Back to the future with Huffington Post UK

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

The much-heralded Huffington Post UK last week appeared amid a fanfare as quiet as, well, the one that greets a New Model Journalism launch. Even before the announcement of the death of the News of the World stole its thunder, the response on Twitter (#Huffpouk) consisted of a few cheerfully self-promoting tweets from its newly-recruited bloggers and the odd comment from seasoned media-watchers.

So far, the consensus among the latter seems to be that the new site is underwhelming. It’s generally acknowledged that the line-up of bloggers – which includes culture minister Jeremy Hunt and comedian Ricky Gervase – is impressive, and there are rumours that Tony Blair is to join the crew. But the resulting content doesn’t seem to add up to that distinctive, must-read British version that made HuffPo such a phenomenal success on the other side of the pond.

It may well be to do with the way the UK edition has yet to produce an unmistakeably British feel. The site has a decidedly American look, and signs that readers in Blighty may find this off-putting have been manifesting in irritated comments about capitalised headlines, and the over-large sensationalised banner over the lead story.

Matters of font and case may strike as trivial, but they are key to conveying a brand, and so to creating that relationship widely seen as the path to survival for media organisations in the digital age. And the wisdom of coming across as irremediably American is questionable, raising the possibility that HuffPoUK is raising anti-colonial hackles in the cultural battle that endures subliminally between the US and the UK.

The issue that has dogged the Huffington Post in recent months – the fact that it doesn’t pay its bloggers – may be another contributory factor. The practice was relatively trouble-free until the sale to AOL earlier this year netted Arianna Huffington and founders a cool $315 million, precipitating a strike among its US contributors which is still ongoing.

Arianna’s line, when she appeared on Woman’s Hour the day of the launch, is that the operation employs a healthy editorial staff of 1300, while providing a ‘platform’ for unpaid bloggers to ‘write when they want’. Others come to her defence with the argument that publications have long made use of contributions from organisations and individuals writing on a quid-pro-quo basis, while paying professional journalists to produce material that needs objectivity.

But the problem – just as anyone knows who’s worked on a magazine where slashed budgets herald a sudden injection of puff pieces – is that writers who write for nothing do so to further their interests in other ways. A glance through the blogs of Huffington Post UK suggests that the site may already be afflicted by the same problem – many of the blogs are by think-tankers and NGO directors, along with the odd Lord and actor. The Ricky Gervais offering is a case in point: the short piece marking the 10th anniversary of The Office ends with the injunction to – excuse our language – ‘Now buy the fucking anniversary DVD Box set’.

All of which rather makes me inclined to answer the trenchant question raised by Arianna in her launch editorial – what will the next stage of capitalism be like?’ with a sniffy ‘Rather like the old one’. It seems that HuffPo’s famed brand of leftish netizenry rather loses its sparkle when absorbed into Britain’s political elite and celebrity culture; instead of tapping into the new political zeitgeist where people are looking for alternatives beyond banker’s bonuses, the editorial vision trades on an outdated neo-New Labour attachment to status and power.

In the months to come, it looks as if one of the useful functions that a specifically British HuffPo might fulfill is to act as a testing ground for how far its brand of ‘open journalism’ can succeed here, and how willing British writers are to build its success for free.

In the meantime, my favourite response to the Huff Po so far has to be one ordinary reader’s review on YouTube. (Who says you can’t play ‘Boo?’ on the internet?)

A laugh courtesy of HuffPo UK might have come from ‘Dove Ruins Cat Nap’ – had the video not been almost immediately taken down ‘due to a copyright claim by Charles Mantha’. Wry laughter to that one.