Ian Burrell: A relationship with Arianna could be just what the doctor ordered

Media Studies: Huff Post UK might have enjoyed greater success if it had taken a well-known British media partner
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The Independent Online

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. "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."

My view of Huff Post UK is that it has taken the easy option of focusing on celebrity-led stories 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 can look like a dumping ground for material which PRs have failed to place in the national press and though it claims Ricky Gervais as a star blogger his only contribution was a year ago and concluded with a demand to "buy the fucking anniversary DVD box set".

Let's be fair – it's a mere baby compared to the seven-year-old American edition and ComScore ratings show that with nearly 3.5m 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 encountered an intensely competitive national newspaper industry which includes organisations at the forefront of digital innovation.

Looking back, Maymann admits things might have been done differently. The UK model is quite unlike other recent international versions.

In 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 partner is being lined up for November. Maymann is planning to introduce the Huff Post to India, Japan, Korea and Australia and is likely to adopt a similar tactic in those markets. Further launches are being explored in Russia and Turkey.

The British experience taught AOL 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."

Could Huff Post UK have enjoyed greater success if it had taken a well-known British media partner? And 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."

Paywall strategies and political allegiances create complications in this equation but for some British news sites, anxious to find the deeper levels of engagement that advertisers demand, a relationship with Arianna could be very attractive.

One word from Sue Akers has News Corp's lawyers in a lather

The most interesting line in Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers's update to Lord Justice Leveson on the state of Scotland Yard's investigation into newspaper criminality concerned "potential offences" and came early in her evidence. "We've sought legal advice and in respect of both individual and corporate offences," she said. "And also in relation to our police powers and our options for investigating."

It's that word "corporate" that, I'm told, has generated fresh palpitations in News Corp, where the company's greatest concern is the US Department of Justice's investigation into the company under the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act. Although charges announced the next day related to individuals, there is a growing likelihood that the company itself will find itself in the dock.

A robust approach at BBC SPORT

The BBC doesn't appear at all unhappy with Garry Richardson's extraordinary technique in interviewing Jeremy Hunt despite comparisons to Fox News.

The sports reporter Richardson taunted the Culture Secretary over Olympic strike threats, saying: "They are a disgrace aren't they… you'd love to see 'em sacked wouldn't you?"

In what sounded like an excerpt from the Private Eye column "A Taxi Driver Writes" Richardson pontificated: "Why not just let those people go on strike and when they wanted to come back and have done all their disruptions say 'Sorry your job is not there any more' – sack 'em?" Complainants to the corporation have been told Richardson's "robust questioning" was consistent with the BBC News textbook. "The questions did not represent a personal point of view but were designed to explore and test the government's position," said a spokesperson approvingly.

Twitter: @iburrell