Scaling up the Huffington Post – Lessons to Ease the Millennials’ Growing Pains

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Since its inception in 2005, the Huffington Post has grown to be the most visited news site in the U.S. Their story of rapid growth proves to be a classic success story in entrepreneurship and business development. In an era when anyone can call themselves a reporter, the Huffington Post has managed to develop a distinctive voice. Powered by social media and the ever-increasing number of blogs (over 180 million at the end of 2011), they successfully established themselves as the de facto “Internet newspaper.”

Being part of Student Reporter, a young and rapidly growing online journalism outlet, this is undoubtedly a topic of great interest to us. Having experienced tremendous development in 2012, and recently forging new, high-profile and high-value partnerships with the World Economic Forum and the Huffington Post, what can we learn from the Huffington Post in terms of scaling up our model?

Fellow Student Reporter Tim Lehmann and I sat down with the Huffington Post’s founder Ms. Arianna Huffington at The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She was eager to talk to us about our growing venture. “I love the entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. In the middle of her busy day of events, meetings, and private sessions with other business leaders that Davos is famously known for, she told us about some key success factors which allowed her seven-year old outlet to become one of the most popular websites on the Internet.

Direct your scaling

The media landscape was very different when the Huffington Post launched back in 2005. Bloggers were only beginning to gain popularity and legitimacy, having been ridiculed by traditional journalists as “ideologically motivated amateurs inclined to spread lies and rumors.” Some claim the 2004 presidential election to be the turning point, with political blogs attracting more attention than mainstream media outlets. According to Ms. Huffington, the Huffington Post was launched as “a platform where the only thing that mattered in order to have access to it was quality.” Sounds like the perfect platform for the thousands of voices on the Internet waiting to be heard. So how did they actually manage such a platform?

In the beginning, they were rather unadventurous and even a bit on their toes. Wanting to “protect the platform from the worst aspects of the Internet,” they focused on developing comment moderators who played a critical role in nurturing and building the community of bloggers and readers. Today the comments are mostly moderated using algorithms, although there is still a place for good old-fashioned human moderators as well. Using an algorithm to provide automatic oversight over the commenting process is an example of a crucial technical tool for directional scaling, as this is a role commonly left solely in the hands of the editorial team.

Fluidity of content – “Bites at the apple”

Ms. Huffington attributed much of the Huffington Post’s initial success to two things: a vibrant collection of blogs and a very engaged community. By prioritizing the community of bloggers and readers, the Huffington Post developed one of its most recognizable and key characteristics today, namely content fluidity.

Compared to print media, one advantage of the digital, online platform is the ability for content to not only be created and published almost instantaneously, but also to be easily moved around and reorganized. To best serve the community of bloggers and readers, the Huffington Post allows sections and news pages to be developed more organically, instead of being restricted by traditional partitioning of content as in printed media and conventional journalism. Even though the major sections are fixed today, “Ad-hoc sections” can easily be generated through the use of tags, and news pages be made through automatic aggregation. “Anything that has more than 25 stories, an editor can decide to turn it into a big news page by automatically aggregating everything on the side from that topic,” Ms. Huffington explained. A story can also easily appear in several different sections of the website. In the end, as Ms. Huffington puts it, they are more what “bites at the apple,” luring the reader in readily.

Open to new ideas and trends

The inclusive, constructive, and open “spirit of Davos” has also fittingly been a trademark of the Huffington Post, with Mr. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, being one of the first people to approach Ms. Huffington when she first launched the outlet. “He’s very willing to look at new trends and integrate,” she said. Similarly (and lucky for us), the Huffington Post keeps true to their entrepreneurial passion by building new partnerships. “I love for us to build partnerships around everything interesting going on around in the world… it’s very, very crucial to our DNA,” said Ms. Huffington. Through partnerships with organizations such as TED and the Schwab Foundation, the Huffington Post is able to further their reach and collection of voices.

However, building partnerships is only one of the ways that the Huffington Post stays entrepreneurial and receptive to new trends. One of the key trends that Ms. Huffington noticed in Davos as a media leader is the convergence of the media industry: “The HuffPo is doing more and more regional reporting… and original reporting that won us a Pulitzer last year. The New York Times has more and more great stuff online, using blogs, social media, and etc.” Her belief in open reporting and the use of “[their] platform for wide distribution of good work” not only allows them to stay flexible but also true to their beginnings as an outlet for their community of bloggers and readers.

So what about Student Reporter? 

Born out of a niche conference reporting project with the World Resources Forum less than two years ago, Student Reporter has since expanded to cover conferences around the globe. Although initially seamlessly integrated into the conference program, we are now facing our own set of challenges as we take on new projects and partnerships. One could even say that we are feeling our own growing pains. At mainstream and high-profile events that attract hundreds of journalists, we are forced to critically examine the media landscape and carve our own space.

Our vision as a global outlet – or “voice” – for this generation is admittedly ambitious, which is rather typical of the Millennial generation. With the emergence of networks for aspiring “young leaders under 30”, such as The Sandbox Network and now the WEF’s own Global Shapers program, this generation is really starting to form its own identity. At Davos, the Millennials were described as “desirous of making ‘something out of nothing’,” feeling “quite empowered and ‘enfranchised’ to bring about positive change in the world.” And characteristically, we are constantly trying to expand our impact through the growing number of topics and events we cover, and our expanding community of reporters.

Our take-home message from our meeting with Ms. Huffington on scaling up could aptly be summarized as follows: be directional, prioritize your impact (in her case, the community of bloggers and readers), and stay entrepreneurial. At Student Reporter, we will certainly be applying these as we scale up our venture to match our own ambitious vision and impact. As for our growing pains, we will let the hundreds of versions of this clichéd inspirational quote answer for us: it’s the journey that counts.

Feature image: Student Reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos; Source: Nikolaj Fischer

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