The road ahead for The Huffington Post: Nine months and a merger later, 'Capital-J Journalism' is still a work in progress
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“It has been great to have Tim and Peter as my partners,” said Huffington.
Between the two of them, O’Brien and Goodman oversee all of the hard news (although the D.C. crew—Ryan Grimm, Sam Stein, Arthur Delaney and others—has been described to Capital by several sources inside the company as a more autonomous bunch, resistant to being brought under the purview of the editors in New York.)
O’Brien’s a history buff who writes historical novels for Random House in his spare time. He worked as a research assistant to longtime Village Voice gumshoe Wayne Barrett in the early '90s while Barrett was writing a book about Donald Trump. (O’Brien’s 2005 sequel landed him in a morass of litigation with the billionaire real estate magnate, in which he ultimately prevailed.) He later arrived at the Times and left for a short detour at Talk in 1999 before returning to the Times after it folded several years later. He was named Sunday business editor in 2006.
Goodman’s career also began in the early '90s, when he was a freelance foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia and later a metro reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, where his beat took him inside the Wasilla City Council meetings responsible for launching a politician named Sarah Palin. By '97 he was at The Washington Post, which sent him back to Asia, as well as Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as an economics correspondent, earning him the stripes necessary to land a job as the Times’ national economics correspondent in 2007.
They have adjacent offices, and one is often seen visiting the other, Goodman with his thick-black glasses, neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a bald dome that caps his six-foot-three frame. O’Brien is a bit shorter and a bit more stocky, and speaks in a pitch slightly higher than Goodman’s baritone. Numerous staffers described the latter editor as an avuncular boss; “caring and understanding,” said one of them—although others have pegged Goodman as short-tempered and prone to “yelling” and “testy exchanges,” as someone who has worked with him put it.
“I plead guilty to caring passionately about the work that we do, and expecting a lot from my reporters and colleagues,” Goodman said. “Anytime you're in a situation that matters, emotions can enter in.”
O’Brien was described by sources as a solid mentor, a meticulous editor who takes care over copy, as well as being a “door-is-always-open” kind of supervisor; although as with Goodman, several sources described a hot-tempered side.
“Bottom line," said a person who has worked with him. "If you get bruised easily, you’re gonna have a hard time. But if you have a thick skin and want to do really great journalism, then he’s a great person to work for.”
Huffington said: "In the 10 months I’ve worked very closely with him, I have never known him to be anything other than completely professional and engaged in the task at hand. And he does so with warmth and good humor."
On the other hand, the duo's talents as editors and reporters were devoted for some time to strategy and planning rather than editing.
"There was this intense period where we were juggling a lot of additional responsibility," Goodman said. He said it's been phased out now, though, for the most part.
"Most of my day is spent talking to reporters about stories, down to a granular level—what's a good lede, strategies on reporting, editing copy in cases of longer-form enterprise work, and doing my own reported stuff."
Last month Goodman traveled to Denver to report a 4,000-word feature on suburban poverty, he said. "That was not thinkable a few months ago, but that ideally is now the template."
Goodman also recently hired a deputy, Emily Peck, from The Wall Street Journal to oversee some of the AOL sites.
"On a daily basis, we have around 50 to 60 original stories a day landing on our news desk," O'Brien added. "And on any given week, we probably have three or four substantial features in excess of 3,000 words. We have editing and reporting systems in place now where we're gonna be able to do that kind of serious work on a very regular basis and do it in a top drawer fashion. I think we have already done that this year, and we're just going to continue to do more of it going forward."
These days, The Huffington Post still does all that aggregation and amateur blogging, of course, but there’s a lot more substance alongside all of the cheap content: Nuanced features on presidential campaign strategy. Deep dives on contentious environmental issues. A many-thousand-word 10-part human-interest series on wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that makes you wonder if The Huffington Post might just be Pulitzer material after all.
