HuffPo meets Fairfax and you won’t believe what happens next

Fairfax sees Huffington Post’s left-leaning, populist approach as a good fit.

This week’s announcement that Fairfax had acquired a 49% partnership stake in Huffington Post Australia means yet another new entrant into the Australian online media landscape.

An Australian edition of Huffington Post has been mooted for some time now, but has lagged behind other international entrants such as The Guardian Australia (backed by Graeme Wood) and Daily Mail Online Australia, which have quickly attracted sizable readerships (as has domestic entrant, The Conversation).

Founded by Arianna Huffington and others (including the conservative Andrew Breitbart) in 2005, the Huffington Post (often referred to as HuffPo) quickly became a leading US news aggregation and blog hosting site, before being sold to AOL in 2011 for US$315 million. (Founder Huffington remains the president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group.)

It is known for its socially liberal, centre-left politics, and for its sharp content segmentation strategies that can draw together very diverse readerships. For instance, the site carries 50 different sections ranging from politics to crime, gay voices to religion, college and tech, celebrity news, parents, divorce and “GPS for the soul”. In contrast to a conventional newspaper, one can subscribe to a HuffPo section and be largely unaware of what exists on the rest of the site.

Australia’s predominantly English language readership, combined with a high level of familiarity with US news content, mean the risks for HuffPo Australia are low. It intends to hire 12 journalists in the first instance, so start-up costs are also modest.

In an un-bylined Q&A, oddly badged as an ‘exclusive’ carried on Fairfax websites, Huffington spoke of HuffPo’s “unique product” and said she expected to be “to build a top-five player in the category in three to five years”.

For Fairfax, it provides an investment likely to achieve a relatively quick payoff, at a time when its long-established mastheads such as The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review (AFR) continue to face strong cost pressures as well as online competition from the new players. It also allows for some low-cost content sharing - although this will probably be in the “pop culture” areas of entertainment and celebrity news.

This is likely to cause editorial angst for those within Fairfax; however, the move acknowledges that the media landscape is now two relatively distinct segments.

The one associated with the print-based mastheads revolves around well-established journalistic conventions and “star” journalists, and tends to skew towards an older readership, or at least those who have some experience of the newspaper in its print form.

The second gets almost all of its news online, and gravitates towards emergent sites such as Buzzfeed, Gawker, Junkee, Vice and HuffPo. This readership is younger, expects news in different formats – these sites are far more visually driven than their newspaper-driven equivalents – and does not for the most part expect to know who wrote the story they are reading. They are also more likely to be getting free content via social media, at a time when Fairfax, News and others are looking to build their paying subscriber base.

These readerships overlap considerably. Australian Buzzfeed readers are also likely to read the ABC Online or The Guardian, for instance. It is also not a divide between “real news” and “newstainment”: sites such as Vice carry major long-form news stories and engage in investigative reporting.

But there are differences in how they may tell the same story. It would be hard, for instance, to imagine a story on federal politics by Peter Hartcher or Mark Kenny having the headline “Federal Politics 2015: The Fuck Just Happened?”

The question remains whether this partnership might lead to a cannibalisation of Fairfax’s own sites, which are already an often uneasy mix of serious news and lighter content.

Also hanging over HuffPo is past criticism that it has operated as a “content farm” that failed to adequately compensate their writers. In the US, the National Writers Union and Newspaper Guild promoted a boycott of the site among its members in 2011, as part of the PayTheWriter! Campaign, seeking to establish fair pay rates for freelance journalists working for the Huffington Post and other online publications.

Writer and activist Jonathan Tasini unsuccessfully pursued a lawsuit on behalf of 9000 bloggers against HuffPo, alleging the value the site attracted in its sale to AOL had come from the unpaid contributions of various writers.

The case was dismissed by the District Court on the – somewhat ominous – grounds that the writers had freely volunteered their services to the site, and that publication had been their reward in lieu of payment. For journalists already anxious about erosion of their wages and conditions as the company restructures its core publications and cuts freelance budgets, this may be a matter of some concern.

But developing a stake in Huffington Post Australia may have benefits for readers of Fairfax’s more established mastheads. Online sites such as theage.com.au and smh.com.au have been criticised for their mix of the forms of quality journalism long associated with their brand identities and material that is more obviously “clickbait”.

It may be that its investment in Huffington Post Australia will allow for a clearer segmentation of its own content to cater for diverse readerships.

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