Polgreen Aims To Transform The Perception Of 'HuffPost'

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 12:47 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The liberal news and entertainment site best known as The Huffington Post has one of the biggest audiences in online news, about 170 million unique readers a month. Its founder left the organization after a restructuring by its corporate parent. NPR's David Folkenflik set out to find what's happening to The Huffington Post now that Huffington has walked out the door.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: This is what the editorial voice of the site sounded like not so very long ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I believe that human beings, all of us, are a mixture of good and evil, if you want, and that the more we can encourage the better angels, it's like strengthening a muscle - the more that will be the dominant behavior.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Arianna Huffington, the founder of the site a dozen years ago and its leader until last year, a charismatic and self-created celebrity publisher who capitalized on the backlash to the Iraq War and the George W. Bush years. Here's what the site's editor-in-chief sounds like these days. Her name is Lydia Polgreen.

LYDIA POLGREEN: The biggest divide in our society, globally, is really not left and right but haves and have-nots, and you see that haves-and-have-nots divide happening very clearly in the media world.

FOLKENFLIK: Polgreen is a former reporter and editor at The New York Times, who reported with distinction from bureaus in several African countries and India. Under her leadership, the site retitle itself HuffPost.

POLGREEN: I really want to transform the perception of HuffPost. I think that we have a great reputation. People love us, but ultimately, I think media is really about brand. People consume news based on the way that they feel and what they think a particular brand says about their identity.

FOLKENFLIK: Polgreen brings her own identity to her new newsroom. She is one of the most prominent openly-lesbian journalists in America. She's also the daughter of an Ethiopian mother and a white father from the Midwest. His work as a development consultant took them to Kenya and Ghana.

POLGREEN: I was someone who was really, really longing for connection with the world. I mean, when we wanted to call my grandparents at Christmas - they lived in Wisconsin - the whole family or five of us would crowd into a little phone booth at the post office and make a very expensive, three-minute call.

FOLKENFLIK: At the point Polgreen left The New York Times last year, she was leading a $50 million initiative to expand the paper's presence in major cities around the world, like Rio, Shanghai, places where political leaders, corporate executives, lawyers, scholars and the like might each shell out hundreds of dollars annually to subscribe. Polgreen was - she admits - chasing the haves.

POLGREEN: You know, I think like a lot of folks, after the 2016 election, I had a real kind of road-to-Damascus moment, where I felt, what am I doing with my life? Am I playing the most important and effective role that I can in making the world a better place?

FOLKENFLIK: Huffington was often a master at detecting the zeitgeist, yet conversations with five current and former HuffPost journalists suggest that it suffered from mixed messages. Was it primarily for ideology, for celebrity click-bait, journalism? Was video the future, positive news, wellness? Polgreen says she wants to beef up the site's reporting and international presence. HuffPost draws more than half its readers from outside the U.S.

She dismisses any retreat from celebrity or entertainment but promises a newsier feel with a tabloid sensibility. As with The Huffington Post under Huffington, it's impossible to see Polgreen's HuffPost embracing any of last year's 17 major Republican presidential candidates. And yet, Polgreen says she wants to step out of conventional, right-left thinking. Polgreen says HuffPost will reflect the populist concerns expressed by supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

POLGREEN: I don't know what liberal and conservative even are these days. What I do know is that I think of our audience as the people who are on the outside, looking in.

FOLKENFLIK: HuffPost is owned by Verizon. The telecommunications giant hired her last fall. After acquiring Yahoo, it placed the two in the same division. Yesterday, HuffPost laid off dozens of staffers as part of that consolidation. Among them was David Wood, who won HuffPost's sole Pulitzer Prize five years ago. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.