There are few ‘born online’ publications that have had as big an impact in such a short period of time as that of The Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington. John Kennedy talks to Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief Carla Buzasi about repeating the feat on this side of the Atlantic.
Early in July this year, 6 July to be precise, The Huffington Post launched its UK edition. I remember the occasion quite well because it was slap bang in the middle of the HackGate saga and just a day before the Murdoch media empire decided to close the News of the World. If you wanted to be poetic about it you could almost paint a metaphor about the end of one age and the beginning of another. But let’s not get sentimental; the media is an ever-evolving beast where the only friend is change.
Huffington established The Huffington Post in 2005 as a haven for journalism and blogging and has since faithfully stuck to its slogan: “The Internet Newspaper: News, Blogs, Video, Community”. It counts an army of more than 9,000 bloggers, including celebrities, academics, politicians, you name it, and as well as contributors, it attracts more than 1m comments on the site per month. In February of this year, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for US$315m.
The magic of the The Huffington Post for me, as I explained it to Buzasi, who in her time has been an award-winning journalist and editor with Cosmopolitan, Marie-Claire, Vogue and The Guardian, is the sensation that the Huffington Post finds me with its stories – via my Facebook news stream, Twitter, you name it – a feat few other publications, newspapers in particular, have yet managed with the same elegance.
I ask her how she views media today and what is it that the Huff Post, and other born-on-the-web publications, like Mashable, is doing right that few online versions of traditional media have grasped.
“To explain, I think I’m probably like every average, slightly hyperactive thirty-something in that I need things to grab my attention really, really fast. I was talking to somebody this morning about my journey into work. The minute I get to the station I get my iPad out and make sure all the latest tweets have downloaded. I know I’ve got three minutes between Barnes and Puttney where I’ve got no 3G coverage and the thought of nothing to read and nothing to do horrifies me.
“It’s about making sure that we’re always providing something interesting for our readers, something that’s going to distract them from what they’re reading at the moment, so that by the time they get to the end of it we’ve given them something else and they want to click through to.
“And what you’re saying about us pulling people into the site; that is key whatever brand you’re working on now. People find their media in much different ways than they used to. Our parents, I’m sure, probably bought the same paper for 20 years; my dad only stopped reading The Telegraph because he didn’t rate their sports writers anymore. But our generation and certainly my brother’s generation; he wouldn’t buy any type of print title and is totally promiscuous in the type of things he reads.
“When you’re working on a brand like the Huffington Post you have to be super aware of that all the time and make sure that you are constantly giving your readers something they perhaps don’t even know they need yet.”
A clean canvas
I put it to Buzasi that what hooks me about the Huff Post is the never-ending eclectic mix of articles; many I suspect wouldn’t find their way into an average newspaper. I mean this not to be pejorative, but because my instinct is newspapers follow a formula. Instead, the Post is a clean canvas.
“I think that is the exciting thing. We’re the new brand over here and we’ve got carte blanche to experiment with things. Our news meetings every morning are lively affairs where everyone is arguing about what we’re doing; everyone has different takes on stories and that I hope translates onto the site in that it is different and not what you would expect from a newspaper site. That’s what makes it exciting; opening a news world to a whole other generation.
“Someone who shall remain nameless and has been writing for a nameless newspaper for 20 years said to me that he is now blogging for us because he loves the fact that he’s getting to blog about things he is passionate about; rather than an editor commissioning him to do something specific and then it being edited in a way he didn’t want it to be. We’re giving him a platform to say exactly what he wanted to say in a way that he wanted to do it and then be able to talk back to people who maybe disagree or agree with him.”
I ask Buzasi where she feels ‘new media’ or ‘digital media’ is at today. Shall we just call it media now?
“I think – good question – I never believed I would get this job. I am so excited and feel very privileged to be doing what I’m doing now. I’ve always been very digitally focused, so when I started out I was in Conde Nast’s digital division and so I’ve always had a digital focus to what I was creating, although what I was writing about wasn’t technology.
“I’ve felt that for years many editors and journalists had to apologise for the fact that they worked in new media and now we’re past that. It’s where people now want to be and I kind of feel I’ve bet on the right horse. Quite a few years ago you had to put up with the idea that perhaps you were some second-class journalist or third-class editor and now it’s not new media, it’s now media and everybody wants to be online and it’s the most exciting place to be.”
