The Huffington Post’s UK operation has not been a rousing success. Nick Denys investigates why, concluding that a lack of editorial leadership and mediocre hires may be to blame.
On the day that AOL purchased the Huffington Post, for a reported $315 million, the two companies said: “The combination of AOL’s infrastructure and scale with the Huffington Post’s pioneering approach to news and innovative community-building … will mark a seminal moment in the evolution of digital journalism and online engagement.”
Expansion plans were ambitious and rapidly executed. In July 2011, the Huffington Post launched its first operation outside North America: a UK edition of its phenomenally successful US website. But the new super-blog has failed to live up to the hype – to put it mildly.
AOL does not release traffic statistics for its extremities, but sources close to the company’s British operations have confirmed to The Kernel that traffic is desperately disappointing and user engagement virtually non-existent. So what went wrong?
Firstly, American arrogance. When HuffPo was born in 2005, internet penetration was already at impressive levels in the UK. Brits were able to look at thousands of websites from all over the globe, including those from the United States.
Yet Arianna Huffington seemed to be under the impression that the launch of HuffPo UK would be greeted as a revolutionary marvel by the British – as if she were the first person to bring fire to these isles.
But the website is an off-the-shelf group blogging platform. Perhaps six years ago, when the American version was launched, such a model was “innovative” and “pioneering”, but the UK version has done nothing to advance public debate in Britain.
Secondly, there is a serious problem with the calibre of its staff and contributors, who have proved unable to deliver significant exclusive scoops nor opinion pieces of sufficiently high quality to make a name for the site.
When was the last time you heard a television anchor say: “As reported by the Huffington Post UK”? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that HuffPo UK’s reporters are regurgitating monkeys, while its columnists are mediocre and poorly chosen. Indeed, the over-riding impression, on browsing the site, is of stale mediocrity.
Social media in this country is a dynamic, competitive and well-entrenched environment. Ev Williams went so far as to call London the capital of Twitter in 2009.
To their credit, most newspapers have understood that their on-line presence needs to be managed differently from their physical products. The Telegraph and Mail have roster of specialist bloggers who embrace the online format. The Telegraph, particularly, has done this to great effect, under the leadership of new blogs editor Damian Thompson.
The Guardian and Spectator sites are even open to articles from writers not on the company payroll.
HuffPo UK needed to compete in this landscape, not act either as if the wheel needed to be reinvented or as though “what worked for the US would work here”. That lack of attention to internationalisation is a hallmark of AOL’s catastrophic prior attempts to launch into fresh markets.
To give an example: British readers have always preferred to read newspapers and magazines that have a clear ideological vision. The most popular standalone blogs, such as Conservative Home, Liberal Conspiracy and Mumsnet, have clear and unabashed worldviews.
If you were to ask active social media enthusiasts and news junkies what HuffPo UK stood for, I’m pretty sure you’d struggle to get a coherent answer out of them. Where does HuffPo UK come from? What is it for? I, personally, do not have a clue.
The HuffPo deal is that you provide the content, for free, and they will provide the platform and an audience. But thanks to social media this “offer” is becoming obsolete, absent the eyeballs HuffPo in the US can offer.
If I can’t get a handle on what a site is about, I have no motivation to pay it a speculative visit. If I don’t know who the audience is, I don’t have any inclination to write for it, either.
The Kernel understands from a number of sources that, on average, blogs submitted to HuffPo UK take over two days to clear. In a world where the instant can be very important to news services, such delays are unconscionable.
Since the explosion in popularity of Twitter, we have all become our own promotional engines. Blogs that resonate spread quickly through Facebook, LinkedIn, message boards and other forums.
Good writing comes to you, via curation from those you trust, which obviates the need to visit ill-defined group blogging platforms with tired Leftist biases.
The UK is not like the US. Writers and their motivations are different and so are our readers.
If AOL wants to achieve its aims, the company needs loosen the HuffPo straight-jacket. Give those who run the outposts a budget and freedom to tailor the platform so that it provides the content the audience wants. And, for the love of God, hire some talented managers and some decent journalists.
What worked in 2005 for Arianna Huffington in California will not work and has not worked in London in 2012. Without a dramatic change in editorial direction and wholesale replacement of editorial and commercial staff, the Huffington Post UK looks headed for the dead pool.
Given AOL’s ruthless attitude to failure, that doesn’t bode well for the company’s rumoured expansions into Europe and the Far East with TechCrunch and Engadget.