HuffPost’s flagship role at the heart of the new media behemoth Oath

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

At 12 years old, the Huffington Post is the grand old lady of digital native global news publishing with a monthly audience of 200 million and world-leading engagement on Facebook.

But it is at a critical juncture in its history and it faces a brand identity challenge.

Its editorial team, under new editor-in-chief and former New York Times foreign correspondent Lydia Polgreen, is pursuing a revamped campaigning agenda that champions the voiceless, or the “people who feel left out of the political and economic power arrangements”, as she put it to me in an interview earlier this year.

Simultaneously, HuffPost – as it has recently been rebranded – has undergone another major change in its complex ownership history, meaning that this champion of the “have nots” now sits at the heart of one of the richest, most powerful media and communications conglomerates on earth.

The $4.5bn purchase of Yahoo by telecoms giant Verizon in June means that HuffPost is part of the Verizon media subsidiary, Oath, grouped with Yahoo News, Yahoo Finance, Tumblr, TechCrunch, Flickr and Engadget. Walk into the newsroom of HuffPost’s six-year-old UK operation, one of 17 international editions, and you find Yahoo journalists sitting side-by-side with those from the site named after media pioneer Arianna Huffington (and sold to AOL in 2011).

Commercially, Oath has rolled together Yahoo’s Storytellers branded content team with AOL’s Partner Studios operation. Collectively, they are now known as RYOT Studio, taking the name from the virtual reality studio that AOL acquired last year. RYOT won an Emmy (and an Oscar nomination) for Body Team 12, a documentary on the lives of Red Cross workers in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, and is applying its expertise in immersive filmmaking to both editorial and commercial projects.

HuffPost’s position within Oath and as part of Verizon (which bought AOL for $4.4bn in 2015), offers enormous collaborative opportunities, whatever industry cynics might say of the past mismanagement of internet giants AOL and Yahoo.

But for the new editor of HuffPost UK, Polly Curtis, it is the campaigning editorial agenda which most attracted her to to the role.

New editor prioritises 'real world' reporting

Curtis actually worked for British Red Cross, as director of media, before joining HuffPost this summer. Her brief time in the NGO sector, after 15 years working as a news journalist for the Guardian, has shaped her view of media communication. "What the Red Cross gave me was this deep understanding of brand and your relationship with whoever your audience is,” she says. ‘Whether it’s volunteers, donors or readers, you have to have that strong presence and an understanding of who they are and why they are going to come to you.”

At British Red Cross, Curtis oversaw the charity’s media response to tragedies such as the Manchester terror attack and the Grenfell Tower fire. At Grenfell, while working alongside both the fire victims and the Gold Command response team, she became convinced that “in my heart of hearts” she was a journalist who needed to tell the story of the societal inequality that contributed to the disaster. “It was like two completely separate worlds and it was a complete epiphany in how far the establishment, even people who really want to help, are away from the real lived experience of people on the ground.”

She aims to focus HuffPost’s 34-strong UK newsroom on this “real world” approach to reporting. In addition to wanting detailed reporting of politics in Westminster and Washington, she wants to measure the human impact of government policy. “I am really interested in people’s working lives, I think our whole happiness and prosperity, everything from Brexit to sexual harassment plays out in our working lives,” she says.

HuffPost is big on lifestyle content, and 58% of its UK readers are female, a statistic Curtis describes as “really precious”. She wants to provide “a rounded news service that does everything from what’s going on in America to how to bring up your kids and how to navigate a phone bill”. HuffPost runs sections on lifestyle subjects such as “Wellbeing” and “Thriving Parents”.

One challenge she faces is that HuffPost UK’s audience – of around 11 million monthly users – is heavily London-skewed, with a sizeable number of readers coming from America, where the brand is, of course, best-known. She recognises that HuffPost is still not full understood by many news consumers and plans to restructure her newsroom to have a permanent presence in cities outside London. “We just need to get reporters permanently out of the office and into the country,” she says. “I think Birmingham is massively under reported, it’s such a big city and houses so many of the issues that are really at the heart of the national debate at the moment.” Manchester, she says, is another “obvious place” where HuffPost needs a presence.

In America, HuffPost has had to acknowledge its past failings in having a national perspective. In its election coverage, it stigmatised Donald Trump by covering him under the category of entertainment, rather than politics, in what Curtis acknowledges was a “symbolic misreading of the mood of the country”.

To address this problem, Polgreen recently organised a 22-state bus tour designed to connect her journalists with areas of the country that the site had previously underreported and misunderstood.

Curtis will not be authorising a UK HuffPost bus tour. ‘We can’t be fly by,” she says. “What I want to do is do a more permanent presence, and that will also mean hiring locally because we can’t parachute people in who don’t know the areas or don’t have links to the areas.”

Harnessing Oath's consumer data

If HuffPost can build a genuinely national UK audience with a content offering that has already demonstrated a particular appeal to female readers, it will offer a compelling client offer for Mark Melling, head of Oath’s 50-strong RYOT Studio UK team, based in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.

“HuffPost is really focused on the audience and the things that they care about,” he says. “Its tagline for a long time has been ‘Join The Conversation’. For us at RYOT that’s our philosophy as well [and] in branded content that’s what brands want to do – they want to join the conversation.”

RYOT – which combines RYOT Studio with the editorial divisions RYOT News and RYOT Films, and the tech arm RYOT Labs – was co-founded by humanitarian filmmaker Bryn Mooser and has its roots in immersive films that call viewers to take action.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, it can offer commercial clients “Hollywood level” production skills in virtual and augmented reality and 360-degree filming, says Melling.

In the UK, RYOT recently produced for Paramount an augmented reality film to promote the Jennifer Lawrence thriller “Mother!” RYOT commissioned graffiti artist and GIF specialist INSA to repeatedly rework a 33-foot high billboard image to create a moving film. The UK team is working on a 360-degree film for Jack Daniel’s as part of a campaign celebrating the Tennessee whisky brand’s role in popular culture.

Melling stresses the importance of the high quality data that RYOT and Oath can access to determine the online habits of consumers. “We reach 85% of the population in the UK,” he says of the Oath family. “We have incredible first-party data that not only knows what our consumers are doing on our sites but what they are doing throughout the rest of online, what they care about.”

This might be appealing to commercial partners but not all consumers will be reassured by such scrutiny, given the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 that Verizon (and other American phone companies) provided all details of customer phone records to the American government’s National Security Agency. Only this summer Verizon accidentally leaked online the data of 6 million customers.

But Melling talks of the advantages of matching communities of news users with brands that share interests. “There has been a departure, particularly in branded content, away from [targeting] ABC1 to ‘I want people who have a certain mindset’,” he says. “My job is to bring brands to those communities which exist within HuffPost – such as people who are into wellfullness and measure success by happiness or belonging rather than traditional metrics like wealth.”

HuffPost, he says, is looking at life through “a completely different lens” from other publishers who obsess over financial riches and luxury advertisers.

Curtis would not disavow this idea. HuffPost, having built such scale that it is frequently the largest news brand on Facebook, is having to rethink and deepen its relationship with its audience. In this, she argues, it is following an encouraging industry-wide trend.

“What I love about this period in journalism is that, after years of chasing hits and it all being about reach, we are all coming back to being true to ourselves,” she says. “All media brands are having to develop a more loyal audience that will stick with them and I think we are all doing better journalism because of that.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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