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Nov. 4, 2019, 3:52 p.m.

HuffPost redesigns and further separates the personal and the political

“We know the day to day challenges of life are serious news too, and we are here to help.”

HuffPost redesigned its digital presence today, its biggest change since it chopped “The —ington —” out of its name two and a half years ago.

That redesign happened only a few short months after new editor Lydia Polgreen took over from Arianna —ington herself. This one comes after she’s had a couple years to make the place her own — though, of course, with all the constraints that come with editing in the time of revenue decline.

The centerpiece of that last redesign was the splash — that big single image and bold, newsstand-ready headline that dominated the top of the screen. HuffPost under Polgreen has leaned into that tabloid tradition, though in the spirit of more left-leaning tabloids whose readers were likely union members or immigrants, people who feel outside power. From the beginning, The Huffington Post described itself as an “Internet newspaper” and pulled from that tradition in its editorial approach.

HuffPost — in part because of its age of 14 years, in part because of that omnibus newspaper nature, and in part because of its early successes in SEO — has always attracted a substantial audience of conservatives and moderates, unusual for a news site relatively bold in claiming its turf left of center politically. As Polgreen put it two years ago:

A simple but powerful question drove me to join HuffPost three months ago after nearly 15 years at The New York Times: What would it mean to create a news organization that saw itself not as writing about people who feel left out of the political, economic and social power arrangements, but for them?…

I think we can do better for people who feel that too much political and economic power has accrued to a very small elite. People who feel they are on the outside looking in at the prosperity created by globalization and technological transformation. That the game is rigged; that the deck is stacked against them; who feel that the house always wins. That definition includes many, many people who voted for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. I suspect it also includes the majority of people who voted for Trump…

For me, the biggest divide in America, indeed across the globe, is between those who have power and those who don’t, and that doesn’t easily line up with our red and blue, left or right politics. The media has come up short in telling the story of one side of that divide ― of the people experiencing anger, voicelessness and powerlessness.

That was in many ways a radical statement for mainstream journalism. The New York Times is, fundamentally, not for the people she describes here. If it was, it wouldn’t have published a “here’s what kind of home $1.2 million will buy you in California these days” story this morning. The idea of an ambitious news site that would be was exciting. Even one owned by a phone company.

Most of that rhetorical positioning is absent from today’s redesign. The emphasis is clear from the site’s new tagline — “It’s personal” — and it comes at an editorial moment when a lot of Americans would like to forget politics even exists. Here’s how Polgreen describes the new approach:

At HuffPost, we put people first. This means we believe that real life is news and news is personal. Regardless of who you are, where you live or what you believe, HuffPost will help you navigate what’s happening in the world and how it affects you. Your needs, passions, challenges and curiosity are the heart of all of our journalism. If something matters to you, it matters to us.

And we’ve redesigned our homepage for you: to showcase a wider variety of the stories we work hard to bring you every day.

As always, you’ll find the latest news — what’s happening at the White House and beyond as well as the big stories that shape our lives: the quiet housing crisis and the struggle for voting rights, battles over health care, inequality and gender discrimination. And of course the history-making presidential race.

But you’ll also find a lot more stories about what’s happening at your house: raising good kids, finding a therapist you can afford, managing your student debt. We know the day to day challenges of life are serious news too, and we are here to help.

Above all, you’ll find stories about people. Manar Hussein, a Muslim woman who stood up to those who tried to intimidate her for wearing a modest bathing suit, and Jo Etta M. Harris, a Black woman who had the police called on her while nursing her child in her car. Or David Ledbetter, the teenager who had the bright idea to register people to vote while they waited in line for a coveted Popeye’s chicken sandwich. People who, like you, want to make their lives and the world better.

There’s still politics in there, to be sure, but the notes are more about navigating your life than being part of the #resistance. And if that sounds to you like service journalism, Polgreen agrees, in this interview she gave to corporate sibling Yahoo Finance this morning:

At HuffPost, we really think of ourselves as being engaged in service journalism.

People tend to think of service journalism as “Oh, help me figure out what shampoo I should use?” or “What dress should I wear?” or “What pair of boots is best for the winter?”

But we like to take that approach of helping people live their lives and make better decisions to everything we do. So we bring it to politics, we bring it to coverage of the environment, and all kinds of different sectors and parts of people’s life.

