Lydia Polgreen is the new Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief

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Lydia Polgreen

Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times associate masthead editor and editorial director of NYT Global, is succeeding founding editor Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post. In an interview she gave the news and opinion site, Polgreen indicated how she plans to steer the content focus in the wake of the media echo chamber the 2016 election exposed and exacerbated. She said HuffPo has the “potential and the possibility of really meeting this populist moment that we’re living in and meeting people where they actually are.”

Polgreen added, “just as there were moments when the Washington Post or The New York Times or the Times of London during World War II had a huge mission, we, too, have a huge mission. And that is to listen, to report, to tell stories, to seek out the stories and voices that aren’t being heard, even ones that might feel uncomfortable to us.”
lydia-polgreen-is-the-new-huffington-post-editor-in-chief In a 2014 report commissioned by A.G. Sulzberger, son of Polgreen’s former employer New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ Newsroom Innovation Team acknowledged that HuffPo “in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership.” The report cited advice from “a former leader of The Huffington Post… [who] told us that if we want to improve our reach, we must think differently about what it means to publish a story: ‘At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish. At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.'”

Election Post-Mortem

It’s been almost a month since candidate Donald Trump became President-Elect Donald Trump, and among the many other things his win has exposed, it has revealed how easy it is to exploit our balkanized news media to selfish ends. In principle, journalism is about enlightening the public with “information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” but, many news articles today amount to extended Facebook posts or Tweets–heavy on opinion and personality, with less concern for fact.

Opinion columns (by unpaid contributors) are arguably integral to the business model of news outlets like The Huffington Post, and opinion sections take up more and more real estate on sites like TheGuardian.com. Cable news shows are populated by hosts and pundits unabashedly affiliated with right- or left-wing agendas, and cable news stations are either run by outspoken supporters of the right or left, or billing themselves as stations that will deliver news stories in a way that appeals to supporters of the right or left.

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Fox News Host Sean Hannity appeared in a pro-Trump political video, a conflict of interest considering he was reporting on the election for the network. In response, a network spokesperson told POLITICO.com: “We were not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season.”

Then there’s Facebook and Twitter. With most Americans consuming or learning of breaking news via social media, and these outlets serving up only the content their mysterious and ever changing algorithms believe we want to see based on who and what we most interact with, engaging with the news has become a masturbatory exercise.

We are only exposed to the ideas and stories we either already agree with or want other people to know about. But if we are reading or watching only the outlets that reflect our persuasion or only following people we agree with online, we block the opportunity to broaden and inform our perspectives with legitimate points of opposition, and we lose basic human empathy for one another.

People who don’t agree with us are dismissed as “liberal elites” or “wing nuts”–us vs. them. We calcify in our respective corners, not speaking to or hearing each other, which makes us easy pawns for interests and individuals that don’t care about us or them. The truth becomes less important than “message,” and whosever message is most seductive wins.

Watching many of the political analysts on both Fox and CNN at points during the campaign cycle, it seemed clear their sole concern was delivering their candidate’s message. Period. Message for the sake of message, even when their message was inconsistent.

For example, in one breath, a Trump supporter would leverage a scathing critique of Bill Clinton’s treatment of women, championing their candidate’s trotting out of Clinton’s female accusers–then, in the next breath, dismiss Donald Trump’s bevy of accusers as pawns of the liberal media. Likewise, a Hillary Clinton supporter would rail about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, but ardently defend her refusal to release transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street firms or her infamous deletion of multiple emails. Ironically, far right outlets seemed to express little alarm at the fact that the Russian government was alleged to be behind the leaks of DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign emails–but cited her handling of classified emails and their potential exposure as criminal.

This faction impulse is understandable. As Ann Friedman wrote in a pre-election post for New York Magazine entitled “Supporting Hillary While Reckoning With Bill’s Sexual Past”:

With an openly racist accused rapist running as the other party’s nominee, it doesn’t seem like the right time to voice any of my concerns with Hillary as a candidate. Certainly not now, in the final weeks of a campaign that offers no room for nuance. And certainly not when it’s apparent that most of Trump’s defenders care more about defeating Hillary than about ensuring survivors’ voices are heard.

But faction mentality is easily duped by exaggeration and outright fiction.

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“I don’t like fooling people,” said Yaman A., creator of three fake news sites including Hot Global News. His motivation? “It’s really just the money.” 

This summer, Buzzfeed posted an interview with a teenage creator of three fake news sites who admitted that many of the stories he creates mislead and incite fear, and influence political perception, but says he actually has no political affiliation. “It’s really just the money,” he admits, that motivates him.

We need Google to adjust their algorithm to clearly identify fake news sites. We need our news sources, including Facebook and Twitter, to segregate actual news from fake news and opinion/editorial pages, as they (still try to) do with news and advertising/sponsored posts.

If there aren’t already, we need laws in place to ensure that unbought, unaffiliated journalists are delivering the news, not people with financial or career interests tied to specific individuals or corporations. We need our newsrooms to keep pushing to reflect diversity of backgrounds and perspectives so the news is balanced and corrected for implicit biases.

Additionally, we need to talk about money.

The internet has created a bottomless desire for content, but since there is no bottomless source of money, online news outlets are paying far less than they pay print journalists, and, as a result, less experienced, sometimes untrained writers are taking more of these jobs. Additionally, since internet journalism is even more dependent on nabbing a scoop before a competitor to increase their Google search rank and, ultimately, the amount of revenue they can charge advertisers, fact checking is de-prioritized, added to the writer’s plate rather than a professional’s, or non-existent.

We need publications with healthy fact-checking teams to ensure the news we get is accurate. We need some sort of protective provision for news gathering publications so they don’t have to be profitable or account to shareholders, and, thus, be beholden to clicks and shares in the same way as a blog or retail site.