But, I assert, media in general is struggling in the present economy and there are some who believe the internet isn’t helping matters. “I think it makes it much more competitive and then you add in the economy on top of that. Having said that, the world is still interested in stories and whether they’re reading them in a newspaper, magazine or website, people still love to read stories and love to hear about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I’m very confident that the journalism industry will continue to thrive, I’m sure there will be ebbs and flows; it is constantly is evolving and I’m sure we’ll see many more changes.
“It also means that now media is attracting people who are so ambitious, so determined to prove themselves and get ahead and that can only be a good thing.”
Social media and the new, new journalism
Returning to social media and the dawn of an age where news finds you, I ask Buzasi about her approach to social media, mindful of a development in recent days where The Washington Post newspaper’s social reader app on Facebook netted it an estimated 1m new readers.
“I think that probably being a technologist is an important part of being a great editor now. You’ve got to be aware of all the new trends and tools.
“What has been interesting as I’ve discovered recruiting the team is how many of them don’t even think that way because it’s just part of their natural daily lives. The emails that go round the office at water cooler moments are as much about what was on X Factor last night as about this new app that I’ve spotted or a new sharing tool or another website.
“What is great about the technology behind the site is that if someone sends an email on a Sunday morning about a new app, by the afternoon that new app is up on the site. We will play with it, test it and see if it works for us. We are really lucky that we’ve got people who are so passionate about that and get things on the site really quickly so that we’re a step ahead of whatever trends are coming out of the digital sphere.”
I ask Buzasi is there a particular technology, gadget or trend right now that excites her. “It’s going to sound so boring but it is my iPad. I still have the iPad 1 and really hoping someone will upgrade it for me. I can’t sit on my sofa anymore without it on my lap, I can’t watch TV without it and this drives my husband round the bend. So I definitely need it, it has made my journey so much more interesting. I love my Kindle as well, though.
“Somebody burst out laughing at me on the train the other day because I read on my Kindle. I prefer sending email on my Blackberry and reading email on my iPad and I was juggling all three as this guy was looking at me shaking his head. As long as I have all three of those in a bag somewhere I am happy.”
So does she ever switch off? “Er, I rode a bike around Richmond Park on Sunday and I didn’t take anything with me, does that count? Otherwise, I think the time is now, really, and I’ve got such a fantastic opportunity I wouldn’t want it to go to waste so no, I’m online and plugged in 24 x 7 right now. But Arianna is very passionate; ‘unplug and recharge’ is one of her mantras but I will take that on at some stage but right at the moment I’m focused on building the site, doing the best job that I can.”
While it’s less than five months since the Huff Post UK went live, the global news cycle has been as busy – if not busier – as it’s ever been.
“You’re right we launched right in the middle of the busiest news summer that I can remember. We’ve got this joke now that if we leave on a Friday evening the weekend shift is sitting slightly nervous about what’s going to happen this weekend because there’s always something – whether its Hackgate, the Oslo bombings, the London Riots, Amy Winehouse dying, there has always been something that’s had everyone running to their laptops from wherever they may have fled to.
“So it has been a phenomenally busy summer but I think the highlight for me is that I’ve built a team right from the ground up and everyone is working so hard and working really well together and I’m so proud of them for coming together so quickly to make the site a big success.
“You are only as good as the people you’ve got around you and we’ve got fantastic editors from all different backgrounds and everyone feels we’ve made an opportunity here and we’re really keen to prove ourselves.”
Before we go, I ask Buzasi what Huffington is like to work with and what she’s learned from her.
“She’s great to work with, really supportive of what we’re doing here. I’ve felt very lucky that my boss has always been my mentor, as well.
“I think you really truly need to believe in what you are doing and she absolutely does. She lives and breathes this brand and because of that she’s been so successful.
“She’s a great people person and good at connecting people and finding talented people. She can’t go anywhere without people wanting to talk to her, and she’s very, very good at recruiting bloggers so I watch and learn and I’ll hopefully replicate it myself. I am learning new things from her, literally day to day.”
- Be sure to check out AOL/Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief Carla Buzasi's presentation at the Dublin Web Summit Thursday morning, 27 October.
Below: Huffington Post UK launch day 6 July 2011
Below: The Huffington Post UK edition today, 21 October