The future of journalism looks like an ad agency.
This is what you think when you walk into the downtown Toronto offices of the Huffington Post's Canadian operation, which it shares with its corporate parent, AOL Canada Inc. You probably don't even need a description to imagine the scene, but here goes: Airy, two-storey, loft-like playpen on Spadina Avenue. Exposed brick. Rows of young folk in checkered flannel shirts staring intently into oversized monitors. A pair of electric guitars hanging above the boss's desk, which sits invitingly in the corner rather than hiding away in a separate office.
Marketing is in the DNA of the Huffington Post, which launched its first international edition in Canada last May and a separate Quebec version a couple of weeks ago. You might even say marketing is what HuffPost does best: sampling the highlights of others' work, writing a few original sentences to add context, slapping on a come-hither headline and providing a link to the original article for the convenience of those readers not sated by the summary.
The industry calls it aggregation; HuffPost prefers the term curation, and it's what 90 per cent of the Canadian site's roughly 20 editorial employees spend their days doing. HuffPost Canada has only two full-time employees dedicated to original reporting: Ottawa bureau chief Althia Raj and business reporter Rachel Mendleson.
But maybe that's too narrow a way of measuring the undertaking. Scoops, intelligent analysis, probing investigations, the stuff by which journalistic organizations usually measure themselves, are, for HuffPost, all merely ways of driving engagement with their community. For contemporary marketers, engagement is everything. As it is at HuffPost.
By that measure, at least, the approach seems to be working. Last spring, before the Canadian launch, company executives say, the Huffington Post's U.S. site was pulling in an average of 1.2 million unique users from Canada during a given month. In January, they say, HuffPost Canada – which counts all traffic from Canadian visitors to both the domestic site and the U.S. one – counted almost 2.8 million unique users, according to the online ratings service comScore.
So, okay, some of those clicks are probably because of the site's love of heavily torqued headlines. One story this week carried the headline: "One out of every ten Wall Street employees is a psychopath, say researchers," even though the story didn't actually say that. No matter. People shared the piece on Facebook, and the comments section lit up with arguments about the ethics (or lack thereof) of Wall Street.
Meanwhile, other news organizations look on with a toxic blend of envy and disdain.
Envy because – well, who wouldn't want one out of every 12 Canadians as readers? (Or, more to the point: Who wouldn't want to be able to serve up ads to one out of every 12 Canadians?)
Journalists in every newsroom across the country now spend at least part of their day trying to balance the corporate imperative to increase site traffic with a desire to do a story for its own merits. At The Globe and Mail, management recently installed digital boards in the newsroom that offer live updates on which stories are playing the best on our website.
But there's also disdain toward HuffPost: Traditional journalistic organizations accuse it of stealing original content through aggregation and it leans heavily on an army of unpaid bloggers.
The latter practice sparked an embarrassing flap when, shortly before the launch of HuffPost Quebec, a clutch of politicians and pundits in that province who had signed up to write for the site very publicly pulled out in order, they said, to avoid taking paying jobs away from others.
HuffPost says it was all a misunderstanding: Nobody was going to get paid, anyway. "We don't make any demands on people who want to blog," says Brad Cressman, the head of content for AOL Canada, drawing a distinction between the site's blogs and its other editorial content. "We are simply a platform."
In February, I reached out to J.J. McCullough, a 27-year-old political cartoonist based in Coquitlam, B.C., who started blogging for HuffPost Canada in December. He was fully aware that the gig was unpaid – but then, he said, so was a three-month internship he had done a year before at the local free daily Metro newspaper. "I was doing exactly the same job as the paid reporters were," he said of his Metro gig.
Internships at newspapers, magazines and television stations across Canada are pitched as being the best way to develop networks of contacts, and though nobody says there will be a job at the end of the term, there's an expectation that good workers will earn their way onto at least some sort of wait list. But at Metro, McCullough says, "ultimately, I was just there to be a temporary worker; when you're gone, you're gone."
HuffPost Canada claims that about 700 eager opinionators have already signed up to provide free content. And guess what? Two weeks ago, McCullough sent me a note saying HuffPost had offered him a paid position to write a weekly media column.
HuffPost is successful in part because it has an existential certainty, unencumbered by the heritage that weighs down so many other news organizations.
And yet. Earlier this week, I asked Cressman and Kenny Yum, the managing editor of AOL Canada, if they could point to any journalistic project they were particularly proud of.
Yum began talking about how HuffPost has staked out a "Main Street approach" to business coverage. "I don't see a lot of other news organizations actually staking out that ground, and we're proud actually to do that."
He mentioned a series called Mind the Gap, which is dedicated to exploring the income gap between the rich and poor in Canada. HuffPost believed in it so much, they sent their business reporter to Calgary for a story. Whenever another story about income disparity comes across the wires, it runs under Mind the Gap.
"Part of the DNA of Huffington Post is to focus in on things that we think are important and don't just require a 'Hey, this is going on,' and then move on to the next one," Cressman said. "So Kenny and his team do have the flexibility to cover the things that are important, and not just chase page views."
The contrast that Cressman drew – the difference between "important" and "page views" – stuck in my head as I walked back to the office, opened up HuffPost and searched for the Mind the Gap series. It was hard to tell how much traction the Calgary story had received, but it didn't seem to have lit up the site: It had been shared only a couple of hundred times on Facebook.
Far more popular was a slide show of the five most expensive homes in Canada. It, too, was tagged Mind the Gap. But, really, it was pure traffic bait. And, yes, I clicked on it.