Huffington, the new magazine from the Huffington Post, is something of a contradiction. As a website, the Huffington Post is a catchall that values speed and timeliness in its stories and blogs. It’s free. It’s thoroughly Internet-y. Huffington (make that “Huffington.” with the period, on the cover), on the other hand, is a deliberate experience, a weekly magazine with deep features and stories breaking four digits in word count. It’s on the iPad, and, after a brief trial period, it’ll be a paid product.
The question is: Will HuffPost readers read it?
“I think it will appeal to people who want to spend some time on a weekend, a couple hours, with a deeply engaging read,” said Tim O’Brien, executive editor of the Huffington Post. That’s a qualified answer, as O’Brien went on to tell me, “I think a big chunk of our audience is spinning onto the site during the week looking to get in and get out, get primers on the events of the day. They’re our base, they’re hugely important and of value to us.”
The Huffington Post is relentless when it comes to expansion, particularly since last year’s merger with AOL. They’ve spun off sites around the globe and this summer will bring a streaming video network online. Huffington (sorry, we’re dropping the dot) fits into that expansion profile, and yet it could prove to be a trickier transition than any of their other plans. In order to succeed as a magazine, they”ll need to carry on the brand of the Huffington Post, through writing and personality, while shedding some of the Internet tendencies that have defined them.
“This is less about us doing journalism in a different way and more of creating a new platform for the Huffington Post Media Group,” O’Brien said in a phone conversation Wednesday.
Huffington isn’t AOL’s first foray into tablet mags; Engadget launched Distro in the fall of 2011. It wasn’t too long after that discussions began about creating a magazine for HuffPost. It took the company seven months to bring it to life. As a magazine, Huffington doesn’t break any new ground; it’s still got the requisite short diversions in the front and back of the “book,” along with photo essays, a graphics blowout, and three long features.
Navigating through the magazine is also familiar: the swipe gestures are similar to what you’d see in Condé Nast magazines, down to read deeper, right to move forward through the issue. While Huffington’s look and feel may not be exceptional, the magazine doesn’t stumble. The layout is clean, allowing ample room for stories to play with quotes and graphics, and the photography is stark and crisp thanks to the iPad’s retina display. Huffington isn’t a closed book either, it offers videos, links to pieces on the HuffPost website and live commenting on stories. One nice touch, the “Quoted” section, which collects discussion from the week’s newsmakers, also includes selections from HuffPost commenters.
Each new issue of Huffington will be delivered on Fridays. Issues will run 99 cents an issue, $1.99 a month, or $19.99 a year. (They’re currently offering a free month’s trial with a subscription.)
O’Brien said that, although they’ve added design and editing staff for the magazine, the cost of producing issues for the tablet is dramatically less than in print. But the greater goal, O’Brien told me, was to find a new way to showcase HuffPost writing. “We wanted to create a destination for our longform feature journalism that offered our audience a chance to have a more lengthy, deliberate, reflective interaction with the work we are doing,” he said.
Yes, they are known for their endless supply of blogs and high metabolism as a news site. But HuffPost is increasingly producing longer stories. Also, you know, Pulitzer Prize winning stories. Giving attention to both can be difficult for such a large enterprise whose main output up to now has been the web. It’s a problem of their own creating. “Arianna and I both felt the expectation our audience has on the website is very temporal, very fast moving. We spin a lot of material across the site every minute of every day,” he said. “Our longer feature work can get lost in that flood.”
But Huffington isn’t just recalibrating web stories for the iPad. O’Brien said they’re commissioning reporters to write for the magazine as well as using the site’s existing stable of journalists. Today’s debut issue has lengthy features on President Obama’s declining popularity with young voters and a look at the process independent movie producers endure to create films. Like any magazine, Huffington has to find the right mix of subject matter and timeliness to pull in readers. O’Brien said the reason they decided to create a weekly title was to follow the spirit of what HuffPost was already writing about on the site without getting too much distance from the stories they cover. “To me, a weekly is a nice compromise from the rush of a daily experience and the sometimes extreme detachment of a monthly experience,” he said. “This allows us to be on the news, but not captive to the news.”
O’Brien declined to share any statistics about HuffPost’s readership on the iPad, either through its official iPad app or in Safari. And there’s a real question whether HuffPost readers — used to swimming in a sea of free web content — will be interested in paying for it. (The magazine won’t be entirely dependent on subscriptions. It’s also ad-supported; the inaugural issue is sponsored entirely by Toyota.)
“We thought about it strategically long and hard, and our view in the end was this is something we’re putting a lot of our resources into,” O’Brien said. “It’s highly crafted and has added value that customers should be willing to pay for.”
The magazine won’t appeal to all of the website’s readers, if only because of its limited scope; you won’t find all of the breathless updates on sideboob and zombies, all the dispatches from the campaign trail, or stray thoughts of Alec Baldwin. But the higher-quality material and the narrower iPad user base offers the potential of higher-end advertising, and any paid-content revenue stream is welcome in a business heavily dependent on the ebbs and flows of online advertising. O’Brien says that narrower audience already exists within the HuffPost readership — the magazine is an attempt to identify them.
“This is something they can download to their iPad on a Friday in anticipation of the commute home and have Saturday and Sunday as they’re sitting back in their living room or at the breakfast table,” he said.