Content Overload: Will Germans Embrace Their Own HuffPo?
The Huffington Post churns out masses of low-cost content ranging from tabloid fodder to award-winning investigative journalism. But many doubt that the media juggernaut's planned German edition will attract readers.
Arianna Huffington is tuning out. The woman behind the Huffington Post, a 24-hour Internet juggernaut that churns out 1,600 new stories a day, is relaxing on a cushioned reclining chair, ignoring her purple BlackBerry as it beeps away next to the chair.
The online news aggregator, which Huffington founded in 2005 and is now preparing to conquer the world, is headquartered on New York's trendy Lower East Side. In a loft-like office space, young men and women type away in front of long rows of monitors, some of them speaking intently into headsets like NASA engineers preparing for a launch. In the command center of "HuffPo," as the roughly 700 employees call their site, editors work around the clock, launching posts, blogs and videos. Huffington is regularly giving them new targets for the number of clicks to the website.
The HuffPo currently has 46 million monthly users in the United States alone -- more than the New York Times -- as well as 3 million followers on Twitter and about 50,000 blogger contributors. When the first employees of the video division HuffPo Live go home in the evening, other employees in Los Angeles, where it is three hours earlier, take over. After all, the Internet never sleeps.
But all is quiet behind the door of the relaxation room. Huffington, wearing designer high heels, an elegant jacket and heavy makeup, has said that she doesn't allow any electronic devices in her bedroom at home, just printed books. "We also have to be able to find the off button for technology," she says.
Conquering the World
The technology pioneer, whose business is based on speeding things up, portrays herself as a technology skeptic determined to take things slowly. It's one of those ironic twists that Huffington loves.
Michael Kinsley, founder of the online magazine Slate, once said that she has already led at least nine lives. Huffington, born in Greece in 1950, has been a student at Cambridge who loved debates, the wife of a wealthy man, a contender for the California governorship, an author ("On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life"), a staunch right-wing activist, a staunch left-leaning blogger and, most of all, a talented networker.
But now Huffington is also preparing to become the most influential journalist on the planet, the mistress of a media empire upon which the sun literally never sets. Huffington was in Japan a few days ago, where she has just launched another international edition of the HuffPo, alongside the ones already in place in Canada, France, Italy, Spain and the UK. She is also making plans to expand into Australia, Brazil, India and Russia. And in September, "definitely before the parliamentary election," she plans to launch the German edition of the HuffPo as part of a joint venture with Tomorrow Focus AG, a Munich-based provider of digital media content.
Giving Readers What They Want
But her latest role also involves a contradiction, one as immense as the contradiction between a nap room and a fast-paced editorial center, between a business that thrives on speed and the desire to slow things down. The real question is: Can what Huffington does even be considered journalism?
The most popular stories on her motley website have titles like "Eva Longoria Wardrobe Malfunction Exposes Actress' Lower Half At Cannes," "Florida Teen Faces Felony Charges Over Same-Sex Relationship" and "Justin Bieber Booed at Billboard Music Awards," all complete with clickable photos and videos.
The HuffPo headline "What Time Does the Superbowl Start?" is legendary in the industry. Aside from search terms, the accompanying copy contained nothing more than the starting time. The editors knew that millions of US readers would be typing the search term "super bowl" into Google. They had even intentionally misspelled it as one word because they knew that this is the way it is most commonly written as a search term. The story ended up at the top of the page on Google. The site is also filled with lists, such as "America's Ten Least Brainy Cities." As Lori Leibovich, head of the lifestyle section, says: "Readers love lists."
Former employees say that a large proportion of HuffPo editors were solely responsible for clever "aggregation" in the initial phase, which explains the mammoth click rates. The term sounds lofty, but in editorial parlance it simply means searching stories from other media for catchy quotes or excerpts, and then marketing them with a search-engine friendly headline. Or liberally lifting parts of a Playboy interview with actor James Franco and billing the "summary" as one's own article.
Referring to this behavior, Bill Keller, former editor-in-chief of the New York Times, wrote: "In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model."
In responding to such charges Huffington, in her office filled with books and print magazines, speaks as patiently as someone explaining the benefits of the automobile to a coachman. "We are not a classic website, but a platform," she says. In other words, she gives readers what they want, and she allows them to communicate as they please.
