How the Huffington Post Redesign Can Inspire Digital Publishing

Newspaper Vending Machines

When I was first a reporter in a radio newsroom in Spain in the late nineties, typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines were still the norm. A few decades later, a single person in front of a touch screen can run a whole radio station like a one-man band. But even more than they have affected the profession, technology, digital publishing, and emerging media platforms have complicated the business of journalism beyond recognition.

Companies have become publishers themselves, and in this evolving context, they’re struggling to leave behind the corporate blog stage and enter the realm of brand journalism.

The strategies developed by traditional and digital media serve as a model—in some cases to survive the digital transformation and in others to disrupt the news market. The way I see it, however, brands don’t need to stick to a single template. The structure of a brand newsroom or a content team is more agile than that of a media newsroom, their needs more diverse, and their stories more varied than news stories. It stands to reason that they would cherry pick the best ideas for every circumstance.

There is one condition. Content hubs have to be digital publications capable of creating value by themselves. If they are able to do that, companies can personalize their digital publishing as much as they want, and that’s why they need to know their options. Here’s how Lydia Polgreen, who in December succeeded Ariana Huffington as head of the renamed HuffPost, is revitalizing the digital news company.

A Redesign in Search of Tabloid Roots

To date, the Huffington Post has seventeen editions globally, and more than half of its monthly unique users are international. That’s reason enough for global brand publishers to keep an eye on the ideas the digital newspaper is putting in place to regain some of the 30 million monthly users lost over the past two years while still keeping it true to its tabloid-inspired origins.

1. The Splash

As Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab, “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do—looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”

The HuffPost’s most popular splashes, with their punchy short headlines, work well both in the webpage and across platforms.

Huffington Post Splash

The concept refers to the way a newspaper splatters a story or picture on the page to make it noticeable, much like a tabloid’s front-page stories. Marketers should be aware that this carries all the qualities commonly associated with the tabloid press: popular in style, with eye-catching layout, big headlines, plenty of images, and a focus on sensational stories. Splashes don’t provide much actual content; they only work as a hook to get visitors interested.

Beizer describes splashes as “funny, immediate, bold, [and] of the moment.” In brand publishing, they can get a lot of shares and serve to visually connect the company’s homepage and its activity across different distribution platforms. Splashes could be especially useful in a real brand newsroom—that is, a team with the ability to react in real time and with confidence that their readership is familiar and comfortable with the format.

2. The Readers’ Participation

Beizer previously served as the director of mobile product at The Washington Post, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged a spirit of radical experimentation after he bought the newspaper in 2013.

Beizer has instilled some of the same values and passion into the HuffPost. In January 2016 she told NiemanLab that “what’s interesting about the brand is that […] it has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge—how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.” In October they launched Action Button as part of a collaboration with the technology company Speakable, fellow news outlets Vice and the Guardian, and a group of nonprofits including Amnesty International, CARE, and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).

Action Button

The Action Button enables the audience to act on the stories they care about by signing a petition, taking a poll, donating to an NGO, or emailing a policymaker. A tool like this can give marketers a great starting point for advancing a more customer-focused culture. Often the readers of brand content, much like the readers of newspapers, feel compelled to respond to a story but are frustrated when leaving a comment doesn’t take them as far as they would like to go. They want the active voice that Julia Beizer talks about, and something like the Action Button makes it possible for those interested to change headlines instead of being passive consumers and spectators.

3. Third and Foremost—the Story

Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen took charge of The Huffington Post after a fifteen-year career with The New York Times. Her experience in two very different media settings gave her insight as to how to reach an audience outside those who are willing to pay for their news. In her view, there seems to be nothing better than finding a story that resonates with them. When asked how she wanted to approach Obama voters who became Trump voters, people who are in her own words “passive consumers of news,” Polgreen considered her own experience.

“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. 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?”

Choose the right story in order to reach the audience you’re aiming for. Digital publishers can certainly take that away from journalism, but they have to gain the reader’s trust first. In order for stories to be effective, storytellers need credibility.

Building Trust and Authority in the Era of Fake News

Post-election studies have shattered many commonly-held beliefs about fake news.

The BBC reported that fact-checking websites are noticing a rise in anti-Trump, “left-wing fake news,” but their evidence is merely their own experience. CBS, on their side, took a more technical approach and asked the Internet advertising company Trade Desk to investigate for them using specialist software. They were surprised to find that liberal fake news readers are more likely than the general population to be affluent and college-educated, and on the conservative side are more likely to be among the top 20 percent of income earners.

