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How HuffPost UK broke free of the London bubble with its national news coverage

HuffPost UK was named ‘Best Site for News-led Journalism’ at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. Here, the team behind the site reveal the challenges faced and the strategies used to deliver a successful 12 months of news reporting.

The challenge

HuffPost UK is a news website that understands its audience and constantly pushes the boundaries of what a digital-only outlet can achieve.

HuffPost UK established itself in 2019 as a must-read news provider that is doing digital journalism differently, bringing incisive, distinctive work and compelling human reporting to an engaged and loyal audience. From a deep-rooted commitment to report Britain as it is actually lived, relentlessly focusing on the forgotten stories of austerity and racism that don’t make other front pages, to a concentration on investigative work that other outlets of our size don’t have, we shine a crucial light on social ills in a fast-paced digital news environment, while talking to our readers in a language they understand.

The strategy

HuffPost UK is a small team that punches way above its weight. We know our audience, and we speak their language, ensuring they are always informed and empowered to form their own opinions about what’s happening. We marry old-fashioned values of shoe-leather reporting with the sharp deftness of touch of a digital outlet.

We never forget who our audience is, and we are there to explain every twist and turn – and why you should care. In the past year we have closed our blogging platform and moved to a quality Opinion section, to seek out and champion fresh, thought-provoking new voices.

Reporting on Britain as people actually experience it is something we think about daily at HuffPost UK – helped by our decision to base reporters outside of London, in Preston and Bristol, which is rare for a small digital newsroom.

In January 2019 we launched a series around austerity, ‘What It’s Like To Lose’, that deliberately flouted traditional notions of what makes the headlines. We believed the reality of austerity in our communities wasn’t being covered properly, because the results were too small to make national news, so we launched a series of reports that focused on the granular, but very real, impact: the closure of a single leisure centre, and the impact that has on the local area; the shutting down of a bus route that was used by only a few people – who needed it to work and live as they wished.

This series received wide critical acclaim, clearly hitting a nerve among the public, and made a strong argument that newsrooms need to rethink the way we think about what makes a story if we want to properly reflect the UK.

This sort of reporting is at the heart of what we do. If you were struggling to understand the real world impact of NHS and social care cuts, our north of England correspondent brought it home to you by spending a week at the side of one bed in Blackburn Royal Hospital and telling the stories of the people who passed through it. Education cuts were made vivid when we spent a week in one primary school in Yorkshire.

Our HuffPost Life section helps readers to live the best version of the Life they have – aspirational, yes, but never preaching to them to be better, spend more, or achieve impossible standards beyond the incredible job they already do balancing their busy lives and families. We empower our readers to make choices about the products they buy, the healthcare decisions they make, and the way they spend their precious free time.

We share stories of experiences – from the sensitive to the downright hilarious – and empathy is at the heart of what we do, because we believe that life is better when we understand more about how each other lives.

The content

Our politics coverage is among the best in Westminster, with Paul Waugh and his team delivering agenda-setting scoops – such as the explosive story that Sajid Javid’s aide had been sacked by No.10 – and essential behind-the-scenes analytical pieces that put our readers at the heart of the unfolding Brexit drama and the 2019 election. Our work on the election reflected our commitment to community reporting and setting our own agenda, such as incisive stories about how South Asian politics were playing out in British Asian communities, or the anatomy of how one fake Jeremy Corbyn tweet spread across the internet.

Our entertainment team know that our readers care as much about boxsets as Brexit, and we are here to feed your obsession with the latest Netflix show, because we know that our audience needs downtime in this busy news environment.

Our agenda-setting investigation into the SPAC Nation church was an example of how we never follow the pack, choosing instead to put our limited resources into stories we know are important. SPAC had been lauded by politicians and the media alike, until our dogged reporting team of Nadine White and Emma Youle landed story after story to expose the exploitation of their young, black congregation. The victims were from a part of society often demonised by the wider media, and it took some time for other outlets to follow up our months of work. But the story has now been covered across Fleet Street, and on BBC Panorama, and the Charity Commission has announced it is investigating. HuffPost's SPAC Nation stories were praised in the House of Commons as "extraordinary investigative journalism".

We do light and shade comfortably, offering accessible, often funny takes on our extraordinary news cycle alongside serious, hardhitting scoops. In a climate where all newsrooms are juggling pressures, and digital outlets are too often accused of chasing clicks, we are unafraid to invest resources into proper reporting.

Emma Youle’s investigation into the finances of Kensington and Chelsea Council, in partnership with Bureau Local, revealed behaviour in the run up to the Grenfell disaster that would otherwise never have been in the public realm. Her work exposing the digital exclusion of 470,000 people at the mercy of the complex Universal Credit system used FOIs and data journalism to back up weeks of work in the field gaining the trust of vulnerable people and learning about their experiences.

In a crowded industry, our journalism is distinctive. In the run-up to Boris Johnson becoming prime minister, as many of us in the press debated whether his comments about Black people were racist, Nadine White went directly to people no one else was talking to – the Black community. Her piece was the only place where Black people were given a chance to talk about what words like “piccaninny” mean to them. Her article got to the heart of the story in a way that many other pieces of comment and reporting hadn’t quite managed.

The results

It is no accident HuffPost UK was the highest scoring digital native news brand for trust among audiences in the 2019 Reuters Journalism Report – we never compromise journalistic credibility or depth for speed or easy clicks.

And our role as a news organisation stretches beyond that of a content provider – we are committed to changing the wider journalism industry, because we believe it needs to adapt to thrive. In 2019 we launched the HuffPost Centre for Journalism at Birmingham City University to train a new group of diverse young people for our industry.

HuffPost UK reaches nearly 9 million readers a month who read more than 31 million pages, on average. It has a total of 3million followers on Facebook and 569k on Twitter.

This project was a winner at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. To find out more about The Drum Awards, click here.

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