The new editor-in-chief of the renamed HuffPost says she's positioning the site in the spirit of the best of tabloid journalism.
"The great tabloids were always driven by a sense of outrage, you know a sense of righteous indignation...and had this sensibility of, like, there are people out there that are trying to screw you—and we’re going expose them for it," Lydia Polgreen told BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith for the podcast Newsfeed with @BuzzFeedBen. "The tabloid is fundamentally an emotional form of journalism."
Polgreen left a meteoric career at the New York Times to take over the Huffington Post from its founding editor, Arianna Huffington, earlier this year. Huffington left her with a giant digital footprint but a political identity that had lost its edge since emerging as a voice of the American left after the 2004 election and a pillar of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for president. Now, Polgreen said, she's steering directly into the populist moment, and aiming to write not about, but for, people who feel "screwed" by the existing power structure.
Polgreen also broke the news in the interview of a major hire: Jim Rich, who turned the New York Daily News into a confrontational national voice on the 2016 election with a series of front pages mocking, usually, Donald Trump.
Rich, who will be Executive Editor, "is great combination of a kind of old school tabloid reporter and editor’s sense for what’s a great story, but he’s also incredibly passionate about social justice," Polgreen said.
("I think [Daily News columnist] Shaun King called him 'the most woke editor in America,' if that’s a compliment," she said.)
"I think — as I believe Lydia does, as well — that the cutting-through-BS nature of tabloid journalism is what's needed more than ever at this moment in time," Rich said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "I've always believed there was a journalistic sweet spot halfway between the high brow of the New York Times and the punch in the gut of the New York Post. HuffPost, through Lydia's vision, is in the ideal position to perfectly blend those seemingly disparate styles and become a true powerhouse."
Polgreen also spoke in the interview of her career at the New York Times, about how foreign correspondents were often the first to grasp the power of new media, and of her singular life story — she was raised in Ghana by a Baha'i missionary — and her complicated reaction to being celebrated as the first black lesbian to lead a major publication.
Hi, this is Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed. Welcome to NewsFeed, my podcast about the intersection of tech, media and politics.
My guest today is Lydia Polgreen, the new-ish editor in chief of HuffPost and we’re going to talk about her new role in trying to make an Internet tabloid and what that means, about her totally singular life story and her identity as a human being and as a journalist and how she feels about the attention to that.
But I thought I would start with something I don’t think we’ve ever actually talked about. In this format I have the kind of luxury of grilling you about your biography, which is I saw in this profile of you in Out, that you felt like growing up overseas had given you a kind of outsider/insider perspective on being in the U.S. and that you had grown up as the child of, your father was a missionary in Ghana? Is that right?
Lydia Polgreen: Yes, Ghana and Kenya.
Were you born there?
LP: So I was born in Washington, D.C. you know my mother is from Ethiopia. My parents met in Ethiopia when my dad was an exchange student there. They came back to the U.S., got married, in rapid succession had three kids, me being the middle one, and we were living in D.C. at the time and when I was four years old we moved to Kenya.
Where he was running a mission? Or working at a mission?
LP: So, my parents at the time were adherents of the Baha’i faith, which is a you know sort of, I can’t think of the best way to describe it, but it sort of has the same relationship to Islam that Christianity has to Judaism, and it’s a kind of a universalist creed and missionaries aren’t paid. You’re essentially expected to go out and find a job and do your own thing, and in your spare time spread the faith, and so that was the driving force of us going overseas. But my dad really worked in development. His background was in agricultural engineering, appropriate technology. He was very much a child of the counterculture movement and was drawn to the idea of alleviating poverty in the developing world, and you know helping farmers diversify their crops and stuff like that. So that’s what took us to Kenya.
And do you, I don’t know, do you think that you — we’re going to get to this in a minute — if you had for about five minutes you had the world’s most conventional New York Times career. I always wonder about this. Did you feel like that you know when you were covering the New York fire department, when you were covering whatever you were covering in New York for The New York Times that that was a perspective that you brought to the work?
LP: Absolutely. I mean I think I’m this sort of perpetual outsider, you know I grew up most of my life in countries that were neither where I was born nor where either of my parents were from. I was part of a weird religion that nobody had heard of. You know, I’m biracial and you know I’m a queer women, so there are a lot of things that make me very different from other people, and I think that’s really been a key to my journalism throughout my career.
Anything that I’m doing I think I always come at it from an outsider perspective. The first like real front page story that I had for the Times was about how, you know, after decades of battles over public restrooms in New York City, effectively chain stores had become the public restroom of choice for New Yorkers, because you know with all these mom and pop shops, none of them ever had publicly accessible restrooms, but you know when Starbucks came into the City, when and so it’s sort of a silly little thing, but it was one of those things that a lot of my colleagues who had been living and working in New York for a long time, this had just sort of gradually happened like you know frogs in warm water. But you know me, coming as an outsider, I was like ‘Oh this is actually really interesting.’ So I mean that’s like a tiny little example, but I think, I just always carry this kind of happy sense of being able to come into any situation and know that I don’t exactly fit in, but I can make a place for myself.
