The Huffington Post, beyond the election

At the WebbyConnect summit in Southern California, CNET News caught up with the groundbreaking news site's CEO, Betsy Morgan, to find out more about its long-term strategy.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
8 min read

DANA POINT, Calif.--When political pundit Arianna Huffington, along with a team of digital-media veterans, launched political news aggregator The Huffington Post in 2005, critics were skeptical of the left-leaning site. But it's turned out to be one of political journalism's great recent success stories, even amid controversy over the charismatic and opinionated Huffington and the site's business model, which utilizes thousands of unpaid bloggers in addition to full-time reporters.

Just over a year ago, The Huffington Post hired Betsy Morgan, head of CBSNews.com, to serve as its CEO, taking over from co-founder and former AOL executive Ken Lerer.

Betsy Morgan
Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan

At the WebbyConnect summit this week, where Morgan was a featured speaker, CNET News caught up with her to find out just what the site plans to do after the presidential election that has carried it to the heights of digital fame.

Q: The Huffington Post has been riding high on the 2008 election, with ComScore numbers naming it as the top independent political destination on the Web. But everyone's acknowledging that traffic may drop significantly after the election. What is the company's strategy for this?
Morgan: That's a question that I feel like I've been asked a lot in the last couple of weeks. I think all news and information sites have been up this year. We look at our competitors' traffic really closely, too, and that political tide has lifted everybody's boats. I think a couple of things are going to happen after the election. One, what we've certainly seen over the interest in this election is that people are re-energized by the political process and they're very interested, particularly in light of the economy, in what a new administration will look like.

Because of that, you'll continue to see interest in that, in the new administration and who gets picked for what positions and what's the first thing they do and the second thing they do. Does the new president go abroad immediately and try to mend fences? Those kinds of things. I think there's still going to be a big interest in what's going on in Washington.

Do you have different strategies for if Barack Obama wins the election versus if John McCain wins?
Morgan: What's interesting about that is, that question assumes and even reading the headline in ComScore assumes that we are just a political site. Our tagline is "the Internet newspaper." So back to your original question, which I think answers the second question. We've worked really hard over the past year to grow all of our verticals, to launch a bunch of verticals. A bunch are new since this time last year...we have a lot of traffic coming to non-politics stuff, and prior to the most recent sort of frenzy of run-up and countdown, our traffic was sort of about 50-50, so 50 percent to political stories and 50 to everything else.

So we have really consciously grown and attracted an audience that's interested in a whole lot of things besides politics. I do think that one of the things that will be very interesting to see is the obsessiveness with which people are watching the election and being interested in the political process. We're also seeing that behavior on the business side with the economy every day: what happened to the Dow and what happened to the other economic numbers. We're seeing huge traffic for us in those areas so that in November and December, there may be more of a balance.

Have you been shifting resources to covering the financial crisis in more depth?
Morgan: Coverage of the economy folds into so many other parts of our verticals. The economy is tied so closely to politics that some of our politics writers and editors are writing about politics and also the economy: the impact, and what McCain thinks about the economy and what Obama thinks about the economy. The media vertical's another area. Media companies are laying off, their stock prices are getting hit, they're going through changes, they're prepping for the downturn, so that's business-related, too. So the economy is a big story across the board in many different areas, and that's how we're attacking it rather than, "No more style coverage! Start working on those Dow Jones charts!"

What's your election night tech strategy? Will Huffington Post have extra server power in? Will you be auto-refreshing the home page faster?
Morgan: Such a good question when you say auto-refresh. We turned off auto-refresh last December and we've got an AJAX dynamically delivered page. That was a decision we consciously made at the end of last year because we just felt that our page views were not authentic and that we wanted to see more authentic page view numbers, and the auto-refresh thing seems like a thing of the past, though a lot of news sites still use it.

In terms of election night coverage on the tech side, we did a pretty robust tech infrastructure overhaul over the winter in prep for a lot of fall traffic. The management team is in constant communication with the tech team. As we're hitting these record page view numbers daily, can our servers handle this? Can they handle 5x, 10x, 100x, whatever? Having come from a place that dealt with that stuff in spades, at CBS, I'm familiar with that super, super spike in traffic.

