Ian Burrell: Huffington has to find the right formula to post a success in the UK

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:59

Arianna Huffington will personally launch the UK version of her American blog-based news website, The Huffington Post, next week. For the irrepressible Athens-born former Cambridge University student and BBC presenter, this is a crucial return to the country she once called home.

For thesake of AOL, the media giant which bought the site for $315m in February, the project cannot fail. The UK launch is The Huffington Post’s first venture outside North America and comes ahead of a roll-out in Europe, Latin America, Australia and India.

By any standards, the HuffPo – as it isknown to its dedicated followers – has been a great success since its launch six years ago. Seen as a refuge from the right-wing leanings of the American television networks, it has grown into oneof the biggest news websites in the world, with 10,000 bloggers using it as their platform alongside a team of paid staff writers. Ahead of its UK launch, TheHuffington Postalready attracts 1.2 million monthly users from these shores.

Yet despite Huffington’s determination and the might of AOL, the HuffPo is not guaranteed a place at the top table of British media. “People will be distrustful of The Huffington Post’s motives,” warns Paul Bradshaw, professor of online journalism at City University in London, referring to its new relationship with AOL.

Embraced at its launch by users who wanted to change the face of the American news media, the site is arguably now part of the establishment. “It’s going to be hard for The Huffington Post to communicate what they stand for,” says Bradshaw, who is not inclined to blog for the site. “In the UK they are known as the site that sold to AOL. In the US they might have been known as the site that offered an alternative voice but there’s a different media landscape over here.”

Since the HuffPo launched in the US in 2005, the UK blogosphere has matured. Sunny Hundal, founder of the Liberal Conspiracy blog site, says most of Britain’s most successful bloggers were signed up elsewhere. “They are having trouble recruiting bloggers,” he says. “You might blog for The Huffington Post if you could not get anything else but all the really good bloggers already have paying gigs.”

HuffPo UK faces stiff competition from established UK media brands, says Rachel McAthy, news editor of Journalism.co.uk. Hollywood news is increasingly supplied by the rapidly expanding Mail Online, and HuffPo bloggers must fight for attention with The Guardian’s popular Comment Is Free site, where contributors are paid.

But James Brown of the British blog site Sabotage Times believes the pool of undiscovered writing talent is still deep. “There’s a huge community of quality writers out there and they offer a really credible, passionate and informed voice on a whole host of different topics,” he says. According to Chris Wimpress, a former BBC journalist who has been hired as Huffington Post UK politics editor, more than 100 bloggers were signed up a month before launch. But quality will be as important as quantity. “They will need some new ideas, some really inspired appointments, and to discover some talent,” says Brian Cathcart, who teaches journalism at Kingston University. “Itdoesn’tseem that the existing model in the US would offer us anything terribly exciting and new over here.”

Cathcart says he remembers Ms Huffington as a presenter of Saturday Night at the Mill from BBC Birmingham and does not necessarily see her as taking a liberal position in the UK media.

“Some of us remember her in ski boots walking out with Tory backbenchers – back then, we all understood her to be right wing,” he says. “She has had huge success, has big backing from her business partners, and God knows she can talk. She has the capacity to make some impact but it’s the content that will make the difference.”

Ms Huffington is taking a direct interest in the appointment of key bloggers, and sources close to the project said she would be announcing “quite a few big names”. AOL will support HuffPo UK with content from its British sites, such as the fashion-led MyDaily, the showbiz-based Eleven, and the men’s site Asylum. The editor-in-chief of these sites, Carla Bevan, former online editor of Marie Claire, will take a similar role at HuffPoUK.Michael Rundle has moved from Asylum to become assistant editor on the new project.

Despite the hurdles, Stewart Easterbrook, CEO of Starcom MediaVest UK, believes HuffPo UK will prevail. The American site’s UK audience is attractive to advertisers with 70 per cent ABC1s, 50 per cent 16-34s and 42 per cent earning more than £50,000 a year. Heexpects the UK site to feature more news and less politics on its home page because British media (including the BBC) offer less space in the political middle ground. “In the US the media is more politically polarised – in the UK, that’s less of a USP,” he says. Lifestyle content will need to be UKoriented in order to give a local feel alongside its already popular Hollywood and Silicon Valley news.

Ms Huffington touches down in London nextweek knowing her reputation depends on this new website taking off. As one source said: “It needs to fly.”

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