From stepping out of metro cities to building a robust newsroom in India, Lydia Polgreen, Global Editor-in-Chief, Huffington Post talks to Allan Dsouza about expanding in a land of opportunities while upholding the stories of the common man
When Lydia Polgreen took over as Global Editorin-Chief of Huffington Post from the charismatic Arianna Huffington in January 2017, the digital news publishing company was going through a transitional shift not with just its leadership, but with amplifying its editorial philosophy as the ‘voice of the voiceless’. The transition also included the rebranding with a new logo design for HuffPost in all 17 editions across the globe. Today, the company is part of Verizon’s media subsidiary Oath, formed in the aftermath of Verizon’s $4.5 billion purchase of Yahoo and AOL media assets. Despite the backing of a powerful media and communications conglomerate, Polgreen is optimistic about HuffPost sticking to its roots and operating as an independent news media organization that champions the cause of individuals and communities neglected by popular media.
CARVING AN INDIAN IDENTITY
In her 15 years with the New York Times, Polgreen spent three years in India as a correspondent, during which she realized the opportunities present in a country that was set to be a future haven for digital news media consumption. “I first arrived in India in 2009 as a correspondent for the New York Times. It was still 2G then, and yes, time of the infamous 2G scam as well. We were just about seeing the stirrings of what would be the mobile information revolution in India. Today, data is affordable and with smartphone penetration, the ‘aam aadmi’ has access to a wealth of news and information which as a digital news media company we can make optimum use of. India is much more than its metros and the real stories come out from the smaller cities and villages. We look to invest in a newsroom here in India that bears the trademark of HuffPost, which is about telling the stories of triumphs and struggles of the ordinary people who are trying to make ends meet under strenuous circumstances,” says an excited Polgreen on making big strides in the Indian media landscape.
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS
According to Polgreen, setting a distinction in a cluttered media space is all about having the right voice and attitude. “India is a cacophonous media market and distinction is imperative for growth. There are many news media companies that do all kinds of reporting on an array of subjects. As a digital media entity, it’s important that we are clear about the audience we are targeting and the stories we are going after. We need to have a clear sense of our identity as we are not just going after generic news,” Polgreen says. Drawing a parallel between dynastic governments and political nepotism in India and the United States, Polgreen adds, “In the US, there has been dynastic rule that has been ratified at the ballot box. In the Trump administration, there is reasonable plausibility in questioning Jared Kushner’s qualification to be tasked with brokering peace in the Middle east. Our goal is to be the news source of choice for the working class people who are concerned about issues like corruption, economy, climate change, gender equality and holding governments accountable. We do not have to be beholden to any political or corporate POV and can be allied solely with our readership.”
THE MONETIZATION CHALLENGE
In a fiercely contested advertising-driven digital media market where Internet bigwigs like Facebook and Google continue to dominate and take home the lion’s share, an independent news platform can find it difficult to survive. Talking of monetization, Polgreen says, “The challenge of monetization is a real one and with the shift in media consumption to mobile, we have seen FB and Google hog 90% of digital advertising revenue. However, advertisers are waking up to the fact that there is tremendous risk in these open platforms. Facebook’s credibility has taken a hit after reports of fake news came to light. A big advertiser like P&G will not want its ad placed next to a hate post or a beheading video. Likewise, even the measurement metrics has come under the scanner for being misleading in terms of the number of views and engagement. There’s a genuine thirst for reliability and brand safety where a platform like Oath can take advantage of the need for brands to connect with consumers in an authentic and organic way.”
THE WAY FORWARD
When HuffPost entered India in 2014, it did so by partnering with a legacy media brand like Times of India. Though the partnership with TOI ceases to exist, Polgreen believes HuffPost’s association with Oath is strategically the most lucrative for the company. Polgreen says, “We had a great partnership with TOI and when we started working with them, our situation was different. Now we are a part of Oath. We have our own sales force here in India through Oath that can help us with the monetization. Most importantly, we feel good about ourselves in supporting the journalism that we do.”
In line with its commitment of engaging with the audience and listening to them, HuffPost is in the process of getting a new Editorin-Chief for its India operations as it does in every other international market. “Being an American, it is not for me to decide the editorial direction for HuffPost in India. We’re in the middle of hiring a new Editorin-Chief for India who will decide what stories we go after. The world is witnessing a seismic media revolution today, where the unravelling of the Harvey Weinstein story has opened a can of worms that is having solid reverberations here in India as well as in other parts of the world. As more women come out and speak up, it will only strengthen our voice as we put the consumer of news at the centre of news-making,” concludes Polgreen.
‘HUFFPOST MAY EXPAND TO HINDI NEXT’
Louise Roug, International Director, HuffPost is upbeat about the platform’s position in the Indian mediascape
Q] What is the business strategy for India?
It’s a tricky time for all digital media players and everyone is re-evaluating their plans for the future. Even we are strategically looking to try many things out, but holistically we are in a strong position. This is the golden moment for telcos and we are ultimately owned by a telco. Wherever in the world we have ventured, there is a degree of autonomy with which we function. We look to do the same in India. There is no one-size-fits-all and that is the beauty of our business.
Q] Have you considered a subscription model for HuffPost?
In the US, many marquee publications have figured out how to crack the subscription model, but right now we want to keep our news free for the consumer; so there are no plans on going down the subscription path. We may not have our readers pay for the service, but we are fervently trying to engage with our readers and build trust and a relationship that comes with subscription.
Q] Would HuffPost consider entering the regional news space?
English is our entry point in India, and the next obvious language to expand in would be Hindi. Language is more than a medium of communication and we need to be completely thorough before we spread out. It’s one step at a time for us. Having said that, we have immense faith in the talent this land harbours and we are confident about India because this is a nation that is hungry for news across Print, TV and now Digital. The appetite for news in India is what makes us bullish about our operations over here.
Q] What are some of the short term and long term business objectives?
The short term objective is talent acquisition. We are in search of an experienced and veteran journalist to lead us in India and put together an A-Team to do what we do best. Ultimately we look at becoming an insider in the Indian media landscape where barring our masthead, everything else about us is Indian.