The Huffington Post, nine years on
On Friday, March 7, Peter Goodman was writing an email to Arianna Huffington during the last hour of his last day as her employee, when a team of workmen showed up at his office on the fifth floor of The Huffington Post's 770 Broadway headquarters.
Goodman, a high-ranking newsroom lieutenant who'd joined The Huffington Post in 2010 after two-decades at The Washington Post and The New York Times, was about to begin a new job as editor-in-chief of The International Business Times, an online publication that shares a parent company with Newsweek. His final task was to put together a memo for Huffington laying out the transition plans for the site's business, technology and international reporters, all of whom Goodman ran.
The workmen had their own task to complete: turning Goodman's office into a conference room, or "huddle room," to borrow the Huffington Post parlance—apparently a much-needed commodity in the company’s open-concept floor-plan. The same thing has been made of offices once occupied by Tim O'Brien (former executive editor), Mike Hogan (former executive entertainment editor), Lori Leibovich (former executive lifestyle editor) and Lisa Belkin (former senior columnist), who were among the various high-profile editors and reporters recruited by The Huffington Post—from outlets including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and so on—amid its well-publicized coming of age in late 2010 and 2011, when AOL, in need of a media strategy, bought the site for $315 million and infused it with resources.
That Friday afternoon, the workers said they needed to get started right away, according to sources with knowledge of the exchange, so Goodman, whose title was executive business editor and global news editor, borrowed a nearby desk in the newsroom and composed his note to Huffington while watching the crew dismantle his digs.
"There is a widespread sense on the team that the HuffPost is no longer fully committed to original reporting; that in a system governed largely by metrics, deep reporting and quality writing weigh in as a lack of productivity," he wrote in the memo, a portion of which Capital has seen. "I have protected the best writers from the manifestations of this, allowing them to focus on work that has garnered us awards and had genuine impact. There is now palpable concern that this culture is no longer operative. ... They are looking for a clear signal that their work is valued and that the infrastructure will be maintained to engage in serious reporting. Absent that, you will lose people."
Huffington dismissed the memo, telling Capital it "completely contradicts everything that Peter had said or emailed to me until then. Peter, at his request, had shifted his focus to only overseeing original reporting and had, in the weeks before he left, hired three additional international reporters to do exactly the kind of 'deep reporting and quality writing' he mentions."
Huffington also pointed out that Goodman left not long after a controversial company conference call in which AOL's C.E.O. referred to "two AOL-ers that had distressed babies." One of the employees turned out to be Goodman, who suggested to The New York Times the incident was not a factor in his resignation; his wife is now working on a memoir.
"No reporter at HuffPost has ever been told they were unproductive because they were taking time to do the work they were doing," Huffington added. "This is a complete fabrication."
DEPENDING ON WHOM YOU ASK, The Huffington Post is either turning away from a relatively short-lived effort to pack the same heat as establishment media brands, or journalists recruited from establishment media brands ultimately didn't adjust to the site's continued growth and change.
In either case, as The Huffington Post moves into the end of its first decade, it's difficult not to see this moment as a test of its purpose and identity.
The site celebrates its ninth birthday this Friday and—if we're to believe AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong—is on the path to profitability in 2014. (It turned a profit once before, prior to the AOL sale and subsequent investment.) Since launching on May 9, 2005, as a left-wing response to Matt Drudge, The Huffington Post has moved beyond politics to become a content titan with more than 60 verticals, 10 international editions (and counting) and its own streaming video network, HuffPost Live. It's gone from a viral aggregation factory and unpaid-blogger's paradise, to a journalistic Leviathan led by legacy-media refugees, to something in between—distinct from the callow scrappiness of its early days, but not quite as fancy as it had begun to look three years ago. (Longtime staffers will tell you it always felt a bit ... un-Huffington Post-like to have a cabal of editors ensconced in their own little glass bubbles.)
If the strategy during the expansion phase was to fill the place with seasoned pros charged with establishing a well-oiled newsroom and traditional editing protocols, these days there's more talk of empowering the types of up-and-comers whose sweat helped build the site in the first place. If the banner headline of 2012 was becoming the second publication to win a Pulitzer Prize for digital-only reportage, the big highlight since then has arguably been the explosion of content tailored around the Third Metric, Huffington's signature work-life-balance philosophy and the subject of "Thrive," her recently published New York Times bestseller.
