Lydia Polgreen Wants to Bring HuffPost Back to the People

By
HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen wants to create journalism for the underrepresented. Photo: Damon Dahlen/Huffington Post

It’s been almost a year since Arianna Huffington announced she would step down from her namesake publication, and almost six month since Lydia Polgreen, the former masthead editor and the editorial director of NYT Global, took her place as editor-in-chief. Many have wondered what Polgreen’s vision for the site would look like, and on Tuesday she revealed it: a sleek black-and-white redesign with a new name: HuffPost. The name, Polgreen explained in a letter from the editor, is a formal adoption of what the publication’s audience has called it for years. And it’s the first step in a new editorial direction that she — the daughter of an African immigrant and a disabled veteran who grew up in Ghana and Kenya and was forced to conceal her relationship with her wife while living in homophobic West Africa — hopes will allow HuffPost to “speak for the whole swath of the American experience.”

A self-proclaimed “ink-stained wretch,” Polgreen came up as a local-newspaper reporter and says she prefers to play a behind-the-scenes role in shaping the ubiquitous brand Huffington built from the ground up — she has no plans, for instance, for a Polgreen Post. On Wednesday, she briefed the Cut on HuffPost’s new ethos, and how she hopes it will change the media landscape.

How did your personal background contribute to the new direction you’re taking HuffPost?

For me, the election was a kind of road-to-Damascus moment. I was happily working at the New York Times and on a great career trajectory there, and the day after the election a lot of us rubbed the sleep off our eyes and said, “What are we doing here?” That’s no knock on the New York Times, which is an extraordinary journalistic institution. But because I spent most of my childhood in Kenya and Ghana and most of my career as a foreign correspondent, I’ve thought a lot about how important it is for people to have access to high-quality journalism at every level of the socio-economic ladder.

I saw an opportunity both in a civic and in a business sense to create a news organization that speaks directly to the lived experience of people who are probably never going to be Wall Street Journal or New York Times or Washington Post subscribers. And it seemed to me that HuffPost was a unique platform to experiment with the idea of a news organization that’s focused on everybody else.

You mentioned in your letter from the editor that trust in journalists is at a historic low. How will the overhaul you’re engineering help to repair that trust?

I think the antidote is to try as much as possible to disperse our journalists out into the country and ask them to be listening posts for the things people care about and are focused on. [We’ll also make] a concerted effort to recruit a broader and more diverse set of voices to be part of our contributor network.

The New York Times recently hired Bret Stephens, and they’ve been roundly criticized for that. Where do you think the line is between hiring diverse voices because there are people who agree with them and giving a platform to views that could be considered problematic?

I think every news organization kind of has its own internal compass about the range of views that fits with the shared ethos of its community, right? And I think that there is a broad consensus among our community that climate change and the threats of the Anthropocene are very real. So personally, I don’t feel that there’s a place for someone like Bret Stephens at HuffPost. We have a very clear set of principles: We believe in the universality of human rights, we believe that people have the right to determine and express their identities in whatever way they see fit, and we believe that racism is not okay, we believe that sexism is not okay, we believe in LGBTQ rights. We try to make our platform as open as it can possibly be, but I think we’re very upfront with our audience about what we stand for.

Right, and HuffPost made it pretty clear what it stood for during the election. Will that sort of partisan angle still exist on the site going forward?

I don’t believe that HuffPost is a liberal or a conservative organization; I see us as having a broad humanist kind of populism that’s based on the core principles. Fundamentally, ideology is an elite pursuit. Most people experience their political beliefs as a function of where they live or what they grew up with or as a kind of cultural affiliation that can shift over time. So I think it’s silly for any news organization to think of itself in ideological terms; we really want to be serving the moment we’re living in.

How will that apply to HuffPost’s political coverage?

I think we’re taking a critical look at the president and the presidency and the Republican party, but at the Democrats, too. I took a lot of flack for this, but I tweeted earlier, “What’s Obama doing giving $400,000 speeches to bankers?” and I think given where the country is right now, it’s a great moment to do a critical assessment of Obama’s attitude toward the banking industry. So I think what you’re going to see is a much wider critical lens on all of the institutions of power.

Do you think there’s any risk in broadening HuffPost’s perspective that way?

Any growing news organization struggles to keep its core identity. So as we bring in more diverse voices, will the core audience of folks who have looked to us for red meat on liberal subjects be turned off by that? I hope not, because I think we’re going to do it in a thoughtful way that will enrich their lives and media diets. But that’s always a risk.

For sure. And it was Arianna Huffington who attracted that core audience initially — how do you think you differ from her?

Arianna is a celebrity, and I’m definitely not a celebrity — I’m more of an ink-stained wretch. I came up through a very traditional journalistic path — I worked as a City Hall reporter in Albany, New York; I covered a few towns in Florida for the Orlando Sentinel; I was a metro reporter for the New York Times; I worked as a foreign correspondent. And Arianna obviously came to media through a very different lens. We definitely have different styles, and it’s not uncommon for a charismatic founder to be followed by someone who is lower-profile. I’m not looking to personalize this brand — we didn’t change the name to Polgreen Post. This is an existing, wonderful thing that I feel very privileged to be leading and guiding into its next chapter.

Would you ever change the name to Polgreen Post?

[Laughs.] Absolutely not. There is not even the remotest chance of it.

Lydia Polgreen Wants to Bring HuffPost Back to the People