The road ahead for The Huffington Post: Nine months and a merger later, ‘Capital-J Journalism’ is still a work in progress
A few gems from Joe’s story:
The stats on staffing
Huffington and two of her generals in the battle to professionalize The Huffington Post, Tim O’Brien and Peter Goodman, told Capital that since the merger, they’d hired 200 journalists, created a 10-person desk of news editors, and were publishing between 50 and 60 originally reported, real news items a day, with several large features a week clocking in at more than 3,000 words.
On Tim O’Brien and Peter Goodman as the HuffPo’s high-quality generals
They have adjacent offices, and one is often seen visiting the other, Goodman with his thick-black glasses, neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a bald dome that caps his six-foot-three frame. O’Brien is a bit shorter and a bit more stocky, and speaks in a pitch slightly higher than Goodman’s baritone. Numerous staffers described the latter editor as an avuncular boss; “caring and understanding,” said one of them—although others have pegged Goodman as short-tempered and prone to “yelling” and “testy exchanges,” as someone who has worked with him put it.
“I plead guilty to caring passionately about the work that we do, and expecting a lot from my reporters and colleagues,” Goodman said. “Anytime you’re in a situation that matters, emotions can enter in.”
O’Brien was described by sources as a solid mentor, a meticulous editor who takes care over copy, as well as being a “door-is-always-open” kind of supervisor; although as with Goodman, several sources described a hot-tempered side.
“Bottom line,” said a person who has worked with him. “If you get bruised easily, you’re gonna have a hard time. But if you have a thick skin and want to do really great journalism, then he’s a great person to work for.”
Copy editors are real
The vast majority of the original stories are handled by the news desk, a team of 10 line-editor copy-editor hybrids that O’Brien installed immediately following the merger. They’re responsible for managing the churn of the news flow while O’Brien, Goodman and the other senior editors get down and dirty with hands-on editing for the more ambitious features.
A crude divide
On Tuesday, July 12, Nico Pitney, the site’s managing editor, sent an email to newsroom staffers asking them to attend a “special meeting with HuffPost’s founding editor Roy Sekoff and some other guests.”
Sekoff was the first to address the standing-room-only crowd (and others who were conferenced in by phone). He guided the assembled staffers through a PowerPoint presentation and delivered what one person in attendance described as his standard “stump speech” about the so-called “Huffington Post DNA.” He told them that successful aggregation means adding value, intelligently contextualizing the reporting of others, packaging things well. Don’t take too much, and ask yourself whether you’ve extracted all the value, he advised. He also called up some of his favorite headlines of late, such as the abbreviated screamer that was splashed across the homepage following the arrest in May of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn: “OMG IMF.”
Next up was Goodman, who channeled the sort of gospel one would expect from someone who spent “two decades in traditional newspaper journalism,” according to the bio on his personal website: Be thorough. Check your facts. Worry about getting it right, not about getting clicks. And if you have any doubt as to whether you can aggregate a story fairly, no matter how big the story may be, better to leave it to the competitors. The upshot, according to insiders familiar with the meeting, was that traffic is not the most important thing, and that page views should be earned by producing content that is trustworthy and compelling, not merely sensational.
But then Huffington Post’s chief technology officer, Paul Berry, who was running late, and had therefore missed Goodman’s speech, showed up and put in his two cents: Traffic is the most important thing.
He explained that if a story gets a lot of page views that means it’s good: Quality and clicks correlate directly. Goodman listened from the sidelines without interrupting. It was awkward.
“It seemed to sum up this cognitive dissonance that’s going on between these two theories on how to do things,” an attendee later recalled.
Aggregating for the good of humanity
Huffington is convinced that the brand can stretch wide enough to coherently offer deep, long-form investigative journalism and slideshows and gossip and celebrity news. In fact, it’s unapologetically part of her vision for the site.
“If you’re talking about a contribution to humanity,” she said, laughing, “I would say definitely David Wood’s series or Arthur Delaney’s stories on the unemployed or our amazing coverage of foreclosures is driving the national conversation in a way our slideshows of adorable kittens and babies [are not]. They definitely provide pleasure to people who click on them, and we’ve always been from the beginning an unashamed mixture of highbrow and lowbrow.”
Lots more beyond the click