The vast majority of the original stories are handled by the news desk, a team of 10 line-editor copy-editor hybrids that O'Brien installed immediately following the merger. They're responsible for managing the churn of the news flow while O'Brien, Goodman and the other senior editors get down and dirty with hands-on editing for the more ambitious features.
The next step, said Huffington, is expanding the original reporting across all of the sections, including the 22 new ones (HuffPost Weddings, HuffPost 50, HuffPost High School, Gay Voices, etc.) that have been launched since the merger.
"We now can take all these sites to the next level," she said. "We haven't been hiring at the same rate because we've been assimilating the teams we've brought in. But we are very much actively looking for reporters in all the areas of the site. We're at the stage of beginning the interview process again. We're gonna be announcing more hires soon."
FOR ALL OF THIS WORK, MANY INSIDE THE ORGANIZATION'S rank and file say, the mission still feels polarized to them.
“You can crudely divide the room into the people who are just all about traffic, who look down their noses on original reporting as old-fashioned, who cares,” said a person with knowledge of the newsroom, “and the people who actually get what the mission is: Not to displace the aggregation and traffic-friendly stuff, but to add another layer on top of it.”
“In an ideal world, these things actually speak to one another,” said O’Brien. “Nobody’s role is preeminent. We’re doing it together and we’re attacking it from a bunch of different angles. Some of it will be aggregation and curation, some of it will be reporting. They’re both really highly valued here. They’re two different approaches to the same thing.”
“We don’t see it as two ways of doing things,” Huffington said. “We see it as, whatever we’re doing, whether it is original reporting or curating or doing slideshows or any of the other multimedia things that we do, that we need to observe the same journalistic guidelines. So we don’t see any distinction at all."
Huffington, Goodman and O'Brien have believable conviction on this score. But bringing the staff to that conviction can be a trickier proposition.
On Tuesday, July 12, Nico Pitney, the site’s managing editor, sent an email to newsroom staffers asking them to attend a “special meeting with HuffPost's founding editor Roy Sekoff and some other guests.”
Sekoff was the first to address the standing-room-only crowd (and others who were conferenced in by phone). He guided the assembled staffers through a PowerPoint presentation and delivered what one person in attendance described as his standard “stump speech” about the so-called “Huffington Post DNA.” He told them that successful aggregation means adding value, intelligently contextualizing the reporting of others, packaging things well. Don’t take too much, and ask yourself whether you’ve extracted all the value, he advised. He also called up some of his favorite headlines of late, such as the abbreviated screamer that was splashed across the homepage following the arrest in May of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn: “OMG IMF.”
Next up was Goodman, who channeled the sort of gospel one would expect from someone who spent “two decades in traditional newspaper journalism,” according to the bio on his personal website: Be thorough. Check your facts. Worry about getting it right, not about getting clicks. And if you have any doubt as to whether you can aggregate a story fairly, no matter how big the story may be, better to leave it to the competitors. The upshot, according to insiders familiar with the meeting, was that traffic is not the most important thing, and that page views should be earned by producing content that is trustworthy and compelling, not merely sensational.
But then Huffington Post’s chief technology officer, Paul Berry, who was running late, and had therefore missed Goodman’s speech, showed up and put in his two cents: Traffic is the most important thing.
He explained that if a story gets a lot of page views that means it’s good: Quality and clicks correlate directly. Goodman listened from the sidelines without interrupting. It was awkward.
"It seemed to sum up this cognitive dissonance that's going on between these two theories on how to do things," an attendee later recalled.
Toward the end of the session, Goodman stepped in to clarify that what Berry really meant was that quality content, aggregated or otherwise, would inspire steady traffic growth over the long haul. Some staffers left the meeting scratching their heads anyway. But by the time it had wrapped, it was already after 6 and they were expected at the Bowery Hotel for a company party. They'd been promised drinks and snacks.
More important perhaps than getting their message out to staff is getting it out to readers.
