behind the news

HuffPost Live Launches

It’s about conversations rather than citizen journalism, says founding editor Roy Sekoff
August 13, 2012

When Huffington Post Live launched on Monday morning, its founding editor, Roy Sekoff, quickly found reasons to be proud of the work he put into building the video streaming service.

“One of the first ideas that I ever had was the segment called Defend Your Comment, Sekoff said. “What if we got a commenter who said something really strong on site and got them on air to defend their comment? We did our inaugural one this morning. I did allow myself a few minutes to watch, and it was great!”

The first Defend Your Comment tackled one reader’s response to President Barack Obama’s assertion that he is not the president of black America. The original story’s author, Boyce Watkins, was interrupted by his answering machine as he tried to defend his post via video link, in an early demonstration of the perils of having commenters beamed in from unpredictable environments.

An early strength emerged too. HuffPost Live has selected a strong roster of 10 hosts to guide debates and structure segments. In this case, host Marc Hill addressed the interruption immediately, moved the conversation on, and kept things good natured.

Defend Your Comment demonstrates some of the key ideas behind HuffPost Live. First, HuffPost Live is meant to be an extension of the Huffington Post brand, feeding hits to and from the site, rather than a separate entity, Sekoff said. A section called Hot On, is supposed to bring attention to the biggest stories on HuffPost, but Sekoff said that he felt, after a morning’s worth of video, that they could do that better. “There were moments that felt a bit like I was told about what was essentially a textual experience, and it didn’t come to life for me,” he said. “Those are things that I would like to see improved, or snipped.”

Second, HuffPost Live is more never-ending conversation than traditional newscast. There are no reporters breaking stories. Instead, the site is making use of HuffPost’s two million comments a week, 70 percent of which are posted in response to another comment, and bringing them to a new platform.

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The rolling comment box next to the video content was so busy on launch day that it was sometimes impossible to follow the conversation. Sekoff said the number of those who clicked on the huge red banner to “Join This Segment” via video was high. But he shies away from calling it citizen journalism. “I think of it more as an exercise in expanding the conversation – giving voice to people who are not heard in the traditional media,” he said.

Third, as those first guests beamed in to talk about Obama showed, HuffPost Live is a curated experience, not an uncontrolled chat room. A virtual green room allows people to put their hands up to be in a segment a few hours beforehand, and those selected are very carefully screened. “We don’t really want people to come on who don’t have something to add, and we don’t want the same talking heads,” said Sekoff. “We want our rollerdecks to be social media explosions, where I can see someone that’s sent an interesting tweet, contact them via direct message and have them come join us.”

Their biggest challenge may be keeping their audience when the first-day excitement wears off. The site will livestream 12 hours of programming, five days a week, with highlights overnight and on the weekends. That’s a lot of conversation to maintain. Sekoff says they’ll do it with a mixture of dedication and adaptability.

“It’s a commitment of mine that we look different on day 50 than we do on day one,” he said. “I’ll be so bold as to say that I hope we look different on day 10 than we do on day one. That’s going to be my job for the next five, 10 years.”

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.