If we believe our news media is rigged or biased, we need to hold them accountable. We need to burst our own bubbles.

Seven Journalism Fellowships You Should Know About

AAJW_Association of African Journalists & Writers_peoplewhowriteFollow (AAJW)-Association of African Journalists & Writers on Facebook. It’s an amazing resource for news on writing fellowships and scholarships. Today they’ve posted a listing of seven journalism fellowships with prizes up to $70,000. Take a look, and if you win, let us know!

Working Writer: Kristen Browning-Blas, Denver Post Food Editor

Kristen Browning-Blas, Denver Post Food Editor - peoplewhowrite

Kristen Browning-Blas

Remember that piece we ran about the author whose blog post raised $1 million for charityDenver Post Food Editor Kristen Browning-Blas wrote the article that inspired the post.

Considering she has the enviable gig of writing, editing, and eating for The Denver Post, we sought her thoughts on everything from self-editing, to digital’s impact on journalism, to her job. “You know the best parties end up in the kitchen?” she asks. “That’s how I feel about being a food writer/editor.”

What ultimately led you to an editorial position at The Denver Post?
I have a degree in Journalism from Colorado State University, 1985. My first job after college was as a news assistant at the New York Times Denver bureau. I also worked at Denver magazine, then moved to Chicago and worked at the Kane County Chronicle as a reporter, covering all kinds of small-town news. Then moved to Fox Valley Living magazine and edited a design magazine called Southwest Sampler, later renamed West. Those are both defunct now.

In 1993, my husband, 3-month-old daughter, and I moved to Chile, where we lived until 1999 (our son was born there). I did some freelance writing and worked as a translator/editor for Business News Americas.

We returned to Colorado in 1999 and my husband became a teacher. I answered an ad in The Denver Post for a part-time features writer. I got the job, and was promoted to food editor a year later.

What’s the best thing about editing/writing stories about food?
The best thing about my job is that it usually involves happy subjects. People love to eat, and they love to talk about eating. You know the best parties end up in the kitchen? That’s how I feel about being a food writer/editor. People connect over food. I love talking to immigrants about their food traditions, to old ladies about their pie recipes, to kids about how they would change school lunch.

What’s your editing philosophy?
As an editor, I look for clear-headed ideas, both in story pitches and in the writing itself. Because we are a regional newspaper, I like local stories with a strong sense of place. Economy of words is important, as we have tighter space now — 1,000 words would be a long story for us. Correct grammar and knowledge of AP style are essential when writing for a newspaper.

As an editor, do you find it easy to edit your own work, or do you always need a second eye?
I’ve gotten better at editing my own work, especially now that we have so few copy editors. But a second eye is always helpful. It’s amazing the things we catch on proofs.

Do you edit yourself with the same rigor — or more/less — as you would another writer’s work?
The thing about newspaper writing is that we don’t have the luxury of time in editing. So it has to be clean to start with. I spend a lot of time in the “pre-writing” phase (aka procrastination). But I think hard about the point of the story, which isn’t always clear. (See my answer to the editing philosophy question.)

Longer pieces in newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past for most print publications, but digital publishing has reopened the space for expanded essays and articles. Do you think print publications will start offering real estate for longer pieces again?
I doubt it. We just don’t have the space in print. But our Sunday Arts & Culture section does run longer pieces, maybe 50 inches (that’s about 1,300 words).

In your experience, how would you say the transition to digital consumption of news and content has impacted the newsroom?
This is a huge question. Words like “seismic shift” come to mind, but I’m writing this for writers, so will try to avoid cliches. I am tempted to spin my answer toward the positive, but that would be dull. So…

When I started at The Post in 2000, the newsroom was packed. We sent reporters to Afghanistan. We had expense accounts for taking sources to lunch. We had a food editor, a dedicated staff writer, and a dining critic. An editorial assistant (there were two in Features) opened our mail for us, and there was a lot of it — elaborate press kits, product samples, party invitations, cookbooks, wines.

Now, most of those desks are empty. I open my own mail (not complaining, just saying) and there’s a lot less of it, although we still get all the new cookbooks.

As a section editor, I’m lucky, because staffers want to write for Food. The dining critic is also a staffer who writes for other sections. I write for Food and for other sections, too. It used to be that editors edited, writers wrote, and photographers took pictures. Copy editors and designers took care of writing the headlines and cutlines, and laying out the pages.

As our staff has shrunk, the demand for content has grown. We learned how to take our own pictures and video. When copy editors were laid off, we started writing the headlines and cutlines ourselves. I have always enjoyed working closely with designers, so this has been fun for me, and it gives editors more control of the whole package. It’s stressful, though, juggling all the pieces on deadline.

So that’s the print part.

As for digital, we write and take photos for our food blog, “Colorado Table“. I run the Post’s Food section Facebook page. We all tweet. We are expected to post breaking news stories online before we work on them for print. All this requires that we learn new systems and move nimbly among the various programs, which can be challenging when you still have a beat to cover and stories to write. I find I spend more time and energy fussing with technology, when I’d rather be testing a recipe or interviewing a chef.

This transition has been wrenching for many of us who are 20+ years into our careers. We know how to do our jobs, but wonder if our analytical and writing skills are valued as more and more emphasis is placed on “feeding the beast” and generating clicks.

But, we get stories done more quickly, and we write more of them, and we spread them around beyond the printed page. We want to stay in the conversation, so we adapt. We learn to cultivate our own creativity, to shield ourselves from the never-ending stress of meeting ’round-the-clock deadlines. We talk about this more at work now; how it’s more important than ever to protect what is at the center of our craft, to write stories that touch our readers, to connect.