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May 14, 2017

The Huffington Post Rebrands, But What Will It Stand For?

Even before the vision of Verisney [“What Would a Verizon Mega Deal Look Like? Welcome to Verisney World“], AOL’s Huffington Post has seemed increasingly like the little toe on the gigantic foot of Verizon (VZ) , the telco behemoth. Though word has leaked out that the 12-year-old, but seemingly long-in-the-tooth Huffington Post would be re-housed under Verizon’s new Oath brand, alongside fellow acquisition-to-be Yahoo! (YHOO) , these content businesses make up a tiny percentage — about 2% — of Verizon’s revenue. Even with Yahoo! added in, a deal now expected to close in June, that combined content business would still generate no more than a fifteenth of Verizon’s overall revenues.

Yet Oath — a name that seems unintentionally nefarious in an age of mistrust — is one of Verizon’s major plays, and major talking points to investors, as it tries to transform itself from an old dumb pipes company. As it milks its mature wireline business and deals with hyper-competition in wireless, the company believes producing and owning content is a major route forward.

First published at TheStreet on April 25, 2017

Follow Newsonomics on Twitter @kdoctor

Against that landscape, Huffington Post, the site that acts as the broadest face of AOL, launches its long-overdue facelift. This morning, long-time HuffPost visitors see a site more befitting 2017, compared to the dated old look, seemingly dated back to its 2005 founding. First off, it’s now officially HuffPost — acceding to the nickname many have called it over the years.

As it formally drops the “Huffington,” it’s a direct reminder that Arianna Huffington who co-founded the site with venture investor Ken Lerer, has moved on, embracing corporate health advocacy as a new business. Beyond its name, the site achieves a modernity, smartly matching its trademark tabloid-eque heads with its acute images – and then packaging those “splashes”, as it redistributes HuffPost stories across the social verse. Those splashes make a lot of business sense, allowing site content to move more seamlessly onto other platforms.

For new HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, the rebranding and redesign builds the foundation for bigger editorial changes to come. It is that “splash,” though, that reinforces HuffPost’s often-irreverent take of, and off, the news.

“The splash is our most important billboard, much like a tabloid’s front page would be a billboard,” Polgreen told me Friday. “It now will automatically travel with the story anywhere it goes. It becomes an almost meme-like artifact that could travel across the internet and hopefully have the chance to go viral. We’re known for our clever headlines and photo pairings so we’d like to be able to send that out everywhere,” says Polgreen.

“You know what’s interesting is one of the reasons that we started thinking about doing it this way is that so many people when we have a really great splash headline, people would screenshot it and then share the screenshot. For example, when Bill O’Reilly was fired the other day, the headline that we had on it was ‘Billy on the Street,’ which is of course a pop culture reference to a popular show hosted by Billy Eichner. It’s a hilarious headline, and it has this great kind of smirking photograph of Bill O’Reilly. So tons of people screenshotted it and shared it on Facebook and on Twitter and on Instagram. Billy Eichner saw it himself and tweeted about it and it became a moment.”

So is this the old Huffington Post in new clothes? At this point, yes, but Polgreen says the redesign gives her a new landscape to redraw.

“It’s a redesign and a rebranding,” she says. “We’re updating the name and we’re also redesigning the site in a major way for the first time. It’s a real kind of departure from the kind of tongue in cheek faux newspaper look that we had to a look… but it’s also still has that tongue-in-cheek look back but in more of a tabloid style, which I think the direction we want to take it in. I’ve always thought that the classic design felt much more broadsheet, but the actual storytelling felt like a tabloid.”

The next step: a collection of new top-level hires to lead in the implementation of Polgreen’s vision. Consider the redesign and rebranding then a new platform for the next HuffPost.

Polgreen, now 41, came to HuffPost among great notice in December. A highly regarded rising young editor at the New York Times, she had led the editorial side of the Times’ now-$50 million investment in global editions. The first of those editions – New York Times en Espanol – defines non-U.S. audiences as a key building block of the future, both in advertising and in reader revenue.

