OUR STO­RIES WILL TALK TO THE AAM AADMI: LY­DIA POLGREEN

From step­ping out of metro cities to build­ing a ro­bust news­room in In­dia, Ly­dia Polgreen, Global Ed­i­tor-in-Chief, Huff­in­g­ton Post talks to Al­lan Dsouza about ex­pand­ing in a land of op­por­tu­ni­ties while up­hold­ing the sto­ries of the com­mon man

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When Ly­dia Polgreen took over as Global Ed­i­torin-Chief of Huff­in­g­ton Post from the charis­matic Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton in Jan­uary 2017, the dig­i­tal news pub­lish­ing com­pany was go­ing through a tran­si­tional shift not with just its lead­er­ship, but with am­pli­fy­ing its ed­i­to­rial phi­los­o­phy as the ‘voice of the voice­less’. The tran­si­tion also in­cluded the re­brand­ing with a new logo de­sign for Huf­fPost in all 17 edi­tions across the globe. To­day, the com­pany is part of Ver­i­zon’s me­dia sub­sidiary Oath, formed in the af­ter­math of Ver­i­zon’s $4.5 bil­lion pur­chase of Ya­hoo and AOL me­dia as­sets. De­spite the back­ing of a pow­er­ful me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­glom­er­ate, Polgreen is op­ti­mistic about Huf­fPost stick­ing to its roots and op­er­at­ing as an in­de­pen­dent news me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion that cham­pi­ons the cause of in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties ne­glected by pop­u­lar me­dia.

CARV­ING AN IN­DIAN IDEN­TITY

In her 15 years with the New York Times, Polgreen spent three years in In­dia as a cor­re­spon­dent, dur­ing which she re­al­ized the op­por­tu­ni­ties present in a coun­try that was set to be a fu­ture haven for dig­i­tal news me­dia con­sump­tion. “I first ar­rived in In­dia in 2009 as a cor­re­spon­dent for the New York Times. It was still 2G then, and yes, time of the in­fa­mous 2G scam as well. We were just about see­ing the stir­rings of what would be the mo­bile in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion in In­dia. To­day, data is af­ford­able and with smart­phone pen­e­tra­tion, the ‘aam aadmi’ has ac­cess to a wealth of news and in­for­ma­tion which as a dig­i­tal news me­dia com­pany we can make op­ti­mum use of. In­dia is much more than its met­ros and the real sto­ries come out from the smaller cities and vil­lages. We look to in­vest in a news­room here in In­dia that bears the trade­mark of Huf­fPost, which is about telling the sto­ries of tri­umphs and strug­gles of the or­di­nary peo­ple who are try­ing to make ends meet un­der stren­u­ous cir­cum­stances,” says an ex­cited Polgreen on mak­ing big strides in the In­dian me­dia land­scape.

VOICE OF THE VOICE­LESS

Ac­cord­ing to Polgreen, set­ting a dis­tinc­tion in a clut­tered me­dia space is all about hav­ing the right voice and at­ti­tude. “In­dia is a ca­cophonous me­dia mar­ket and dis­tinc­tion is im­per­a­tive for growth. There are many news me­dia com­pa­nies that do all kinds of re­port­ing on an ar­ray of sub­jects. As a dig­i­tal me­dia en­tity, it’s im­por­tant that we are clear about the au­di­ence we are tar­get­ing and the sto­ries we are go­ing af­ter. We need to have a clear sense of our iden­tity as we are not just go­ing af­ter generic news,” Polgreen says. Draw­ing a par­al­lel be­tween dy­nas­tic gov­ern­ments and po­lit­i­cal nepo­tism in In­dia and the United States, Polgreen adds, “In the

US, there has been dy­nas­tic rule that has been rat­i­fied at the bal­lot box. In the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, there is rea­son­able plau­si­bil­ity in ques­tion­ing Jared Kush­ner’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion to be tasked with bro­ker­ing peace in the Mid­dle east. Our goal is to be the news source of choice for the work­ing class peo­ple who are con­cerned about is­sues like cor­rup­tion, econ­omy, cli­mate change, gen­der equal­ity and hold­ing gov­ern­ments ac­count­able. We do not have to be be­holden to any po­lit­i­cal or cor­po­rate POV and can be al­lied solely with our read­er­ship.”

THE MON­E­TI­ZA­TION CHAL­LENGE

In a fiercely con­tested ad­ver­tis­ing-driven dig­i­tal me­dia mar­ket where In­ter­net big­wigs like Face­book and Google con­tinue to dom­i­nate and take home the lion’s share, an in­de­pen­dent news plat­form can find it dif­fi­cult to sur­vive. Talk­ing of mon­e­ti­za­tion, Polgreen says, “The chal­lenge of mon­e­ti­za­tion is a real one and with the shift in me­dia con­sump­tion to mo­bile, we have seen FB and Google hog 90% of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue. How­ever, ad­ver­tis­ers are wak­ing up to the fact that there is tremen­dous risk in these open plat­forms. Face­book’s cred­i­bil­ity has taken a hit af­ter re­ports of fake news came to light. A big advertiser like P&G will not want its ad placed next to a hate post or a be­head­ing video. Like­wise, even the mea­sure­ment met­rics has come un­der the scan­ner for be­ing mis­lead­ing in terms of the num­ber of views and en­gage­ment. There’s a gen­uine thirst for re­li­a­bil­ity and brand safety where a plat­form like Oath can take ad­van­tage of the need for brands to con­nect with con­sumers in an au­then­tic and or­ganic way.”

THE WAY FOR­WARD

When Huf­fPost en­tered In­dia in 2014, it did so by part­ner­ing with a le­gacy me­dia brand like Times of In­dia. Though the part­ner­ship with TOI ceases to ex­ist, Polgreen be­lieves Huf­fPost’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Oath is strate­gi­cally the most lu­cra­tive for the com­pany. Polgreen says, “We had a great part­ner­ship with TOI and when we started work­ing with them, our sit­u­a­tion was dif­fer­ent. Now we are a part of Oath. We have our own sales force here in In­dia through Oath that can help us with the mon­e­ti­za­tion. Most

im­por­tantly, we feel good about our­selves in sup­port­ing the jour­nal­ism that we do.”

In line with its com­mit­ment of en­gag­ing with the au­di­ence and lis­ten­ing to them, Huf­fPost is in the process of get­ting a new Ed­i­torin-Chief for its In­dia op­er­a­tions as it does in ev­ery other in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. “Be­ing an Amer­i­can, it is not for me to de­cide the ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tion for Huf­fPost in In­dia. We’re in the mid­dle of hir­ing a new Ed­i­torin-Chief for In­dia who will de­cide what sto­ries we go af­ter. The world is wit­ness­ing a seis­mic me­dia rev­o­lu­tion to­day, where the un­rav­el­ling of the Har­vey We­in­stein story has opened a can of worms that is hav­ing solid re­ver­ber­a­tions here in In­dia as well as in other parts of the world. As more women come out and speak up, it will only strengthen our voice as we put the con­sumer of news at the cen­tre of news-mak­ing,” con­cludes Polgreen.

There’s a gen­uine thirst for re­li­a­bil­ity and brand safety where a plat­form like Oath can take ad­van­tage of the need for brands to con­nect with con­sumers in an au­then­tic and or­ganic way.”

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