But regardless of demographics, everyone agrees that most fake news sites just care about generating clicks. So how can readers protect themselves against unscrupulous broadcasters and their own appetite for bias-confirming stories? Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, the same fact-checking website that the HuffPost uses for trustworthiness ratings, told the BBC’s Trending team, “[A]sk yourself, by reading the headline, what emotions do I feel? Am I really angry, scared, frustrated, do I want to share this to tell everybody what’s going on? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then check your sources.”

Corporate publishers definitely care about clicks and they often appeal to emotions, so many are certainly wondering if it’s possible to be both trustworthy and popular at the same time.

The HuffPost answer is called The Flipside.

The Flipside, HuffPost

Headlines for The Flipside are a reflection of the previous two hours of Twitter feeds from fourteen publications. They are displayed in an interactive graphic designed using trustworthiness rankings and the 2016 Public Opinion Quarterly study for ideological rankings. Readers can explore different topics and tap the bubbles to see headlines from each publisher.

Content marketers can surely see here all the possibilities of curated headlines or news stories as they relate to their field of activity or to the interests of their audience. Being able to display different points of view on a topic that matters to customers shows expertise and will certainly help to build authority and engagement.

How to Plan a Strategy Using Journalistic Models

Brand publishers can afford to be more flexible than a news organization, as their company’s primary business is not information. This can be seen in the distribution alternatives available to firms.

Content distribution no longer relies solely on corporate websites. Distributed content is consumed on Facebook’s Instant Articles, on Snapchat’s Stories stream, on LinkedIn’s long-form posts, through Twitter Cards, and in numerous other ways. It means that digital publishing no longer has control over distribution, but it also means that content ends up finding the public anyway—if brands choose the right strategy.

A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the different ways that organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post use the platforms available to them. While the former utilizes more networked posts, aimed to draw in readers willing to pay for their news, the HuffPost prefers native content that maximizes their reach, since they don’t depend on subscriptions.

This is what I mean by flexibility. A business may find that the tabloid format of the HuffPost suits its content best, but if the goal is to link back to a main site, then The New York Times distribution choices are certainly a better fit—and it’s no problem to adopt them. Whatever combination digital publishers decide to use, they must strive to keep their content recognizable, wherever it appears.

Brand journalism can be every bit as innovative as traditional journalism, and there is nothing wrong with taking hints from media companies from time to time. The greatest discovery for marketers, anyway, is the realization that they too can inform and entertain their audience—instead of walking in front of the screen when the movie has started.

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Featured image attribution: Jon Ottosson

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Need for speed: How HuffPost cut page-load time by 8 seconds in its app

A little over two months ago, HuffPost changed the way it loads articles within its app, which led to significant speed improvements.

By switching from pulling articles from the mobile web to natively uploading them within the app, load times in iOS went from nine seconds to under one second, and load times in Android declined from five seconds to under one second. HuffPost said the faster load times led to an 8 percent increase in article views per visit, but it declined to provide raw numbers. Although the change improves user experience, loading articles within the app requires HuffPost to devote more resources whenever it makes changes to how it presents articles in its app.

“The fact that web-view hybrids make development processes slightly simpler for us doesn’t matter to users,” said Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product. “From our point of view, it has been worth the investment in [loading articles natively in the app] to give our users the rich, fast experiences they’re expecting.”

HuffPost sped up its load times at a critical juncture for publishers. With mobile eating media, speed has become increasingly important. That’s led publishers to adopt fast-loading article features like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, even though users are harder to monetize on these platforms than they are on publishers’ own properties. Although HuffPost remains bullish on platforms, a fast-loading app benefits the publisher by giving it speed while keeping users engaged on its owned-and-operated property.

Prior to loading articles within its app, HuffPost used to use a hybrid app where the app had its own navigation and settings screens, but when users clicked on articles, the pages were uploaded from the mobile web. Although pulling articles from the mobile web created slow load times for users, it was easier for HuffPost to make changes to how its articles were presented in its app.

With the old setup, HuffPost only had to make changes once, and they could do so without having to go through gatekeepers. Now that articles are loading within the app, changes must be made on both iOS and Android, and submitted to the app stores for approval. The Apple App Store can take up to two weeks to approve and implement changes.

