Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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How a former Foreign Office diplomat is leading HuffPost UK into uncharted territory

Having been a Foreign Office diplomat and a senior official at Downing Street, Jimmy Leach, the new editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK, is well-equipped to cope with the competing tensions that come with working in a vast media organisation.

Leach has taken an important role within a Verizon Media empire that spans AOL, Yahoo and specialist sites TechCrunch and Engadget, but recently sold off its once-fashionable digital brands Flickr and Tumblr. He joined in March, shortly after Verizon made 7% staff cuts across its media division, and has quickly moved to enhance HuffPost’s reach and influence in the UK.

First he threw out the blogging-for-all platform for which HuffPost is widely known, replacing it with a strict commission-only strategy focused on writers with personal experience and expertise of their subject. On 31 August, HuffPost UK will partner with The Big Tent Ideas Festival in London to position the news brand at the heart of the UK’s political debate.

Leach, who worked at Number 10 as a digital guru under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said it was “the complexity” of the job at HuffPost that attracted him to the role, which requires him to harmonise relationships between other Verizon brands and his editorial and commercial teams. “I have grown a patience with complex institutions,” he says. “There’s a wide range of stakeholders in this organisation… [and] by dealing with those I am able to clear the space for the journalists to do what they do best.”

At the Foreign Office, where he worked under Labour’s David Miliband and then Tory foreign secretary William Hague, his task as head of digital diplomacy was to drive through massive cultural change at an organisation firmly set in its ways. “My job there was to try and digitise their communications but it’s a 250-year-old institution which has grown up with a self-certainty – so telling them they should be doing something differently [was] a challenge,” he says. “I was running 270 different websites in 40 different languages, one of which I had never heard of before I got there – who has heard of Tagalog? In the Philippines, about 40 million people speak Tagalog.”

As he tried to persuade ambassadors that the diplomatic bag was not the only tool for modern communications, he was aided by events such as the Arab Spring protests, which were organised on social media. “When (Arab Spring) protests are being organised on publicly-available social media and embassies are not seeing it there is obviously something wrong,” says Leach. “They were going in to work wondering what the traffic was all about. That massive disconnect was really helpful to me in saying we should be engaging in these conversations.”

The rise of new terror groups that used social platforms for propaganda and recruitment also helped him make his case. “The threat was no longer a state threat, it was a non-state threat, from those formless organisations,” he says. “You had to have other routes to speak to or listen to those organisations, which largely became digital ones.”

The 'constant challenges' of digital media

At HuffPost the threats and priorities are very different. The brand is eight-years-old in the UK (it launched in 2005 in the US) and Leach says there are “constant challenges” to “refresh” a digital pure play of such vintage. In a July post announcing the end of HuffPost UK Blogs in place of two new sections, HuffPost Opinions and HuffPost Personal, Leach wrote that Facebook once “looked like the exciting future” but had declined into a “jaded behemoth”.

It has been a difficult couple of years for younger news media brands, with Vice, BuzzFeed, Mashable and Mic all making cuts, as well as HuffPost in the US, mostly because poor digital ad revenues have dismayed investors. Leach maintains that HuffPost UK is “doing all right”, pointing to the recent Reuters Digital News Report, which listed it as the UK’s best-performing digital pure play for both reach and trust. “If you are scoring well on those two scores you are doing pretty well,” he says. HuffPost UK generates 7m monthly unique views, according to ComScore, with 80% of use being via mobile. Apple News is a growing source of traffic.

Leach has a strong media pedigree. He is a former executive editor of The Guardian and was editorial director for digital at The Independent.

He describes Verizon Media as “an enlightened ownership” that has not given him a set of targets to deliver. “I’m not facing any immediate pressure for retrenchment or anything like that. At some point – and nobody has given me a timeline – we are going to have to show that we are a grown-up business within the Verizon environment but there has been no criteria set for me. The freedom in lots of ways is remarkable,” he says.

HuffPost UK’s role is within a content ecosystem at Verizon Media, he points out. “We provide other affinities. Not that they don’t want us to break even or even make a profit, but it’s not the sole purpose. They seem to be very protective of us as one of their premium brands, which is nice.”

