After the grand fanfare from Arianna Huffington, I've been slightly disappointed by the impact of her eponymous website since its arrival in the United Kingdom a year ago.
In the United States, the Huffington Post has succeeded in putting itself at the centre of the national debate. It has both scale and respect, though the Democrat credentials of its Cambridge-educated and Greek-born founder mean it is widely regarded as a liberal platform within the spectrum of the American news media.
The US site achieved a new level of journalistic credibility when it won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its reporting of the effects of war on American veterans. Among English language news sites, only the Daily Mail's Mail Online and the New York Times can compete with its audience. HuffPo's advantage over newspaper brands is its "stickiness" – users view more pages, comment in large numbers and appreciate the site's deep engagement with social media.
So influential is the Huffington Post that it was bought by AOL early last year for £201m and is being rolled out around the world in an attempt to restore the internet giant's global reputation. Jimmy Maymann, AOL's Head of International, is overseeing this process. "Huff Post is the Trojan horse that brings AOL back," he says. "Huff Post you can relate to, whereas today there are a lot of people who don't have a relationship with AOL."
Maymann, who is Danish, made his money from seeing the advertising potential of online video and launching GoViral shortly before the arrival of YouTube. He sold out to AOL and now has the job of maximising the international commercial value of the Huffington Post and a portfolio of 30 other sites that it includes the technology specialist TechCrunch.
My view of Huff Post UK is that it has taken the easy option of focusing on celebrity-led stories, usually generated by other news sources, and failed to make itself an essential destination for serious analysis. It's quick off the mark in slapping a smart headline on an alluringly-presented breaking story but it's not known for scoops. Its comment pages sometimes look like a dumping ground for material which PRs have failed to place in the national press and though it claims Ricky Gervais among its star bloggers, his only contribution was a year ago and concluded with a demand that readers "buy the f***ing anniversary DVD box set".
Let's be fair – it's a mere baby compared with the seven-year-old American edition and can already point to ComScore ratings which show that, with nearly 3.5 million unique visitors a month, it has climbed to sixth place in the table of British news websites, just behind The Sun Online. And Tony Blair has blogged for the site five times.
But, whereas in America the Huff Post benefited from the lack of a national press and the absence of liberal voices in a broadcast media dominated by the right, in the UK it has had to find a niche among an intensely competitive national newspaper industry that includes a number of players who are at the forefront of digital innovation.
"In the UK market we have to understand what the traditional news players are doing in order to be able to compete with them in the online space," says Maymann. Huff Post is hugely reliant on free content provided by unpaid contributors and the American edition has drawn on a blogging culture that AOL now realises is far more deeply ingrained there than it is here. "The whole blogger and opinion community is not as developed as in the States, where the model was formed."
Looking back, he admits things might have been done differently here. The UK model is quite unlike the international versions of Huffington Post since introduced by AOL in France and Spain, and those set to be launched later this year in Italy and Germany.
In each of those markets, Huff Post is aligned with a heavyweight local news brand. In France it's Le Monde, in Spain it's El Pais. The Italian edition will arrive in September hand-in-hand with La Repubblica and a famous German media name is being lined up for that launch in November. Maymann is planning to introduce the Huff Post to India, Japan, Korea and Australia and it is likely he will adopt a similar tactic in those markets. Further launches are being explored in Russia and Turkey. The British experience taught AOL that it could not just turn up like an invasion force in each international territory. "You can't fight on 15 fronts – we are never going to win that war." By making local alliances, Huff Post is establishing on the cheap a global chain of bureaux that will rival broadcasting networks.
Could Huff Post UK – which has recently made a statement of its intent to increase serious content by hiring the political and social commentator Mehdi Hassan – have enjoyed greater success if it had taken a well-known British media partner? And, following the continental alliances, could it still happen?
"You could say that, in hindsight, we could have decided that could have been an approach here," says Maymann. "We could still do that. I will never say never."