Another challenge was creating code that would allow various embeds to load natively within the app, Beizer said.

For example, let’s say a HuffPost writer embeds a tweet, Instagram photo and YouTube video into an article. For that article to load within the app while still showing all of the content, HuffPost must create its own code for Twitter, Instagram and YouTube embeds.

What makes this difficult is that there are dozens of websites and platforms that writers source from when embedding content into their articles, and developers have to adapt by creating new code whenever they spot an embed from a new source. And while social platforms give publishers access to their APIs to facilitate embeds, publishers themselves generally wall off their own APIs because they want more control over the reporting and tracking of their video players.

So if HuffPost were to embed a video from another publisher, like ABC, for example, it likely wouldn’t have access to ABC’s API to create an ABC embed code for the HuffPost app. When this happens, HuffPost’s app defaults to loading articles the old way, by pulling them from the mobile web, which results in slower load times. This occurs for about 10 percent of HuffPost articles, Beizer said.

To make the swap to natively uploading articles, six software engineers worked for about three months. For now, HuffPost articles have the same design on the mobile web and within the app. But the company is experimenting with how to tailor designs for the app, Beizer said.

HuffPost focused on the speed improvements first because “we thought the most important experience we could change was improving load times,” she said.

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HuffPost’s reorganized product team drove a 27 percent lift in video views

When Julia Beizer took over product at HuffPost a year ago, she found a qualified team, but a clunky setup made it hard for them to move at the speed she wanted.

“I knew I needed to eliminate as many bottlenecks as I could between a great product idea and its execution,” said Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product.

She reorganized the team into four distinct product groups. One group is named News Innovation because it experiments with new story formats like HuffPost’s “storybook” feature that is similar to Snapchat and Instagram Stories. The Acquisitions group focuses on making direct connections to users through newsletters. A Revenue group monitors metrics like viewability that affect how much money HuffPost is getting from each webpage. There is also a video group. Last but not least, a generalist group works with business development on A/B testing content.

Part of the rationale behind the setup is that it brings the schedules of engineers more inline with new products’ timetables. By scattering engineers throughout various groups, their workflow and availability becomes less volatile.

By splitting the team into groups, HuffPost cut down on the back-and-forth that used to occur when product teams were organized around different parts of the publisher’s tech stack (e.g., a subgroup dedicated to the CMS). Beizer said HuffPost can now roll out new features faster, which has helped increase its video views and completion rates.

“I wanted to set a tempo within each pod that they’d be releasing consumer facing work constantly,” said Beizer, who noted that each product group aims to release a new feature every two weeks.

Each group has four to eight people made up of product managers, web designers and engineers. But the group sizes fluctuate depending on larger initiatives within the company.

For example, when HuffPost redesigned its website as part of its rebrand earlier this week, the product groups had to pull in people from other areas of the company. Leading up to the redesign, product groups had as many as 13 people in them. Throughout the past year, HuffPost has had around 25 full-time engineers.

Although many of the new features these groups implement are just incremental changes, Beizer said small shifts can have a large impact.

For example, in December HuffPost replaced the static images it used to use to preview videos with gifs, which led people to click on videos more. The animated gifs led to a 27 percent increase in video views. Unique video viewers on desktop increased from 4.4 million users in December to 6.2 million users in March, the latest month comScore had data for. (ComScore didn’t have have video data for mobile.)

HuffPost is now working on using gifs to drive more views for their photo galleries. The idea behind these little tweaks is to “release something small, learn from your data, iterate, repeat,” Beizer said.

Earlier this month, the video group made another tweak that showed users a preview image of the next video in a playlist. Since it started showing video-watching users an image of the video that is “next up,” HuffPost increased its completion rates by 1.8 percent. Beizer declined to share the raw numbers.

“My main goal is to make sure we are releasing features for consumers, tracking data and making quick pivots,” she said.

Photo via HuffPost

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Newsonomics: Lydia Polgreen’s ambitious HuffPost remake aims for “solidarity” among readers

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.