Traditionally, making a brand work is about setting certain expectations across the board. When it's time for The New York Times to get some advertising from luxury goods and couture advertisers, they launch a slick, stylish magazine like T for the super-rich. The New York Post creates a magazine like Alexa or Page Six Magazine. Huffington is convinced that the brand can stretch wide enough to coherently offer deep, long-form investigative journalism and slideshows and gossip and celebrity news. In fact, it's unapologetically part of her vision for the site.
"If you’re talking about a contribution to humanity," she said, laughing, "I would say definitely David Wood’s series or Arthur Delaney’s stories on the unemployed or our amazing coverage of foreclosures is driving the national conversation in a way our slideshows of adorable kittens and babies [are not]. They definitely provide pleasure to people who click on them, and we’ve always been from the beginning an unashamed mixture of highbrow and lowbrow.”
It's something Tina Brown has said, too. But one never gets the sense that Tina Brown's magazines are for everyone. Can The Huffington Post be the only media outlet that can succeed at being all things to all people?
One minute the Huffington Post's Twitter feed is asking its 1.4 million followers to consider a bipartisan proposition to ban executive bonuses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the next it’s tempting them with “The most adorable baby photos you've ever seen.” When The Huffington Post is not “reinventing the art of liveblogging” with “up-to-the-minute” dispatches from Occupy Wall Street, according to Nieman Journalism Lab, it’s apologizing for a regrettable (and arguably offensive) “Who’s Got the Tranny Look” poll, or becoming the butt of jokes for having “gone from being a scrappy little media company to a pandering click factory, employing the worst publishing tactics on the web” (see: fluffpo.tumblr.com). And when The Huffington Post does perform feats of substantial journalism, such as a 6,800-word feature called “Google, Microsoft and the War for the Web” that’s “chock full of good reporting,” as The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx wrote in September, sometimes it seems at odds with itself.
“What we have … reads like one huge newspaper article that’s crying out for the old Huffington Post’s ‘we-read-it-and-found-the-best-parts-so-you-don’t-have-to’ treatment,” Marx wrote. “Business Insider, where are you when we need you?”
And, of course, there are some goals in the combined company that weren't there before the merger. One example is video. Used comparatively sparingly at the pre-merger Huffington Post, it's a major player in AOL's revenue strategy.
And so there is a highly concerted effort underway to attach “related videos” to the bottom of all “news entries that are not linkouts,” as stated in company parlance. The mandate took effect several months ago in an effort to pump up AOL’s video views. (Prior to the merger, it had acquired a video syndication company called 5min for $65 million.) Editorial hands are reminded of this requirement every day when they receive an email detailing the number of applicable articles on each vertical that did or did not follow the rule.
On Oct. 26, for instance, “33% of Technology non-linkout entries did not have a video (3 out of 9),” while “8% of Politics non-linkout entries did not have a video (3 out of 37);” “41% of Entertainment non-linkout entries did not have a video (5 out of 12);” and “64% of Style non-linkout entries did not have a video (9 out of 14).” Each offending article and its author(s) are listed in bullet points.
"We are actually able now to have an amazing searchable database for videos," said Huffington. "When we first started, our goal was to have 100 percent inclusion of pictures in all stories. Now our goal is to have 100 percent inclusion of video. We're just around 70 percent."
Slideshows are another example. At one point before the merger, writers and editors were told they could take it easy on the highly-clickable features because the site wanted to concentrate on building unique visitors rather than pageviews. Several months ago, the company changed course again.
"As you know there is a push to have slide shows in as many posts as possible when editorially appropriate," Katz, the news editor, wrote in a Sept. 22 email to vertical editors. "You are the first line of defense."
Likewise, “if something is trending, we are encouraged to cover that,” a vertical editor said. The vertical editors are alerted to trending topics by members of the so-called “trends team,” whose jobs are what you’d expect—monitoring search engines for traffic-friendly topics and pitching said topics for coverage. They often jump in and write such posts themselves.