That makes the larger global challenge of the Huffington Post well known to her. When we first spoke in early April, she had just returned from South Africa, helping launch Huffington Post’s 17th non-U.S site. Some of those sites are partnered with media partners (Media24 in South Africa); others are wholly owned. All the journalists, though, work for HuffPost, says Polgreen. In total, they make up what is surprisingly large would-be journalistic force: 600 full-timers. Polgreen’s number one goal in that regard is alignment. “Collaboration, collaboration,” she repeats.

Those foreign forays offer only one of the business conundrums for HuffPost.

It’s tough to assess the profit the company is yet wringing out of those outposts. Costs can be kept low, but Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) and Facebook’s (FB) dominance of the global digital ad trade may impede fast revenue growth. Further, competition for audience can be brutal. Incumbent in-country publishers up their games while everyone from Buzzfeed to Business Insider to the New York Times see the same opportunity. Come 2022 and the globalization of American news media will pay dividends for some, but others will fail to make the grade.

While Huffington Post’s business strategy has run ahead of its now-retired 2005 look, it’s a strategy that has struggled and seemed increasingly uncertain in the later Obama years and now into the Trump era

More generally, Huffington Post – which six years ago trumpeted that its U.S. digital audience had exceeded Polgreen’s alma mater -peaked a couple of years ago, while the Times and the Post have soared past it.

In fact, the latest report provided by Comscore shows that Huffington Post has lost about 30 million monthly unique visitors over the past two years.

We know few metrics about the Huffington Post business, any data held within AOL, about which Verizon itself now discloses little in its filing. We do know that AOL’s own annual revenue loss of about 4% paralleled that of the mothership itself, in its just-released annual report.

Meeting the revenue – and profit – challenges, of course depends much on product. That’s where Polgreen aims her repositioning, a work in progress.

That’s a tall order. HuffPost has been seen as a predictable liberal publication, and that whole question of being progressive in 2017 is a gnarly one.

Polgreen takes a modern view of the “traffic” question. “Well I think that the conversation about the metrics that matter has really shifted over the last couple of years. When I worked for The New York Times we were super -focused on engagement. There was a brief period after the Innovation Report where everyone was fretting about our traffic being cannibalized by people who were smarter at racking up page views. Look, page views are important, having a big audience is a great thing and its important in and of itself.

“But I think that as the business model’s evolved, news organizations are taking a hard look at what analytics and metrics are telling them — what analytics are telling them and what metrics really matter. So I think for me it’s less about the gross size of the audience and really focusing on getting people to be more loyal and engaged, and to deepen their relationship with us. So I would say this is aimed more at engagement than it is at increasing our overall audience size.”

Polgreen’s right, but there too, the Times and Post and all the other competition now issue the engagement crie de coeur.

In terms of how the content will change, Polgreen’s a bit enigmatic, but leans less into a blue state/red state metaphor, and more into a haves/have some dichotomy, and talks of developing empathy with the Obama-turned- Trump voters.

HuffPost certainly has innovated smartly over time. Its HuffPost Live – a business it shuttered a year ago – offered an intriguing blend of a daytime TV talk show and what Facebook Live is becoming.

Says Polgreen, “It was ahead of its time.”

To be sure, mastering video – and its monetization – is a major task, and one of the big reasons Verizon bought Tim Armstrong’s AOL.

As Polgreen broadly sketches her intended editorial re-positioning of HuffPost, we know that she and her cohorts, most notably HuffPost CEO Jared Grusd must also figure out where HuffPost fits into AOL and where AOL fits into Oath and where Oath fits into Verizon; a Disney, or other buy/merger, would only add a sixth layer of organizational chess.

At this point, Polgreen has some running room. Verizon’s deep pockets mean that quarterly results at HuffPost are less important than at many publicly owned news companies. Yet the clock is running, as Verizon considers the pledge it has offered investors — having to prove it’s a company of tomorrow and not of yesterday.

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