemingly split the U.S?
A globalist — last year helping lead its Spanish-language edition and setting the stage for more international Times launches — she values the 17 outposts that HuffPost has set up around the world. Her big opportunity: creating more journalistic collaboration between staffs worldwide.
Though long a Top 10 website in traffic, The Huffington Post has slowed down a bit, as we’ve seen the revenge of the legacies, especially the Times and The Washington Post over the last two years. HuffPost ranks seventh in overall audience, having lost more than 30 million monthly unique users over the past two years. It now reaches 89 million a month in the U.S., according to comScore. More than half of its total audience is international, Huffington Post says.
As she re-revs that engine, she’ll do so within the friendly confines of a distinctly un-journalistic owner. Verizon, striving mightily to be a “content company” as competitors like Comcast bulk up, has now made two medium-sized bets. First, it bought AOL/HuffPost two years ago. It hopes to close, finally, on its Yahoo acquisition in June. And it’s brought the two together in an oddly named new division, Oath. On one hand, Verizon does provide deep pockets and an earnest attempt to understand a business it has no legacy in. On the other, in short: It’s not The New York Times, where journalism is in the DNA.
Further, as the Times and the Post, once widely derided as the old dreaded MSM (remember that?) have become much more in-your-face with their reporting and presentation, HuffPost must restate for its readers what it now offers differently than others.
Even as Verizon was buying AOL, the fit of a lefty site — founded in 2005 as an antidote to Fox News, launched after George W. Bush had won re-election — in a telco seemed strange. Now we’re not sure what kind of Oath Verizon is taking or making. Against all that background, Polgreen seems greatly energized by the challenge.
Polgreen: Oh, absolutely. I would disagree that we’re predictable — I think that we always have something surprising and fun and interesting, and we cover a whole range of different things.
But I talk quite a bit about how I feel that we’re living in this profoundly non-ideological moment, where the old sort of categories of red and blue feel inadequate to capture the polarization. We’re really living in a time of haves and have-nots. Or have-some and have-nots. If you think of left-right as being an x-axis, I’m much more interested in what’s going on in the haves-to-have-nots y-axis.
Polgreen: So on that y-axis, up here you’ve got the Times, Wall Street Journal, the FT — you’ve got a bunch of really great quality players, right? Who are charging consumers money directly to have access to their great content.
What’s happening to these organizations though — we always thought that the big risk in journalism was that our content would be overly influenced by advertisers. And that was going to be fundamentally corrupting. There’s another risk that I think many of us, including myself, did not anticipate, which is that as you focus on reader revenue, you start to think and build your product for…
Polgreen: I think that they were…but, I think that part of the old model was mass. It was still those 1.5 million people, but you needed to appeal to a broad spectrum. And you also were dealing with a country that was much less unequal, right? The spread of people who would be in the category of paying $175, or however much it was, for a subscription for The New York Times was much less broad.
So now go down to the other end of the y-axis, right. You have a mix of players, right? There’s free digital — and that varies widely in quality, right? And then you have the stuff you get by paying for cable, because almost everybody pays for cable. So you get CNN, you get Fox, you get MSNBC. And you also have talk radio. So this is the media ecosystem for the have-nots, right?
Polgreen: And the haves, yeah. Right, everybody’s here. Talk radio maybe not so much.
So I see us as playing down here in this space and having a really really important role to play in increasing the quality. The thing that we are replacing that was down here, that kind of no longer exists, is the tabloid.
But I want to go back — I want to go to that point in a minute. There’s another line. This is like four-dimensional chess, right? We can only see part of it: the cultural line. So you talked about the Obama voters who became Trump voters. Do we have any idea how many people there are, and who they are?
Polgreen: I want to say it was like 12 percent. It was enough to flip the election, I know that.
What I believe is that the people who are in this bucket down here, it’s not that they can’t afford to pay $175 a year, right? Because they’re paying for cable every month, right? Which is a lot more than $175 a year.
It’s not that most of them can’t afford to pay for The New York Times. Of course, they can — it’s not that much money. They’re paying for cable because cable isn’t just news right? It’s sports, it’s entertainment, it’s a whole bunch of things. It’s probably how they get their Internet. So they get this other bundle of stuff, right? Now, they are also probably listening to talk radio. Maybe if they’re super right wing, maybe they read Breitbart. But these are people who are, I would call them, passive consumers of news.
Polgreen: Did you read de Tocqueville in college? So de Tocqueville talks about how what makes American democracy possible is this idea of ever-expanding opportunity and optimism, right? And the fact that our optimism is built on the premise that you could in one generation go from — take my story. My mother was born a daughter of a coffee farmer in Ethiopia. One generation and here I am running this big news organization, right?
So mobility is a crucial factor in our identity. I believe that sort of fundamental optimism of American identity is running out of gas. And that we are facing a time in which there is a level of inequality and a lack of opportunity and a kind of immobility. That fundamentally shifts our national character. And I think that those white people that you’re talking about are essentially finding themselves in the same circumstance that large numbers of people who have never really enjoyed any kind of privilege have found themselves in for a very long time.
So I think about solidarity. Right? So what is a journalism that enables us to find a sense of solidarity.
A focus on engagement and loyalty
Polgreen: Well, I think that the conversation about the metrics that matter has really shifted over the last couple of years. When I worked for The New York Times, we were super focused on engagement. There was a brief period when everyone after the Innovation Report where everyone was fretting about our traffic being cannibalized by people who were smarter at racking up pageviews. Look, pageviews are important, having a big audience is great, and it’s important in and of itself. But I think that as the business model’s evolved, news organizations are taking a hard look at what analytics and metrics are telling them — what analytics are telling them and what metrics really matter.
So I think for me it’s less about the gross size of the audience and really focusing on getting people to be more loyal and engaged, and to deepen their relationship with us. Part of the goal of this redesign is to really try and get people to be more engaged, so it’s not just one splash — you’ve got a few different splash stories and it’s more visual.
Mixing tabloid and digital thinking
Polgreen: I think that when Arianna started HuffPost, there was a kind of tongue-in-cheek nature to sort of aping the style of a traditional news organization. I think we’re both in some ways trying to move into the digital future while also kind of holding onto, through this kind of tabloid-like typeface, hold onto that what I think really expresses the DNA of the past.
In this new iteration, we wanted to really lean into that big headline splash style and also reflect the future of where we’re headed by incorporating sort of little hints of digital culture with the slashes that you see on either side of the new logo.
And then there’s also the fact that the splash is our most important billboard, much like a tabloid’s front page would be a billboard and now will automatically travel with the story anywhere it goes. It becomes an almost meme-like artifact that could travel across the Internet and hopefully have the chance to go viral. We’re known for our clever headlines and photo pairing.
Polgreen: Well, the splash has always been kind of our central defining thing, right? HuffPost is unique in the digital publishing world in the sense that most of our competitors are really distributed plays, and they don’t get very much and probably don’t even really try to get very much homepage traffic. Some like Quartz famously didn’t even really have a homepage.
So because we started before the age of distribution, we’ve retained some of that ability to — and, in fact, it’s even been increasing slightly — to draw people directly to our platform. I think one of the big draws is that splash. In a moment, you can get a snapshot of our take on whatever the big story is of the moment, and that feels very core to our DNA.
It’s not just “here’s what the news is,” it’s “here’s the news with a dollop of humor, a dollop of outrage, a dollop of emotion.” That feels so core to our storytelling, so we wanted to make that something that could travel with it anywhere. The splash just becomes the automatic default image when you share something.