Huffington Post Highline cuts through the noise

September 25, 2015

It doesn’t feel like a Huffington Post story—it feels like a tome. The narrative is historical and methodical, exhaustive and, at times, exhausting. It’s 58,000 words split over 15 chapters, one released each day since Sept. 15.

“If you come to something online that’s a massive thing, your first reaction is that you can’t read all of that: I have things to do all day,” says Steven Brill, author of the hulking exposé. “But if you present it in relatively digestible chunks, and you allow people to go back a day or two days before to re-read what they missed, it becomes much like a book … . This is what Dickens did.”

As Brill writes in his first installment of “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker,” about the ethically questionable practices of medical supply empire Johnson & Johnson, the story “should make us wonder about the prescription drugs that are so much a part of our lives.” The topic is poorly understood, despite its ubiquity. And Brill’s piece does a service by delving into the misleading marketing practices, regulatory maneuvering, research cover-ups, and legal armor of such a powerful health care company.

It’s the latest coup for Huffington Post Highline, the digital giant’s self-contained magazine initiative chasing a narrowly focused goal: a single, nuanced, big-picture feature each week (Brill’s epic being an exception). Its site is sleek and uncluttered, the antithesis of that of its mothership. Through this format, to say nothing of rigorous reporting, Highline breaks through the noise. And it’s already been a dynamic addition to The Huffington Post’s seemingly endless stream of content.

To borrow a phrase from one of Dickens’ most famous characters, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

The venture launched in July—following a preview story published in May—with a mandate to become “a new digital home for an old journalistic tradition…a magazine that only runs cover stories.” While new media’s talk of such in-depth storytelling often reaches the point of cliche, Highline has so far delivered on that promise, providing something decidedly different than The Huffington Post’s traditional fare.

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“It’s important that it’s the Huffington Post Highline,” says Greg Veis, one of two executive editors. “It has the HuffPo DNA, but it’s very much its own thing.”

That “HuffPo DNA” already spans a diverse organization sprawling across geographic and editorial divides. The site boasts dual armies of unpaid bloggers and staff editors who pull in hordes of readers with rapid-fire opinions or social-driven aggregations. It produces mountains of video through HuffPost Live. And it boasts a cadre of beat reporters who provide fast-paced news coverage at home and abroad, also mixing in enterprise and accountability work. With this last group especially, however, the reality is that The Huffington Post’s original journalism often gets lost amid a tsunami of made-for-virality content.

So far, the new venture has profiled the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, labeling him “the most charming man in Washington.” It chronicled the alleged drugging and rape of The Runaways’ bassist, Jackie Fuchs, in front of her bandmates, an assault that rock legend Joan Jett continues to deny took place. It featured one West Virginia town’s struggle to come to terms with public health issues thought to be linked to a local chemical plant, a huge regional employer. And it busted “the myth of the ethical shopper,” a common belief held among Westerners that we can fight sweatshop labor with our checkbooks.

While some startups’ longform initiatives often seem to stretch stories too thin in order to earn the “longform” label, Highline’s pieces don’t read like vanity projects. They add a deliberate voice to a media company that both benefits and suffers from multiple editorial personalities.

What’s unknown, of course, is the strength of The Huffington Post’s commitment to this goal. The nonprofit Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a previous attempt at crafting a dedicated enterprise arm, merged with the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 after just a year. A Huffington Post spokeswoman did not make staffers involved in mapping out the strategy for Highline (part of the for-profit newsroom) available for comment. But Veis says: “We came to an understanding that we’re all working toward the same goal. It’s been a tremendous amount of support, which has been unwavering.”

He and his fellow executive editor, Rachel Morris, both jumped from a sinking New Republic in December. They joined The Huffington Post the following month to create Highline, whose full-time staff also includes a multimedia producer and an associate editor. Veis and Morris have attracted top-flight magazine talent to contribute, including Julia Ioffe, Rebecca Traister, and Brill, in addition to Huffington Post reporters. 

“We’re in a market not only with BuzzReads [BuzzFeed’s longform initiative] and Matter, but also the longer-running print magazines,” Veis says. “So I feel like part of our deal is to pay like a print magazine.” He wouldn’t elaborate on rates. 

Highline reads like a print magazine, though the site also has The Huffington Post’s vaunted social media infrastructure at its back. “One of the things that you always struggle with [as a print magazine] is how to get the piece beyond your subscriber base to a wider audience that, over time, hopefully grows your subscriber base,” Morris says. “One of the things that’s been so exciting for us is the ability to get a certain number of people on the page. Keeping them on the page is our job.”

Veis says the 11 stories published so far have attracted an audience “in the millions,” but he won’t expand on individual stories’ traffic. The feature on The Runaways’ bassist “was the most-read piece on all of The Huffington Post the week it was published,” Veis says. The story was shared more than 80,000 times across social media, according to MuckRack analytics.

That piece captured the nascent magazine arm’s emerging sensibility. “There has to be a large idea illuminating the piece,” Morris says. The feature wasn’t just the story of one woman’s sexual assault, but rather a case study in how society often shirks its responsibility to prevent and respond to such attacks. The profile of the UAE’s ambassador, meanwhile, dissects how one man, backed by a deep-pocketed foreign government, can have a huge impact on American policy.

Highline is only in its infancy, even by the standards of the decade-old Huffington Post. Stories have been text-centric so far—“We started with the thing that we know best,” Morris says—but they’re interjected with video interviews, photography, and graphics, a la The New York Times’ “Snowfall.” Veis says the initiative will also experiment with additional forms of storytelling. Brill’s piece, for example, was also produced as a podcast.

“The basic goal is the same,” Veis says, noting that he and Morris “grew up working at print magazines.” He adds, “It just has to be good.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.