"I think it's been organic," founding editor and HuffPost Live president Roy Sekoff said of the progression.
But it's not for everyone.
"I was drawn to HuffPost by Arianna's vision of building the 21st century newsroom," said Belkin, one of more than two dozen current and former Huffington Post and AOL employees who spoke with Capital for this article, some on the record, others off. "For a time, I felt like that's what they were doing. And then I felt like the mission changed." Belkin, who was a New York Times reporter for 29 years before Huffington poached her in October 2011, left the site in March for a gig as a senior national correspondent at Yahoo News. "I took the Yahoo job for a lot of reasons," she said. "That was one of the reasons."
"The mission has not changed at all," Huffington told Capital during an interview last week in her own glass-ensconced office, where she was sipping a cup of Teavana's new Oprah Chai Tea. "The mission is to produce impact journalism in constantly evolving forms."
To hear Huffington Post brass tell it, the site has been responding to the rapid transformation of consumer reading habits. Social referrals are up 702 percent since the AOL acquisition, said Huffington, and mobile now accounts for 42 percent of the site's traffic. There were roughly 93.5 million unique monthly viewers in March, up from 63.6 million a little less than a year earlier, according to comScore.
Social and mobile are apparently platforms where people love sharing stories about health and meditation and exercise and sleep and the like.
Huffington, who's always believed in a mix of high-low, hard-soft, has been evangelizing about such topics for years. But it wasn't until a Smith College commencement speech last May that she first spoke of the Third Metric "for defining success—in order to live a healthy, balanced, and meaningful life." She soon landed a book deal about the concept, and Third Metric content was incorporated into every nook and cranny of the site, which had already launched a stable of Third Metric-friendly lifestyle verticals like GPS for the Soul, Parents, Food and Healthy Living. At the end of the year, The Huffington Post trotted out a traffic release touting major gains across all 13 lifestyle sections. In January, Healthy Living surpassed politics to become the site's no. 2 vertical that month, with 25 million uniques to the latter's 22 million, per Omniture figures provided by a spokesperson. (Politics had pulled ahead again by March, but the top performing HuffPost section remains: Parents.)
"These are topics on which HuffPost is credible and can create content that people are going to want to read. It's a reasonable strategy," said Rick Edmonds, a media analyst with the Poynter Institute. Indeed, Huffington said, "All of these things have been incredibly successful in terms of advertising," which includes traditional banner ads as well as native and sponsored content from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Chipotle and IBM.
THE PAST YEAR'S AUDIENCE GROWTH DOVETAILED with the rise of Jimmy Soni, a former policy aide and speechwriter turned Arianna Huffington chief of staff who was promoted to managing editor in early 2012 at the age of 26. Soni, who got his start as a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Co., consolidated influence despite his lack of management experience and journalistic training. With an eye toward efficiency and number-crunching, he's seen by many as a taskmaster focused on viral content and big traffic. He's also a divisive figure, having clashed with senior figures in the newsroom, according to numerous insiders, who described him as imperious and arrogant, albeit hard-working and devoted to the site. "His style is unpleasant," one source said.
Soni sees himself as more of a change agent. He helped build an infographics team, hired Huffington Post’s first digital innovation editor and created a fellows program. He holds up other young'uns who've risen through the ranks, like Kiki Von Glinow (managing editor for entertainment), Carly Schwartz (deputy national editor), Nicholas Graham (senior news and video editor) and Elyse Siegel (his deputy and right-hand gal). A big chunk of Soni's mandate is to make the worker bees care about how many people are clicking on their articles, and about how to create articles that people will want to click on. In the Jimmy Soni playbook, a headline that starts out as "10 C.E.O.'s Who Meditate" becomes "The Daily Habit of These Outrageously Successful People"—but only after 10 writers and editors bounce ideas off each other for half an hour.
"Part of my goal is to preserve the culture that started nine years ago when HuffPost was a small, scrappy place," he said. "I'm also proud that I've empowered people to really take leadership positions. The newsroom is stronger, smarter and better than it was."
