In the years to come, much would be made—not all of it kindly—of HuffPost’s success in search engine optimization, or, as its critics insisted, figuring out how to stay a step ahead of the Google search algorithm. “All you had to do was study,” Berry now says. “All you had to do was have compassion for Google’s rules.” And while that may sound too disingenuous by half, there is truth to it. Berry did study, and then he did what he and Peretti had always done: They iterated. Berry launched blogs, stories aggregated from elsewhere, photo slide shows, lists—and measured each of those launches in real time, adjusting, pushing as he went. When he and his small New York staff logged off at the end of yet another interminable day, he handed things over to the team of programmers and coders in Ukraine and South America, thereby ensuring that the work, and the measuring, never stopped. With Peretti ever more involved with BuzzFeed, with Huffington in Brentwood, and with Lerer concerning himself primarily with the business, the growing HuffPost newsroom effectively became Berry’s to run.
The space, a loft on lower Broadway above Dean & DeLuca, was a big room with long rows of desks. It was a workplace that approximated the experience of Lord of the Flies. In the absence of grown-ups, or any tradition as to how things were supposed to happen, bright and eager people in their 20s spent a lot time of yelling at one another, all the while competing to see who could drive the most traffic until the end of yet another 12-hour day, when they would head outside and drink together. “There was a feeling that we were making up the rules as we went along,” says one of them. “Most of us had so little work experience that we didn’t know it wasn’t normal.” The absence of criticism represented praise.
People came and went, and when they left, their jobs were filled by someone who might be given a half day of training on Moveable Type and cropping photos before being thrown in the deep end. “There wasn’t a lot of guidance on how things were supposed to go,” says another former employee, who, like others, asked not to be identified for fear of offending the former employer. Berry was a most approachable boss, especially if someone had an idea about something new that might entice visitors; no one could recall his ever asking for a memo, or saying no. That slide show might work, give me 20 minutes. There were new hires who understood, seemingly without explanation, that lists were always done best in odd numbers, because a top 10 list felt like, well, a Top 10 list. Some were not so happy, though, especially those who had come in the naïve hope of creating original works of journalism. They tended to leave, which was just as well, because those who stayed came to see that while a succession of editors took turns addressing the staff about news and content, the speaker who mattered was Berry. He spoke in his animated way about SEO and headlines, why nouns were better search terms than verbs—Michael Jackson Death, not Michael Jackson Dies. The ethos of the HuffPost newsroom was winning the Google search. “That,” says a former employee, “was the thrill.”
Not the origination of the content, but the dissemination. Huffington Post, they understood, was not an enterprise whose core purpose was the creation of works of journalism—as significant or mundane as that can be. It was in the content business, which created all sorts of possibilities of what it could gather and, with a new headline and assorted tags, send back out, HuffPost’s logo affixed. Content would come to mean original reporting by Sam Stein or Ryan Grim from Washington, as well as Alec Baldwin’s blog, Robert Reich’s rants about the forsaking of the American worker, a “Best Retro Bathing Suits” slide show, “Why Women Gladly Date Ugly Men,” David Wood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 10-part series on wounded veterans, “Nine Year Old Girl’s Twin Found Inside Her Stomach,” campaign dispatches from the Off The Bus citizen journalists, “Angelina and Brad Wow at Cannes,” and “Multitasking Wilts Your Results and Relationships”—as well as Nico Pitney’s blogging on the violence after the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections and the 111,000 comments it generated. Because comment was content, too. Comment was like blogging, but at scale. Thousands of comments began to pile up alongside the posts that had generated the commentary. It was as if the posts and blogs were spawning subsidiary posts, the contagious media world’s version of a virtuous circle.