Huffington Post matures into online force

As HuffPo retools its focus, PR is helping to reposition it for online and offline media outlets

As HuffPo retools its focus, PR is helping to reposition it for online and offline media outlets

Coming soon to The Huffington Post: corporate leaders?

It seems counterintuitive that HuffPo - once pigeonholed as the "liberal Drudge Report," now evolving into a full-fledged online news and opinion clearinghouse - could play host to the musings of business leaders who would not be surprised to find their capitalist predilections railed against by the site's commenters.

However, the two-year-old site, which Technorati ranks as one of the top five blogs on the Web, is aggressively pushing to establish itself as a premier national forum for thoughts and opinions of all stripes.

"The site has more of the urgency that newspapers traditionally had before they were overtaken, in terms of urgency, by 24/7 news online," says Arianna Huffington, the site's founder, namesake, and chief networker and promoter. "We present the news in a way that's accurate, fact-checked, and fair, but has a point of view."

Earlier this year, HuffPo instituted an editorial overhaul, breaking the site into five main sections: politics, media, entertainment, business, and living. Its home page remains plastered with a constantly updated smattering of breaking news, along with the most recently posted items from what Huffington says are the site's more than 1,000 bloggers. Their ranks include business figures such as Lowes president Jonathan Tisch, PR veteran Howard Rubenstein, and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners cofounder Jon Bond.
 
"I find that some of the issues that the site stands for, like corporate responsibility, are issues that the business community is aligned with," Huffington says. "The site wants to make it clear that the Right/ Left way of looking at the world, and at American politics, is very obsolete. It's very knee-jerk."

Though HuffPo was in some ways "born on third base," its success was not preordained. At its inception, many predicted that it would turn into a vanity project for Huffington and her friends that would fail to garner interest from the general public. But the site's growth to what it says are 3.5 million readers per month and an editorial staff of more than 20 show that the market was ripe for a blog with the sophistication, scope, and political leanings of HuffPo.

"[At first,] it looked like the appeal was going to be more of the star power, and then it turned out to be more of the intellect power," says Roy Sekoff, the site's founding editor (and a former correspondent for the Michael Moore TV vehicle TV Nation). "We thought that it would be the sizzle, but it turned out to be the steak."
 
Sekoff, who has a strong hand in the site's editorial strategy, says the recent reorganization has helped it tackle a wider array of subjects and has positioned it to be credible in all of them without dissonance for readers. Instead of serious political posts bumping up against fluffy celebrity news, for example, those items can now be split off into different sections targeted at different readers. They have also started a citizen journalism project - Offthebus.net, aimed at covering the presidential elections - and are incorporating more online video and live chats.

He acknowledges that politics will probably always remain the site's sweet spot, but argues that HuffPo is strong enough to pull in big-name bloggers from all realms.

"We're very active in pursuing people that we think are interesting," Sekoff says, although he notes that some need to be "seduced." Huffington herself says that she is constantly inviting interesting people she meets in her hectic and high-level travels to blog on the site. Its appeal, they say, is both its audience and its flexibility.

"It's not the 800 words chiseled in stone that you want to send to The New York Times' op-ed page," says Sekoff. "It can be looser, it can be freer."
 
At the same time the site expanded, it also decided to place a new focus on securing media coverage for itself, both online and in the traditional media. It hired Mario Ruiz, a Dan Klores Communications veteran, as VP of media relations three months ago, to help push out the content and garner coverage of the site's maturation.

"I think the media is waking up to Huffington Post as a media brand, which is far beyond the scope of a 'liberal blog,'" Ruiz says. "It's really grown up and out past that."
 
The old model of media dominance, in which even Web sites that took frequent shots at the mainstream media would still pine for opportunities to get coverage there, is not particularly relevant for a powerful Internet quasi-newsroom like HuffPo. "It's all about linking," Sekoff says bluntly. "Now, [mainstream news organizations] are sending us stuff, 'Hey, link to this!' because they realize it's all driving traffic."
 
Huffington says that spin-offs per se are not in the works, but the site seems prepared to keep expanding even after President Bush and his low approval rate leave office.
 
"[Huffington's] calling bullshit wherever she sees it," Sekoff says. "On either side of the aisle."

AT A GLANCE

COMPANY: The Huffington Post
FOUNDER: Arianna Huffington
HEADQUARTERS: New York
COMMUNICATIONS BUDGET: Undisclosed
MARCOMMS TEAM: Mario Ruiz, VP of media relations
MARKETING SERVICES AGENCIES: None

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