Jared Grusd has been chief executive at the Huffington Post for about a year now, but late last month, he sounded more like the company’s resident hype man.
“It’s sometimes said of one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman, that he would have loved the internet,” Grusd wrote in a memo to staff. “I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced he specifically would have loved HuffPost — our passion, our relentlessness, and our embrace of the new and the unknown.”
The memo, which ran for more than 900 words, was titled “Our open road.” But it was sent at a time when it feels more like the Huffington Post is at a crossroads.
AOL, the Huffington Post’s parent company, was bought last year by Verizon, which in turn bid to acquire another major digital property, Yahoo, earlier this summer. (The latter deal is still pending.)
And, for the first time since it launched more than a decade ago, the Huffington Post is without an editor-in-chief. The site’s founder and namesake, Arianna Huffington, stepped down as the top editor in August to focus on a forthcoming lifestyle venture.
Grusd said the company is in the early stages of hiring a new editor-in-chief, and that there’s no timetable to name one. Both internal and outside candidates will be considered.
Internally, HuffPost Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim and editorial director for lifestyle Kate Palmer are believed to be the most likely contenders for the position.
But Grusd, who is leading the hiring search, took issue with the suggestion that the void left by Huffington posed the biggest unanswered question for the site.
“That implies that journalism begins and ends with one person, and I don’t think it does,” Grusd told CNNMoney in an interview earlier this week.
Staff members say they have felt little change in the wake of Huffington’s departure. When she launched the site in 2005, the Huffington Post was thought of as a liberal answer to the Drudge Report, the online news aggregator that has long been a must-read for conservatives. The site has since evolved into a full-fledged news organization with journalists around the world.
Huffington’s role in public life morphed over time, as well, as she she went from a strident voice on the left during the George W. Bush presidency to an evangelist for healthy living. Her decision to leave the Huffington Post to focus full-time on her corporate wellness company, Thrive, reinforced that transformation.
But while Huffington herself may have grown less partisan, the site did not. HuffPost has supplied plenty of criticism and mockery of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Initially, the site placed all coverage of Trump in its entertainment section before tweaking the policy. All stories on the Trump campaign are now placed in the politics section, but they’re appended with a disclaimer that calls the Republican nominee a “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther” who “regularly incites violence.”
Don’t expect a rebranding under new leadership. In his memo last week, Grusd outlined a new mission statement in which he described the Huffington Post as “the world’s premier progressive media platform.”
“We are fierce and fun,” the mission statement continued. “We help people lead better lives, make more informed choices and define their own identities and communities as they see fit. We tell stories and create experiences that matter, by shining light on truth and exposing absurdities and lies. We believe in the universality of human rights and the power of understanding and appreciating our differences. We fight the good fight. We will be the leading source of news and commentary for the most diverse and connected generation ever.”
Grusd told CNNMoney that, for all of HuffPost’s other offerings, “news and politics is at the core of what we do.”
“We are at an incredible period of time to have a highly differentiated point of view in the news and politics landscape,” he said.
Grusd joined HuffPost last summer from Spotify, the streaming music company, where he served as global head of corporate development and general counsel. “I believe very deeply in journalism,” he said, “but I also believe in product and video.” At an all-hands meeting last month, the first since Huffington stepped down, Grusd urged HuffPost employees to try new things.
“This is true across all aspects of HuffPost,” he told CNNMoney. “We’re experimenting all the time with new product and features.”
As an example, Grusd said that HuffPost will unveil a campaign-themed game in the coming weeks that will be played through iMesssage.
By most metrics, HuffPost remains a digital powerhouse. In August, it had 55 million desktop visitors, the second largest global audience for that month. HuffPost also consistently has the highest engagement rate on Facebook, according to Newswhip.
But the uncertainty there is impossible to ignore. Some staff members are privately anxious about Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo, wondering what it will mean for them. (Grusd said he’s “very optimistic” that HuffPost and Yahoo will exist in concert with each other.).
The loss of Huffington might be more symbolic than practical, but it still leaves the site devoid of the digital pioneer with whom it will always be identified.
All that might explain why Grusd was on such a mission to rally his employees last month. In his memo, he told staffers they were all “pioneers.”
“Behind every one of our accomplishments so far is a pioneering spirit — a belief in ourselves and in the importance of always moving forward,” Grusd said.
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