NEW YORK, NEW YORK — As of the writing of this profile, the “BIG NEWS” header at the top of The Huffington Post’s homepage reads: “Unemployment, Katie Holmes, Natalie Portman, Health, Lindsay Lohan, Smarter Ideas, More…” It’s the mix of topics that might be floating around the head of a conscientious, politically astute fifteen year old—but given that HuffPost only recently entered the second half of its first decade, perhaps the site is maturing more quickly than most people give it credit for. Although criticized by many (perhaps often with a touch of envy at the site’s success) for its heavy reliance on unpaid writers (one of whom, Jonathan Tasini, spearheaded a readily dismissed $105-million-dollar lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 9,000 contributors following HuffPost’s 2011 acquisition by AOL), pageview-mongering headlines, and often-bare repackaging of other outlets’ content, HuffPost ultimately deserves credit for its more recent strong showings in original journalism—not to mention its continued commitment to growing its reportorial staff.
[Profile updated October 31, 2012]
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“We’ve always been a for-profit business, we’ve always been an ad revenue driven business, and obviously that goes hand in glove with creating content that people want to look at, delivering eyeballs,” says Roy Sekoff, the site’s editor, “but our main animating thing on the editorial side is always telling good stories.” In pursuit of that goal, the HuffPost hired reporter Arthur Delaney to add “flesh and blood” to the site’s unemployment coverage and has also attracted well-known reporters like Dan Froomkin to cover politics and Peter Goodman to cover business. Though it delights as much as any partisan outlet in throwing red meat to its liberal audience, the site’s reporting is often nuanced and fact-based—a promising sign, as Sekoff sees original news gathering as a major growth area for the site, an approach that seems to have paid off nicely for the HuffPost, which garnered a 2012 Pulitzer Prizefor National Reporting. (Disclosure: Kenneth Lerer, chairman and co-founder of The Huffington Post, is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.)
Standing in vast contrast to the site’s reportorial operation is HuffPost’s blogging network, where left-leaning celebrities type away elbow to elbow with some 15,000 hobbyists and underemployed journalists of all stripes (over 9,800 of whom began contributing in the year following the AOL acquisition), producing roughly 1,000 new postings per day—all of which serve as fodder for the great HuffPost pageview engine, and none of which cost the site a dime in writers’ fees. Of the site’s more than 300 editorial employees (the site added 170 editorial positions post-merger), a mere twenty stand bravely, side by side, screening, copyediting, and sandbag-filling to try and direct this wave of content throughout HuffPost’s fifty-six verticals.
“We have a very active team that does, I would say, yeoman’s work, of looking at the posts and giving them really conscientious reads,” says Sekoff. “Both looking over them for content, and looking for what’s special, what’s worthy of being featured.” The best and most potentially click-inducing of that content is displayed prominently throughout the site, and it’s handy to click here, and navigate to the “all time” most viewed tab, to get a sense of the blog networks offerings.
AOL acquired HuffPost in February 2011 for $315 million. Prior to that, the site had been a decided hit in the venture capital world, securing $25 million from Oak Investment Partners in December of 2008. (You can read CJR’s lengthy account of the early days of HuffPost here.) According to HuffPost’s own numbers, the site’s audience has grown exponentially since the AOL merger, with a 47 percent increase in traffic bringing the site to an average of 36 million unique visitors per month as of February 2012. The publication has also made great strides in the social networking arena, boasting 1.4 million Facebook referrals in a single day (January 4, 2012). The company earns the majority of its revenue from national advertising (even the local edition verticals display national ads). In August of 2012, the publication launched HuffPost Live, a video streaming network that features twelve hours of live, original programming five days per week, with highlights rebroadcast overnight and during the weekend.
It might be somewhat ironic that the site has leveraged the traffic and income provided by its rather lowbrow sensibilities into the mainstream, it’s difficult to pin down what, exactly, is wrong with that fact—no one forces a viewer to click through a bikini-clad celebrity slideshow, after all—and Sekoff sees the site rising out of its most outrageous habits. “I like the embrace of the high and the low,” he says. “With that, I would say that there are lines that I don’t think we should cross; and when we have, we’ve certainly learned from having done so.” (A fun debate on this topic appeared in the comments section of this CJR post.)
It’s a challenge for any company to grow without losing its identity and sense of purpose, and this is perhaps even more true in media, in which that identity is such an important part of what a publication provides to its audience. HuffPost will continue to grow its reporting, but the lowbrow content, the unpaid writers, and the repackaging of content necessary to be a national general interest publication without a multi-hundred person newsroom will undoubtedly remain.
Sekoff’s description of HuffPost now isn’t all that different from the one he would have given two or even five years ago. “If I was going to describe it to somebody, sitting next to them at a dinner party, [I’d say] it’s a place where you can go and, within ten minutes, you can know a little bit about everything that’s happening in the world,” says Sekoff. “And then,” he continues, unintentionally evoking the occasional sense of disorientation that can come from a visit to HuffPost, “if you want to deep dive, you could get lost in there forever.”
The Huffington Post Data
Name: The Huffington Post
City: New York, N.Y.
Revenue Sources, other: National direct ad sales.
Principal Staff: Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief; Roy Sekoff, editor.
Affiliations: purchased by AOL for $315 million in February 2011.
CMS: Proprietary (formerly used Movable Type)
CJR on The Huffington Post:
08/13/2012: HuffPost Live Luanches - It’s about conversations rather than citizen journalism, says founding editor Roy Sekoff - Michael Shapiro
05/01/12: Six Degrees of Aggregation - How The Huffington Post ate the Internet - Michael Shapiro
04/11/12: The AOL-HuffPost Show: Who’s Really in Control? - Not the media. - Erika Fry
01/13/12: Critical Juncture for HuffPo Science - With new section, David Freeman has an opportunity to raise the bar - Curtis Brainard
07/12/11: Huffington Post and “Over-Aggregation” - Where do we draw the line between aggregation and plagiarism? - The Editors
02/07/11: The Huffington Post’s Tainted Money - The befuddled legacy customers of AOL fund a bubble-era premium for Arianna & Company - Ryan Chittum
02/07/11: Parsing the AOL/HuffPo Merger - What everyone gets out of the deal, and what to look for next - Lauren Kirchner
08/29/10: HuffPo a Stripper Wearing Reading Glasses? - Joel Meares
08/05/10: Q & A: The Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney - “It’s like the government is schizophrenic about what it wants to do to alleviate the jobs crisis” - Joel Meares
05/10/10: The Huffington Post Turns Five - CJR reporters reflect on the site’s first five years - CJR Staff
05/05/10: Delacorte Lecture with Arianna Huffington - Watch the Huffington Post editor-in-chief’s lecture here - The Editors
04/13/10: The Never-Ending Story - Inside Huffington Post’s 11,000-word piece on progressive Democrats - Greg Marx
02/22/10: At HuffPost, the Old College Try - The outlet branches into college news - Megan Garber
03/01/09: Get Off the Bus - The future of pro-am journalism - Amanda Michel