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.”

How The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post approach publishing on platforms

Publishing used to be relatively simple. You published a newspaper once a day or produced a nightly newscast. Even with the advent of the Internet things were fairly straightforward: You had a website and posted your coverage there. But as platforms — from Facebook and Snapchat to messaging platforms such as Kik and Line — become more ubiquitous, news organizations now have to decide where they want to publish and how they want to present their coverage on these platforms.

A study out this week from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University examines how platforms have changed journalism, and while the entire 25,455-word report is worth reading, one particularly interesting section looks at how news outlets are choosing to publish (or not publish) across a variety of platforms.

The report compares how The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post utilized platforms during a week in early February. In that span, each outlet posted to about 10 different platforms. The Times and HuffPo each posted about 1,660 times across the various platforms. CNN, however, published more than 2,800 stories, about 40 percent more than the other two.

The Tow report defines two primary different types of platform-based content: native and networked. Native content includes entities such as Snapchat Discover and Stories, Facebook Instant Articles, or Apple News. These formats live entirely within the walled gardens of the platforms. Networked content, meanwhile, links back to the news organizations’ own sites.

The study examined 14 publishers and found that during the week of Feb. 6, they posted 12,341 pieces of networked content and 11,481 pieces of native content.

“While publishers all need to have a presence across a broad range of platforms, how they distribute their content — and, in particular, the amount they ‘give away’ to platforms in the form of native content — differs considerably,” the study said.

During the week of February 6, two-thirds of The Huffington Post’s distributed content was posted in native formats. That includes 695 stories on Apple News and 305 Facebook posts, which include Instant Articles, Live Video, and other formats. “These native Facebook posts also represent 98 percent of Huffington Post’s total Facebook posts,” the study found.

CNN similarly posted 59 percent of its content natively. That included 1,016 Apple News Articles, 948 tweets, and 278 YouTube videos. The report also noted that “CNN’s concerted effort to reach younger audiences is also evident in its Snapchat Discover channel, on which we saw a shift away from scrollable articles repurposed from cnn.com to more bitesize news cards, and its ongoing commitment to chat app LINE.”

Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the Times’ posts were native. The Times was one of a handful of news organizations that Facebook launched Instant Articles with in 2015, but the paper has since stopped publishing on Instant Articles. During the week that Tow measured the posts, just 19 percent of the Times’ 406 Facebook posts were native to the platform. The paper also posted 74 stories on Apple News.

Unlike The Huffington Post and CNN, the Times is focused on digital subscriptions and its main goal is to drive users back to its own platforms, which explains its reluctance to use native posts.

In a speech at a conference last year, Lydia Polgreen, who was then the editorial director of the Times’ global expansion effort and is now the editor of The Huffington Post, explained how the Times’ approach to platforms is different than other publishers.

Social platforms, especially Facebook, allow us to target our journalism to those most likely to want to pay for it. I believe that we are better off as Facebook’s happy customer than as its outgunned competitor in a David and Goliath fight for advertising dollars.

Yes, Facebook will try mightily to keep news consumers inside its platforms, via features like Instant Articles. Our job is to create experiences that will draw our most loyal users back, again and again, to our own products. So far, we seem to be succeeding at this. We will never be as big or financially successful as Facebook, but I believe we can run a thriving media company that can afford a lavishly funded news operation, as well as return value to our shareholders.

Many of the people the study’s authors — Emily Bell and Taylor Owen — interviewed reiterated that business models often determine how news organizations approach publishing on the platforms:

Jim Brady, founder and CEO of Billy Penn, a Philadelphia mobile news platform, said that when it came to Instant Articles, “I can afford to be a little bit more agnostic about it than someone whose revenue is tied to where the page view lies.” Gabe Dance, former managing editor of the not-for-profit news organization the Marshall Project said their resources were focused on “impact” because that’s what funders care about. And, after an unsuccessful experiment with NPR to host audio natively on the platform, Wright Bryan, senior editor for engagement, walked away wondering, “Does audio really fit a format like Facebook?”

One example of this is that the study showed that publishers’ attitudes toward Instant Articles in particular varied greatly. Outlets such as The Washington Post, Vox, and BuzzFeed News all posted more than 90 percent of their links as Instant Articles during the week of February 6. Meanwhile, Vice, Vice News, and Tronc papers the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times aren’t using Instant Articles at all.

“I think because there’s a continuous debate as to the very question: ‘What do you need to control, and what things do you not,’” Sterling Proffer, head of business strategy and development at Vice, told the study’s authors. “Going all in, solely on the platform to support your entire ecosystem in every way, is a big gamble.”

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