The major editing-suite departures (O'Brien, Goodman, Hogan, Leibovich) have played out over the past year and change. To pick up the slack in the original-reporting operation (which is a separate beast from the operation that's primarily responsible for keeping the verticals freshly stocked), less-senior editors have taken on more responsibility, like business managing editor Emily Peck, as has the relatively autonomous Washington bureau. The site also still has John Montorio, a former longtime editor at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, whose roles include executive features editor, standards editor, editor of The Huffington Post's weekly iPad magazine and news desk supervisor.
Montorio is arguably stretched thin, and some Huffington Post journalists say privately that the overall editing firepower has gone down without the Peter Goodmans and Tim O'Briens of the world.
Others think the balance is just right.
"While it may look from the outside like a handful of senior editors have left and not been replaced, the team in place now brings to bear both experience here at HuffPost and in old media that makes a powerful combination," said Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim.
And others say (again, privately) that they feel adrift. In March, a group of about a dozen reporters in New York met up in a conference room over a bottle of single malt scotch to "share ideas and talk about any long-form stories or features we might be working on," as an email invitation from general assignment writer Saki Knafo put it. "There aren't really editors doing that too closely with reporters anymore," said one attendee.
THAT ISN'T TO SAY THERE'S A DEARTH OF QUALITY JOURNALISM. The Washington bureau, which was the first Huffington Post constituency to really pursue original reporting back in 2007, has kept up its aggressive coverage of politics and policy. In other coverage areas, the past few months have produced deep features on topics ranging from Mormon social-media missionaries to the radicalization of Syrian rebel commanders to "combat veterans struggling with the moral and ethical ambiguities of war," which David Wood, one of the prestige hires from 2011, explored in a splashy three-part series. It was Wood who won the site its first Pulitzer, and another one of his series, on military suicides, was submitted for Pulitzer consideration this year, as was Chris Kirkham's investigation into for-profit Florida youth prisons.
"The focus is on ensuring we produce great features more regularly and that those features are packaged in a way that maximizes viral potential and social impact," said Montorio. "I feel like I have clear marching orders to be doing that."
Kirkham is leaving for The Los Angeles Times, which is a big loss for the site, sources said. At the same time, Huffington said she's interviewing candidates to replace Goodman. And fellow Times alumnus Tom Zeller Jr., who left last summer, said he plans to write for The Huffington Post again after completing his Knight Science Journalism fellowship.
From a financial standpoint, it can't hurt that a handful of senior staff salaries have been freed up while The Huffington Post doubles down on monetizable content. Wall Street analysts say the pressure is on for The Huffington Post to start making money for AOL's Brand Group, where revenues dipped 6 percent year on year to $178.8 million during the first quarter of 2014. The company attributed this decline to the absence of ad revenues from Patch, a high-investment, low-performing community news portal that AOL sold its majority stake in earlier this year.
In December, Armstrong told Reuters that The Huffington Post would turn a profit in 2014 thanks to growth in global editions, video, and lifestyle conferences, like the "Thrive" event Huffington hosted last month in a partnership with WME and Mika Brzezinski's Jam Lectures. (Asked if that event made any money, Huffington said she didn't know yet: "It didn't lose money.")
Huffington Post C.E.O. Jimmy Maymann is optimistic. He said two of the international sites, Canada and the U.K., are profitable (HuffPost India, HuffPost Greece and HuffPost Arabic are the next launches on tap), and that HuffPost Live will break even this summer with potential plans for an international roll-out. There's also talk of taking the "Thrive" conference global, and e-commerce is on the table as well.
"The domestic business is thriving and we've invested in a lot of new areas," said Maymann. "I'm very happy where we are." But there's work to be done: "We're still educating the market that we're more than just politics and news."
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article reported that The Huffington Post was the first publication to win a Pulitzer Prize for digital-only reportage. ProPublica was in fact the first; The Huffington Post was the second. Additionally, the Healthy Living vertical was identified as the top performing vertical in January. It was in fact second to the Parents vertical. The error was caused by a miscommunication with a spokesperson for the site.