Ken Doctor: The new site looks different. Is there any content change we should know about?
Lydia Polgreen: Right now, it’s presentation and redesign, but as we announced about a month ago, we’re in the middle of recruiting an entirely new leadership team. So stay tuned for some pretty significant new hires and content changes as well.
Doctor: In a sense, then, this is giving you a new platform upon which you’re building the next Huffington Post, right?
Polgreen: Exactly.
Doctor: So what do you like most about what this platform can do for you in building that new Huffington Post?
Polgreen: It really delivers on our goal, which is to be the most compelling news destination in the world, to be telling stories in a way that captures the drama, the emotion, but also the humor, the outrage, the sense of the “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening” that seems to encapsulate the Trump era. So I feel like this way of being able to display stories and send them out across all platforms is going to really deliver on that sense of edge that we’re looking for.
Doctor: I’m thinking about our friend John Oliver, who in the pre-Polgreen era memorably called the site “Arianna Huffington’s Blockquote Junction and Book Excerpt Clearinghouse.” What would you hope John Oliver would say when he looked at the new design?
Polgreen: I hope that’d he’d find inspiration for his show. I hope that he’d find really compelling and interesting angles on the news that would inspire him to put together really funny and insightful segments for his show.
Doctor: We’ve got this weird time in our American life. There has been a predictability, I think — real or imagined — about what people can expect from The Huffington Post. Even progressives may say, “I may not learn as much as I want, because its predictable.” Is this partly an attempt to shake that up and to say, “You’re going to get some different kind of stuff from us”?

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.

Doctor: I don’t know what kind of data you have, but The Huffington Post, I’d think, is a blue state read. Is that right?
Polgreen: I think what you’ll find is that it really varies. We certainly have a strong progressive audience for our political coverage. I think that audiences for some of our other verticals, like around parenting or around entertainment and lifestyle, is ideologically much more mixed.
Doctor: Tell me more about your have/have-nots world view.

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…

Doctor: For an elite?
Polgreen: A reader who’s going to pay, right? And so in lots of ways, large and small, you start to speak to a narrower and narrower audience. Now, the Times still has a huge audience, right? But they send signals — all of these organizations send signals, right? Wall Street Journal: “Mansion.” “FT: How To Spend It.” Right?
Doctor: Hey, let me ask you a question on this. Go back 20 years. Pre-digital essentially. These were all paid publications then too. The Times now has 3 million paid subscribers, roughly twice what it had in print at its height, around 1.5 million. Were the journalists back then writing for a small group of people too?

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?

Doctor: Well, and the haves.

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.

Doctor: Ah, the tabloid. I saw you were talking about Mike Royko, the great sometimes-tabloid columnist in Chicago. I think that’s really interesting.

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.

Doctor: I’m having problems understanding how Huffington Post approaches that those kinds of readers.

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.

Doctor: Solidarity meaning?
Polgreen: Meaning that if I’m a poor, rural, white person, I am actually more dependent on the government than an urban, black person who lives in public housing, right?
Doctor: How do you do that?
Polgreen: Is there a way? Maybe it’s sociological storytelling. Maybe it’s a kind of journalism that enables people who see this — because they’ve been manipulated by talk radio, by Fox News, by Breitbart — as a zero-sum game. Solidarity is such a sort of kumbaya, old-fashioned word, but it keeps coming up again.

A focus on engagement and loyalty

Doctor: Do you know how your demographics run now ? I looked at this a while back, but I haven’t looked at it recently. I would expect BuzzFeed, for instance, would have a higher percentage of millennials than Huffington Post. While very strong among millennials, you would be a little more spread out with older generations too — is that true?
Polgreen: That’s certainly true. I think because we have been around since 2005, we’ve got a very strong Gen X audience. For a long time, we had our post-50 vertical and we think we have a very strong Baby Boomer audience. We have a really big audience, so we tend to attract a lot of folks from different generations.
Doctor: What about audience growth? Huffington Post had tremendous growth and at one point was putting out press releases saying “we are bigger than The New York Times” in terms of digital audience. And clearly the Times, partly to your credit, the Times and the Post have had an amazing run in the last two years. Huffington Post has been, when I looked at the numbers, essentially flat in terms of audience. Now, flat’s not bad, because it’s a big audience. Is this rebranding a bid to restart the growth engine of digital audience?