Mostly Unpaid Contributors
A large share of the HuffPo stories are supplied by bloggers, a group that includes both celebrities and nobodies in the United States. Other bloggers include many liberal and hip political activities, a cross-section of President Barack Obama's America. The HuffPo openly supported Obama in the campaign. And Huffington herself is constantly recruiting. When she speaks to 2,000 people at a conference, she gives out her personal email address at the end, thinking that maybe someone is interested in blogging with for the HuffPo.
Editors copy-edit the blog entries a little, give the best stories prominent billing and try to filter out insults or PR. Of course, they can hardly discipline the bloggers seeing that the HuffPo pays them nothing -- based on the logic that fame should be their compensation. When the Internet company AOL acquired the site for $315 million (242 million) in 2011, Huffington wrote a very upbeat email to her bloggers, telling them that they could now reach 250 million users worldwide. But she made no mention of profit-sharing.
As a result, even senior editors have no influence on the site's most important opinion forums. "I have nothing to do with the blogs," says Peter Goodman, who was made executive business editor of the HuffPo in 2010, after working as a correspondent for the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Goodman, 46, is primarily responsible for investigative stories. He wants to prove that research also works in an environment in which cat videos get more clicks than exclusive news stories, and that diligence and speed can go hand in hand. Goodman proudly talks about his 12-member team of reporters, who increasingly no longer do their research from their desks. He raves about the HuffPo series about disabled veterans, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and about how many readers can find a story about social injustice when it is featured at the top of the webpage.
"Some people were amazed that I was leaving the Times for the HuffPo," says Goodman. "Now former colleagues approach me and ask if they can work for us." While the Times has even had to sell part of the building it occupies in Manhattan, and the Washington Post has closed all of its branch offices in the US, the HuffPo continues to invest, even in investigative journalism.
It is also much more effectively designed than the established competition, wrote Reuters blogger Felix Salmon. "The NYT page is like walking into a library, while the HuffPo page is like walking through Times Square."
Will It Work in Germany ?
But can Huffington's colorful platform work in other countries, where shrill tabloid and investigative journalism are still more strictly separated? Where bloggers are often still seen as people who spend their day in front of the computer in their underwear, and where hardly anyone knows that Arianna Huffington is on a first-name basis with celebrities like former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the Dalai Lama? For the British edition, the numbers have so far been modest. In France, it caused a stir when Anne Sinclair, wife of disgraced former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was hired as editor-in-chief. But the website hasn't attracted much attention since then.
And in Germany? Huffington approached all major German publishers, including the SPIEGEL publishing house. But her economic ideas stood in the way of an agreement. Besides, Americans underestimate the strong Internet presence of German public broadcasting institutions and publishing houses, says Alexander Görlach, founder of the German opinion magazine The European.
Even the Burda publishing house, with which Huffington has a strong relationship, preferred to foist the project onto Tomorrow Focus AG, in which it has almost a 60-percent stake. Headed by Managing Director Oliver Eckert, 15 online editors will run the new website. Industry insiders estimate the investment budget to be about 2 million.
In the industry, Eckert is considered rather ruthless when it comes to increasing clicks. He whipped up the readership of the website of the weekly news magazine Focus, partly through radical search engine optimization and linking to social networks. The site is now in third place among German online media sites, behind Bild.de and SPIEGEL ONLINE.
This is also probably what the model for the German version of the HuffPo will look like. The company plans to arouse curiosity by using high-profile bloggers. "I've received many inquiries from academics, politicians, doctors and lawyers," says Eckert, although he is unwilling to mention any names.
Eckert is currently searching for an editor-in-chief. The candidate has to have five years of business experience and "cooperation between the editorial office and the sales department should be a given," the employment ad reads. But will it turn a profit? Even the main American site has made money in only one year, and even then just barely.
Eckert is unconcerned. "What we are doing is not a case for the ancillary copyright law," he says. "The Huffington Post is expressly not an aggregator, like Google News, for example. We fully support the ancillary copyright law, and we only link to content when this is in compliance with the law."
A copy-and-paste form of journalism, of the sort the US HuffPo repeatedly practices, is hardly likely to be covered by German copyright law. But, of course, this leads to the question of how 15 journalists intend to fill the German website with content on their own, 365 days a year.
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Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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