HuffPost's Female focus

What makes HuffPost UK stand out in the British news media landscape is its 58% female and “very targeted” audience. But it’s no longer the youth brand that some imagine. “The biggest cohort is 35-44, which is slightly older than the early-millennial assumption that people make  about HuffPost,” says Leach. “They are quite well established in their careers and their disposable income is probably higher. They are not ‘Generation Rent’, they are reasonably well-off people. That is a pretty good demographic to give to commercial teams and say go back and sell to that.”

HuffPost used Verizon media’s RYOT content studio to host ‘Women Made Me’, a campaign for NatWest on women in business. ‘Slay the Day’ was a campaign done in partnership between Twitter and HuffPost UK for Belvita breakfast biscuits, highlighting remarkable daily routines.

Leach, who replaced former Guardian journalist Polly Curtis in leading HuffPost UK, is a rare male at the top of an organisation named after its co-founder Arianna Huffington, who was made editor-in-chief after AOL bought it in 2011. The current worldwide editor is Lydia Polgreen.

“The insertion of one bloke for one woman hasn’t really changed a great deal,” says Leach. HuffPost UK won’t lose its intuition for female readers because executive editor Jess Brammar, former acting editor of BBC Newsnight, oversees all the site’s content. “She drives the editorial agenda right across the teams. In that sense she is the gender conscience of the brand.”

Brammar says that the site is careful “not to assume too much knowledge” in an audience that is facing competing pressures on its time. “HuffPost UK’s audience is more female than male and highly engaged in what's happening around them, but they lead full, busy lives which mean they may not have time to follow every story closely day to day. This means there is huge opportunity for us to explain and inform,” she says.

HuffPost UK has a newsroom of 45 and Leach says that having “lots of very strong women writers” as well as female key decision makers sets aside from rivals. “At certain other media you often get men talking down to women and telling them what they should be thinking and that’s something we have studiously tried to avoid."

'Humanising' the news

The site’s investigative journalists include Emma Youle, recent winner of a Paul Foot award, and Preston-based North of England correspondent Aasma Day, who spent a week documenting each occupant of a single bed on an acute medical unit at Royal Blackburn Hospital. “They told stories about poverty, obesity, diet, crime…,” says Leach. “It’s about humanising public service.”

This “humanising” approach is why Leach wants opinion pieces from writers with lived experiences. As a former PR (he was digital director at Freuds), he recognises that open platforms can be a gateway for “the self-serving op-ed”, and he wants to avoid the “scheduled outrage” of weekly columnists employed by other news outlets.

A recent analysis by Nicola Slawson and Nadine White showing how public sector workers respond to stabbings (from ambulance staff to surgeons and social workers) was another attempt to humanise a major issue, and to connect with a disenfranchised audience which has been termed by Polgreen as “the unnewsed”. There is an opportunity for HuffPost UK, Leach believes, in reaching such audiences, who no longer feel served by major news outlets. “Part of that is about region, part demographic, and part ethnicity, gender, sexuality…there are all sorts of reasons why people feel slightly isolated from mainstream media.”

To  improve the diversity of its output, HuffPost UK has partnered with Birmingham City University  to found The HuffPost School of Journalism. Some of the students (40% of whom are from minority ethnic backgrounds) will do internships in the HuffPost newsroom. “We want them to learn from us and us to learn from them because they have news habits at that age which are very different to the news habits of an old git like me,” says Leach.

HuffPost UK has “classic left-liberal brand values” that embrace “inclusiveness, accessibility, diversity” but that its journalism is independent, he says. “We are not going to tell people how to vote, we are not going to be for or against Brexit or to be for or against Trump. [HuffPost] are more overt politically in the US, but less so here.” Its media partnership of the Big Tent Ideas Festival is “because it is a non party political event”. With speakers ranging from the Tory health secretary Matt Hancock to Labour MP Lisa Nandy, things could quite heated beneath the festival canvas.

But it’s nothing a digital diplomat can’t handle.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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