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

Doctor: So let me take apart a couple of those things. I like the look of the design. So first of all, it is now HuffPost rather than Huffington Post, right?
Polgreen: I think that in a way, it’s really just going with what our audience is. Our audience has always called us “HuffPost.” It’s shorter, and I think it works better for our international audiences. But I think it also signals that we’re changing, and we’re moving forward and this is a new era. So we’re keeping much of the spirit, but updating and refreshing.
Doctor: So is that in part a reflection that Arianna has left and that Huffington, the whole name, doesn’t need to be there — that it has become its own brand with her gone?
Polgreen: Well, I think that Arianna herself would say that Huffington Post even when she was here transcended her own identity. I think she herself called it HuffPost most of the time.
Doctor: Are you moving away more from a newspaper/print metaphor to more of a purely digital metaphor?

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.

Doctor: I like the splash, which now travels with a given URL across social media. Where did it come from?

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.

Doctor: And it provides a continuum between the destination publishing and the platforms.
Polgreen: Exactly, and I think that for us, again we really deeply value the fact that we remain a destination for news. There really aren’t other purely digital news organizations that can say that, so this is a way of kind of having our cake and eating it too.
Photo of Polgreen by Damon Dahlen of The Huffington Post.

In a redesign, The Huffington Post (now just HuffPost) doubles down on its “equalizing tabloid” roots

The Huffington Post has pulled no punches with its tabloid-inspired homepage splashes.

“BILLY ON THE STREET,” its Bill O’Reilly story announced.

HE WENT TO JARED,” another proclaimed (Jared Kushner, that is).

Here’s another, on Rep. Devin Nunes:

The Huffington Post of the post-Arianna era, helmed by former New York Times editor Lydia Polgreen, is rebranding itself by the commonly used nickname HuffPost. (Not the less commonly used HuffPo.) It’s also redesigning its site to fully embrace these punny splashes across social platforms and to better accommodate the habits and desires of its readership, which Polgreen is hoping to make more loyal and engaged. (Read more about Polgreen’s editorial strategy in Ken Doctor’s accompanying interview.)

The redesign process began before Polgreen came on board late last year; Arianna Huffington’s departure left an opening for the site to rethink how it wanted to present itself to readers.

“I thought this was an opportunity to change our look and feel, and signal that we’re going to continue to do big, bold things in this space,” Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told me. “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do — looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”

Design director Alison Zack suggested introducing that splash image into everything, according to Beizer. People have been consistently sharing images of the splashes on social anyway. Now, when readers share a big HuffPost story or come across one on search, they’ll get the quippy headline and image (it’s going in the og:image field).

“The splash is really the best of our editorial voice. It’s funny, immediate, bold, of the moment,” Beizer said. “In thinking about who we are, this is the best reflection of it from a product perspective.”

On some days, HuffPost gets as much as a quarter of its traffic directly from its homepage, Beizer told me (she was also quick to emphasize that the site’s still dominant on Facebook). The readers accessing HuffPost from its homepage, unsurprisingly, are the most engaged readers, clicking into six to seven pages per visit. But anecdotal feedback and focus groups suggested that some readers consistently only wanted to read stories from specific sections, and weren’t always getting to the sections they wanted easily enough. Users who watched video from the homepage tended to watch a lot of video in general, so the redesign moves up the video boxes (and “any slot on the homepage can be filled by a video,” including the main splash).

Not every piece will get the quippy splash treatment, so as not to “undercut the power of that voice,” according to Beizer. Morning editorial meetings will now include discussion around which articles definitely require a splash card.

HuffPost is also switching to a simplified, still-green but Huffington-less logo (an outside agency helped design it). A slash through the middle is meant to evoke cutting through the noise, as well as the URL slash.

The mobile app is getting the new look as well, though the updates that roll out on Tuesday will only be a “small preview of what’s to come.” Last month, for instance, the app, a hybrid where pages were webviews, moved to native pages. “You’ll see us remaking the pages to get users to more fluid content discovery,” Beizer said. While political and world news does well, there are many users, for instance, who go straight to the entertainment section in the app.

“We no longer need to have the look and feel of newspaper to have the same credibility, so we settled on a typeface that’s bolder than our current one, that mixes in the typeface of the tabloid,” Beizer said of HuffPo’s logo and font update.

In describing the new HuffPost (for which she is hiring a new top management team), Polgreen has spoken widely about her editorial vision and her desire to inject old-school tabloid passions into the redesigned publication. The redesign presented an opportunity to highlight “what you see in those great equalizing tabloids, what you think about when you think about the Chicago Sun-Times in the ’70s or the New York Daily News,” Beizer said. “We believe we’re well positioned to speak for people who don’t currently see themselves represented.”

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