Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of HuffPost, was in India last month on a week-long visit to lead HuffPost India on its independent journey following a split with its partner, the Times Group, after close to three years. In December 2014, the American news and opinion website had unveiled its India edition in association with Times Internet Ltd, the digital arm of the Times Group.
The website will now operate under Oath Inc., a subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc., formed after the amalgamation of two iconic brands Yahoo and AOL. Oath reaches one billion people around the world with more than 50 online products including HuffPost, TechCrunch and Tumblr.
Polgreen, named the editor-in-chief in December 2016, was posted in India between 2009 and 2012 as a correspondent for The New York Times. She spoke about the company’s India venture, the financial weakening of news organizations in the US and what it’s like to work as a journalist in the Trump regime. Edited excerpts from the an interview:
Why did HuffPost part ways with the Times Group? Was there bad blood?
Absolutely not. I don’t want to focus on the past. We’re moving forward on our own.
We had a terrific partnership with The Times of India , which is a great media company here in India. As HuffPost became a part of AOL and then now part of Oath, which is the company that was created after the merger between Yahoo and AOL under Verizon, we’re doing a strategic re-evaluation of many of our operations. This was a place where we felt like we wanted to invest and to go in a different direction. We very much plan to remain in India as a publisher and continue to do journalism here. We plan to expand our team here. Oath is a big global company and so we will continue to work here independently under Oath. Their team will be managing all of our advertising sales. That’s our plan going forward.
Will there be a new leadership team for the India operations?
We are about to embark on a vigorous search, there is a tremendous amount of talent here in India. We’re spoilt for choice in terms of what kind of editors are available. We’re going to take our time, talk to people both within the team and also beyond in the broader landscape. Hopefully, by early next year, we’ll have an announcement to make about the editor-in-chief.
Are there any specific focus areas for India?
My main targets frankly are great stories and lots of influence. I want to see HuffPost break stories that are showing up on the front pages of other newspapers and at the top of TV broadcasts.
HuffPost has been very strong in covering a range of issues whether it’s politics or gender, which is a huge story in India. We’ve traditionally been very strong in covering the emergence of women as economic, political and social actors. Lifestyle and entertainment remain very important areas of coverage for us.
Globally, I see HuffPost as serving a really broad audience of people who see the growing inequality in the world and are unhappy about it and who feel they are being left out of the political and economic power arrangements.
What’s it like doing journalism under the Trump government?
People talk about fake news as if it was invented in the 2016 campaign but it’s been there for much longer. And I think here in India during the 2014 campaign you saw elements of what we came to call fake news, and the use of memes and social media to whip up support for political candidates.
The climate in the US is incredibly hostile. You have a president who is calling some of the most influential and important journalistic institutions fake news on a regular basis whenever they publish things he doesn’t like. There has been a steady deterioration of trust in media. This has been a long time coming. There are a couple of factors that play into that. The internet obviously being the biggest one. But what has truly accelerated it is the rise of Google and Facebook as this duopoly, dividing up the digital ad market. So it has become very difficult for publishers that don’t have huge amount of scale to continue...it’s become hard to survive.
The other thing, and you see this in India as well, is that these big TV news shows are just shout fests. In the US you’ll have six people, sometimes I look at the TV here and I see 12 people. That’s not really journalism.
So, I think you can’t really blame the news consumer for becoming sceptical, and for losing trust and confidence because I think in a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons we haven’t been living up to our end of the bargain.
Michael Rezendes of The Boston Globe, in an earlier interview, had expressed concern about the financial weakening of news organizations in the US in the past decade. Your comment.
The financial picture for any news organization in the United States is very bleak. Particularly, from a print point of view. If you were a newspaper publisher 30 years ago, you had huge profit margins because you had a monopoly on people’s time and attention. And now you have a zillion options, and in fact some of the most powerful and effective options to reach the consumer are via these huge platforms. Publishers are facing this brave new world in which they no longer have monopoly over people’s attention. It’s not just people’s attention for news, we are now competing with games and all kinds of other apps. We are all facing a world in which there is more news than ever, there are more people making news than ever but there is more competition and fewer ways to make money off it.
How is HuffPost dealing with these financial challenges in the media sector?
One huge advantage that HuffPost has is that we are part of Oath, which is a huge digital company that reaches over a billion people a month. So we have massive scale. We’re also part of Verizon, which is one of the largest telcos in the world. I think that gives us certain advantages. It also gives us some time to ride out the volatility in the business model right now. What’s clear is that news consumption is boiling down to mobile. And the reality is we work for a mobile phone company. So, ultimately as these things converge, I think we are in a very strong position to take advantage of the enormous scale and the deep integration that we have as a telecom company.
Being a woman in a top leadership position in the media industry, how do you respond to the Harvey Weinstein episode?
We are living through a long overdue reckoning about power and patriarchy in our societies. None of us thought that it could happen so fast and you could see so many fall so swiftly and so far. Not including the president of the United States, he seems to be the one who is getting away with it. But clearly a revolution is happening and what has been subtext for a long time has been made text. We’re having conversations that have needed to happen for a very long time. At the same time, it’s also important that we not collapse all allegations into the same thing. I think it’s important to have a sense of fairness.
How has the last one year at HuffPost been for you?
It’s been really exciting. I spent 15 years at The New York Times. I was a correspondent mostly overseas. I was an editor, I was overseeing their global expansion efforts and I really thought I was going to stay there for my entire career. But when this opportunity came along, particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, I felt there was a really unique opportunity to do something extraordinary with HuffPost. It felt like there was a gap. You have this elite national media that was largely subscription-based that was serving really well a particular kind of news consumer—the best educated, the most affluent. And I thought to myself what about everybody else. So, I thought it would be really interesting to take a news organization that is free to the consumer that has a kind of digital spirit, and see what we could do with it.
So I brought on a completely new leadership team including our managing editor from The Guardian. Globally, now we are over 400 people. Also, one of the biggest attractions for me was the global presence of HuffPost. More than 50% of our audience is outside of the United States.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have three dogs. One I actually got here in Delhi, Samantha (half Labrador, half Indian street dog), Buster and Frankie. I like to do a lot of hiking with my dogs. It’s one of my favourite things to do. And I’m a big reader. Currently I’m reading The Vanity Fair Diaries which is Tina Brown’s book about her years when she was the editor at Vanity Fair.
It’s a delightful read. The last book I read was the biography of Ulysses Grant by Ron Chernow.