The Huffington Post’s New York newsroom in the AOL building is a quiet place where people tend to come in, put their heads down and get to work.
After the merger, Huffington ordered some remodeling before her team was to move in. The place was more or less gutted—cubicles replaced with long tables lined with Mac desktops to make for a more modern, open-concept layout. They installed 15 flatscreen TVs suspended from the ceiling.
Huffington is a visible presence, and her glass-encased office at the far end of the bullpen allows her to look out at the worker bees.
The combined Huffington Post-AOL editorial staff now numbers 320, up from 170 at the time of the merger in March, giving the operation as much manpower as, say, a major daily newspaper.
But there are certain incongruities that make it a different sort of animal altogether.
Coordination is not always as fundamental here as it is in the well-oiled machines where The Huffington Post’s senior editors cut their teeth.
Some verticals overlap more heavily with the original reporting team than others (politics, media, business, for instance). O'Brien cited the media page as an example of one of the verticals where the aggregation and reporting mix seamlessly.
But one also hears accounts of vertical editors—the people with the intense traffic goals and posting quotas—who feel as if their toes have been stepped on by the other journalists in the place, the ones who spend their days coming up with story ideas and executing them the old-school way.
“When reporters are writing a piece for a certain section, can that section's editor be informed at some point?” Anya Strzemien, the style vertical editor, wrote to O’Brien on April 15 in an email obtained by Capital.
She was referring to a piece published earlier that day about the recent Bill Cunningham documentary. The author was Caroline Dworin, formerly a writer for The New York Times.
“I only found out about this when I saw it on the home page,” Strzemien’s email continued. “I love Bill Cunningham and loved that film about him and Caroline's writing is solid, but this story isn't news. …Going forward, can I just get the heads up when Caroline or any reporter is working on a story for Style? I know they don't report to me, but as the editor of the section I need to weigh in.”
O’Brien hadn't assigned or edited the story, so he was essentially playing traffic cop. But in an emailed reply, he agreed that Strzemien should be looped in going forward, and also said: “Caroline's writing is a wee bit more than solid. And we all know here what's news and what isn't, but thanks for weighing in on that front.”
“It’s sort of like these two completely different worlds,” said a person familiar with the newsroom structure. “Parallel universes.”
There’s also, perhaps, a crucial missing layer between that coterie of more conceptual editors at the top of the masthead and the rapid-turnaround cranks on the news desk, which handles the majority of original content going up on the site.
“There are still plenty of anonymous editors at places like The New Yorker, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere who know how to shape and trim raw copy,” C.J.R.’s Marx wrote in his recent item about The Huffington Post.
“The next time Arianna feels like poaching journalistic talent from an establishment outlet, she might forgo name recognition and give one of them a call.”
Huffington would say, again charming and again self-deprecating, that all of it is admittedly a work in progress.
On Oct. 4, she was back on that same stage at the Times Center for yet another conference, this one as part of New York Advertising Week.
To her right were CNN analyst David Frum (introduced as a contributing editor for Huffington Post Canada), and MSNBC morning hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. To her left were Fineman, Lisa Belkin, whom she’d hired away from the Times to write a blog about parenting, and a 23-year-old named Conor White-Sullivan, whose website, Localocracy, had just been acquired by The AOL Huffington Post Media Group.
The topic was how to "move beyond the tired framing in which all issues are boiled down to simply 'left vs. right.'"
This time, Huffington was the one asking the questions. But as the panel was winding down, she took a moment to share some thoughts of her own.
“It’s so refreshing to hear the co-host of a very popular morning show acknowledge that everything is a work in progress,” she said. “I love that. Because there is such a presumption that whatever we put out there is perfection and cannot be improved on. And I love the fact of all of us acknowledging both in our personal lives and in our professional lives, you know, we are works in progress. Certainly I know with our Huffington Post editors, that’s a central part. Everyday someone will make everything we’re doing better. There’s never a day when we could not have made it better.”
Homepage image via Fortune Live Media.
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