The Huffington Post burst onto the UK scene in 2011 with a string of impressive guest bloggers including culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, comedian Ricky Gervais and the US ambassador to London, Louis Susman. The site, founded by Arianna Huffington in the US in 2005, had become known as the most editorially distinctive, independent brand on the web, and later caught the eye of AOL which bought it for $315m (£195m).
Since its UK launch it has more than doubled its paid staff count to 25 journalists and its blogger community has rocketed from 300 to 6,500 people, with guest blogs from Prince Charles and David Beckham. Editor-in-chief Carla Buzasi, who has been at the helm of the UK operation since its creation, describes the last two years as a “rollercoaster” ride which has seen the site establish itself as a major player in the fiercely competitive UK news landscape.
This year it scooped Consumer Website of the Year at the Online Association of Publishers (AOP) Awards, and saw Buzasi named Online Editor of the Year at the Online Media Awards in June, beating editors from BBC News, The Times, New Statesman, Press Gazette and Elle Magazine.
Buzasi says launching the site in the UK – a market dominated by decades and even centuries-old media brands – was one of the most challenging moments of her career. “When we first launched here people were interested in what we were doing but most probably thought we were going to be a small blog site. Now we are seen as a major player in the UK news landscape.
“Winning best consumer website at the AOPs this year was amazing because we were up against the likes of Mail Online, Vogue, and Vice and it really recognised the fact that we have shifted perceptions of this brand,” she says.
Breaking a new, online-only proposition into a market filled with heavyweight brands has been a tough but exciting journey, according to Busazi. “People in this country were crying out for a platform in which their opinions could be heard and we fulfil that need.”
Since its US launch in 2005, the Huffington Post has dropped the “internet newspaper” identity it initially cultivated to be regarded as a “digital destination” for opinions, debate, and news on subjects ranging from politics to lifestyle and entertainment. Digital channels have transformed the news reporting world, with social networks like Twitter becoming as much a source of news as an effective, alternative distribution channel for media owners.
“Readers are no longer passive when they consume media. News has become about conversations. The age-old model of editors prescribing the news and people reading it is going. They now want to comment voraciously, or if not comment themselves they like reading others comments. That approach to what is happening in the news is really fascinating and something that makes the Huffington Post feel like a lively experience,” she says.
Publishers must look beyond their own web domains to social platforms and other destinations where their audiences may be to ensure they can meet their everchanging demands, according to Buzasi. Never was this more apparent than in 2012 when one of the deadliest hurricanes in history hit the US.
“When super storm Sandy hit the US our servers went down and we lost the site for about 12 hours. That could have been a complete disaster, but we just switched to our social media pages on Twitter and Facebook and had exactly the same amount of content running through those networks.
“It ended up being one of our best ever days for traffic because when the site came back online there were so many people consuming content elsewhere they all then came back to the main site. It shows that in this digital age you can’t just be focused on your site. You must be where your readers are,” she says.
Whether it be via the use of social media or the tailoring of content to suit mobile devices, news reporting is now more about having conversations with readers, wherever and whenever they want to have them, according to Busazi. Adapting to the ‘always-on’ culture of media consumption must be a priority for all media owners.
“The time when you would monitor peak times, which would be first thing in the morning or at lunch time, has to a certain extent gone out of the window, because people will be checking news wherever they are. You can get Wi-Fi on the tube now – people want to consume content on their own terms.”
Yet despite this trend towards participatory content creation, it is vital to balance that with editorial judgment or “gut instinct”, she adds. Having made its name in the online arena, the Huffington Post is now focusing on moving its brand into the offline world. In the last few months it launched The Third Metric in the US and UK – a female-focused movement kick-started by Arianna Huffington, a woman who Busazi describes as an “amazing” role model.
The Third Metric events centre on redefining success beyond money and power, putting more focus on mindfulness and wellbeing, according to Busazi. It will feature inspirational women talking about how they have got to where they are, and that success is more than money and power.
“Women are definitely not represented enough in media. There aren’t many female newspaper editors in this country and that’s really sad. “It is tough, especially now as there are fewer jobs, but if you believe in it enough there is no reason why you can’t succeed. It’s such an interesting time to work in this space – everyone is experimenting and trying new things and it’s a time when brands like the Huffington Post can gain cut-through quite quickly,” she says.
It also held an event earlier this year called ‘Iraq: seven years on’, which was attended by more than 700 people and became a trending topic on Twitter. “This showed the Huffington Post brand can live outside the website, and we want to do more there. My mission is to make Huffington Post a household name,” adds Buzasi.