You can see glimpses of that shift in the new homepage, which does a more thorough job than its predecessor at sorting its harder and softer content. Stories about politics, the 2020 election, and Donald Trump can spike readers’ anxiety and emotions, depending on their personal views; stories like “Meet Sema Bal, Who Reads Fortunes Through Turkish Coffee Grounds” are, shall we say, less likely to. It’s an eternal truth of digital news that it can be weird having those intermingled together — not separated into different sections as in a print newspaper, but tight neighbors on a homepage or in a social feed.

It’s hard to draw too much from a single comparison, but I went back to look at what the homepage looked like on Friday versus what what’s up at this writing (and which of course will be different whenever you click that link). Here’s how their contents subtly differed:

Top section:

  • Old homepage: Chock full of politics (13 stories), but also 2 non-politics pieces that fit in a bit awkwardly (“32 Tweets To Make You Feel Better About Your Terrible Dating Luck,” “Why Some People With Anxiety Love Watching Horror Movies”).
  • New homepage: More uniformly hard news: 7 politics/Trump stories, 2 non-politics hard news stories (protesters in Lebanon, a white supremacist arrested in Norway), and only 1 entertainment story — and it’s about Michael Che and SNL Weekend Update, which is culture-war enough it might as well be politics. (I’m not counting the welcome-to-our-redesign post that’s also up here today.)

Second section:

  • Old homepage: Modules for “HuffPost Personal” and “What’s Hot,” this is more clearly soft (“TV Anchors Lose It When Meteorologist Shows Up Dressed Like… Umm…”), with 5 non-politics stories. But still, 3 politics stories (on Trump, Trump Jr., and Mitt Romney).
  • New homepage: More uniformly soft news: 10 non-politics stories (“For These Zookeepers, The Dress Code Can Mean Survival,” “I Hijacked A Stranger’s Grave To Help My Daughter Grieve The Father She Never Met”) versus just 1 politics story. There’s a “LIFE” heading atop it, a blue pastel background, and some visual clarity that this is something different than what you just scrolled past.

I confess I was more excited about the “structural counterbalance to established power” approach than the service-journalism one. But I’m not the target reader of HuffPost, and this transition probably makes sense to a lot of those who are. In a time of infinite digital alternatives, explicitly proving your usefulness is key to building up a reader’s loyalty. And that focus on people’s personal stories could be a way to harness some of the power of Internet-fueled populism without being dragged down by its darker sides.

It’s hard to separate this new approach from the news, broken by the Financial Times two weeks ago, that HuffPost’s owner Verizon is looking for a buyer to take it off its hands. The phone company, led for the past year by new (and seemingly not-that-into-media) CEO Hans Vestberg, has lost interest in what was until not that long ago a plan to build a digital publishing powerhouse that could become a third alternative for advertisers to Google and Facebook. There were job cuts at HuffPost in January, and the closure of international editions has continued. In that context, the more advertiser-friendly turf of parenting advice and personal finance has understandable appeal.

It’s unclear who coined the phrase “the personal is political,” but it reached the popular consciousness as a slogan of feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s. Given that many issues of interest to women had long been relegated to the private sphere of the home, it was a way of saying: No, actually, a husband or father isn’t the final arbiter of these issues — women’s rights are a matter of broader import to the broader society. They’re political.

The saying first gained public notice in an essay of that name by the radical feminist Carol Hanisch in 1969. She and other feminist activists had come to the conclusion, she wrote, “that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” In a reflection on that essay written years later, Hanisch said that the word “political” was “used here in the broad sense of the word as having to do with power relationships, not the narrow sense of electoral politics.” (Emphasis mine.)

And that’s why I have to mourn, just a little bit, this shift to the personal.

In exactly 365 days, the United States will elect a president. It has been many years since the nation’s allocation of power has been this twisted and misshapen. That a smart news organization is taking this moment to help readers look inward has to be discouraging. But it’s nonetheless understandable, even without the pressures of advertising revenue and a quarterly number to hit. After all, what followed the activism and all-encompassing politics of the 1960s? People going back to the land, Whole Earth Catalog in hand, looking inward, escaping from a society they considered corrupt, obsessed with wealth, and run by ogres.

A lot of those same back-to-the-land types, a decade or so later, helped create what became the modern Internet, with all the visions of digital utopia that accompanied it. Some lived long enough to see that utopia turned inside out, too. It’s a cycle, Whole Earth to Whole Foods.

The personal is the political. But sometimes, the personal is also the escape from the political. Here’s Polgreen, in that Yahoo interview this morning:

So when we say it’s personal — there’s this old saying that the personal is political and the political is personal. And the reality is that life is full of really stressful news right now, and people are really trying to think about how they can make really great choices that are gonna make their lives better, and hopefully make the world better as well.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2019, 3:52 p.m.
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