What was something that you wanted to do in election coverage and couldn't do for one reason or another?
Morgan: There isn't anything kind of top-of-mind. I think everybody feels like they've been pretty happy with the coverage we've done. I'd say, what could we do more of? We probably could've done a little bit more live blogging. But we feel like we've done a good job of engaging our bloggers.

What are some digital-politics features or applications that other media companies or Web sites have done that you think are really impressive?
Morgan: Yahoo's got a great electoral map that includes Huffington Post picks on who wins the electoral college in what states and what numbers that I think is pretty interesting. I think people like the kind of compare-and-contrast experience. We've liked working with them. AOL's done some interesting things with bloggers, sort of getting voices of bloggers and then getting real-time reaction, and they started that really, really early in the process.

On the mainstream news sites I've got to give everybody credit. I think everybody's evolved from this time last year, maybe having candidate pages, to experiences that are much more interactive where as a consumer you can add value and community.

People say that 2004 was the election where blogs took off and the 2006 mid-term elections were when YouTube took off. What will people be saying was the digital trend that took off in the 2008 elections?
Morgan: What you've seen now in this political cycle is, you've really seen the blogosphere and both individual and mainstream news affect the political process. With Off the Bus, our citizen journalism program with NYU, we've had 12,000 citizens contributing and covering stories across the country, going to rallies, sitting in on conference calls, and really being able to bubble up all that information for mainstream media. It's been fantastic. They've broken a bunch of stories. So I definitely think that it's the rise of the empowerment of the individual journalist or the citizen journalist.

Media is getting hit hard in this economic climate. Ad-supported companies are getting hit hard. And there's a chance that The Huffington Post, like other sites, will see a traffic drop after the election. Are you going to have to do any layoffs?
Morgan: We don't anticipate that. We've had a really good year, ad-wise. We're in the game at a different point in our life cycle than the other mainstream players. We've seen the brand really grow to top of mind with both agencies and clients and the response has been really positive.

I do think everyone's looking at 2009 and thinking, "Do the projections I did in July still apply in 2009?" That's true, totally, across the board. But Internet advertising is still hugely more measurable, of great interest to more and more advertisers, and the value proposition of The Huffington Post is a strong one. You get not just politics, you get a ton of other news and information. It's a growing site and in terms of the audience it attracts, and granted this will change a bit as we get bigger, but it's a real influencer, educated audience, which I think will continue to be attractive to advertisers.

On the flip side, as a recent New Yorker article about Arianna Huffington highlighted, to some critics that demographic is known as "limousine liberals." Are you going to be changing your strategy at all to appeal to, dare I say, average Americans?
Morgan: For any news site, as it gets bigger the demographics change. Our advertising guys look at our demographics very carefully, and I don't think ComScore has a category for "limousine liberals," but our profile, our average user looks like the average user for other news sites, and we feel that we are in that sweet spot along with the other guys like CNN and MSNBC.

Did you have to do any damage control after that New Yorker piece?
Morgan: I thought the piece was great!

True, it wasn't as scathing as some people had expected. So, obviously, The Huffington Post has taken great steps to differentiate itself from just being Arianna Huffington's site. But how central is she to the operation? Should she decide to retire, would you have a Steve Jobs sort of situation where the heart of the company would be gone?
Morgan: Arianna is the most tireless worker in this whole company. She's a total force of nature, and she is a huge, huge promoter of the site, obviously. And we're absolutely grateful for all of her great energy and outreach and she's a very hard worker on not just being an external face of the business but being hugely influential inside the company as well as editor-in-chief. If you look at the company and how it's grown over the last year, we have a really solid management team. It's very much of a business structure, it's very evolved from what was started three years ago as a blog and aggregated news site into something more mainstream and more comprehensive. We're growing. And Arianna's a living brand and she's fantastic, but the site does a lot more than just politics.

On that note, you made your first foray into local news recently with Chicago. How's that going? When will we see more?
Morgan: Soon! You'll definitely see the next local vertical soon.

Which one?
Morgan: We're working on it. I won't name the city. But what we've been able to see with Chicago, and this a hallmark of The Huffington Post, because the team is nimble and agile and we have a very small team dedicated to Chicago--one editor--we can tweak...being able to tweak fast and quickly, on the fly has been huge.