So you’re like a kid at the New York Times on the you know, maybe what in 35 years you’ll get posted to two weeks to some foreign country, but it’s like great institutions actually, it’s a big bureaucratic place with a template, and you had come in as a young journalist working on the metro desk I think?
LP: Yeah I was covering, I mean I did, I did some time in the shack, down at one Police Plaza...
The shack. That’s where you get hazed basically …
LP: I worked basically thigh to thigh with the most legendary team. It was Willy Rashbaum, Al Baker and Kevin Flynn and like those guys are just amazing, and I feel like I learned so much just like …
Police reporting …
LP: Police reporting is the best. So I did that. I was hazed in the Westchester bureau for a while working out of White Plains [laughs]. And you know typically it’s sort of a five to ten year track to get to, to get a chance to be a foreign correspondent and in the middle, not long after I got to the Times maybe I don’t know 18 months in, the whole Jayson Blair catastrophe happened and some of your listeners might not remember Jayson Blair …
Jayson Blair, he, you know honestly looking back in the journalistic catastrophes of the last ten years that doesn’t seem like a huge one anymore. This was a young reporter who fabricated some stuff on minor stories, but in egregious ways.
LP: Yeah and yes it does seem incredibly, in light of the election cycle we’ve just been through, it’s just …
Or Iraq. I think the Times handwringing about — if I can editorialize here about Jayson Blair — was maybe a little bit of displacement about the handwringing about Iraq.
LP: It’s much easier to admit error in that kind of situation than in the you know starting a war. So anyway when Jayson Blair, when the whole Jayson Blair thing blew up, they decided to embrace radical transparency and post all open jobs and I just saw this as an opportunity, they posted the Johannesburg bureau chief job which — think about this — two of the last four executive editors at the New York Times were Johannesburg bureau chiefs at some point, Bill Keller and Joe Lelyveld. This is a very prestigious post and I was like I don’t know 28 years old, which at the Times is very young — at HuffPost and BuzzFeed not so much — but you know I had the temerity to put my hand up for that job. Roger Cohen, who was at the time the foreign editor, you know sort of gamely met with me and said, ‘Look you know there’s no way I’m giving you this job,’ but it turned out that they needed someone to keep the seat warm until they could get a grown up to fill it, so they sent me on a six week ‘Let’s see what you can do.' I don’t think I slept a single night of those six weeks that I spent in Johannesburg. It was an unbelievable experience, and I think I did okay, because after that they kept sending me on sort of short-term foreign gigs to Haiti and other places. When the Dakar, the west African bureau opened up, Susan Chira who had since become the foreign editor, when I reached out to her she said ‘Sure, let’s give it a try.’
I was 29 years old and I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. Can I swear on this?
I don’t know. I think so. I don’t think the FCC regulates podcasts. It’s not …
It’s one of the great luxuries. You can, in general you know you’re working for HuffPost now. You can swear on the website.
LP: It’s true …
And you can have sweary headlines …
LP: Yeah, so I found myself, and it’s funny because when I set off for West Africa, our bureau chief at the time in Nairobi who was actually assigned to cover Sudan, because that’s part of the East African territory, he couldn’t get a visa to go to Sudan and into Darfur. I had managed to sweet talk the Sudanese representative here at the UN and got myself a visa. This comes back to this insider/outsider, you know Sudan, Ethiopia, neighbors, a lot of shared culture, cuisine and things like that. So I had a very friendly chat with him and you know next thing I knew, stamp, stamp, stamp, this very hard-to-get visa was in my passport with a bunch of introductions to people in Khartoum and what not.
So I set off. And this is something that I’ll forever not quite regret, but it was an eye-opening lesson—my then partner, now wife, had never been to Africa. I think the farthest afield she’d ever been was like Aruba. I sent her off with our cat and all of our life’s possessions to set up a life for us in Senegal, by herself, while I traipsed off to Sudan [laughs] and much to her credit Candy figured it out and got things set up. She didn’t really speak French, which was a challenge. I never did that again though. So my first big story as a foreign correspondent was Darfur, and that turned out to be kind of a defining story for me.
One of the other things about foreign correspondents. I think about this a lot with our world editor, Miriam Elder is that when you’re in the newsroom, particularly in the 90s, 2000s you’re getting the physical newspaper, you’re seeing the physical newspaper, you believe in the reality of print because you’re kind of living it and your deadlines are set by it. When you’re a foreign correspondent and particularly probably in West Africa, like maybe The New York Times is not easily fallen on your doorstep. You were obviously someone who liked the Internet when a lot of people at the New York Times weren’t so into the internet. Do you think being a foreign correspondent like changed the way you saw the internet, saw technology starting to do positive and interesting things in journalism?
LP: Absolutely. I mean look I spent my childhood in Kenya and Ghana. When I was in high school in Ghana, we didn’t have a home phone. If I wanted to make plans with my friends like I had to make plans at school and then just be there because there was no way to, like, communicate. If you know there were these huge historic events that were unfolding in Ghana at the time. The military dictator deciding to hold a free and fair election, like there was no way for me to read a New York Times story about that, or read a Washington Post story about that, you know we had a short-wave BBC radio and the national news and that was it.
So I grew up in this incredibly information-constrained environment, and so to become a foreign correspondent at the birth of social media, to me, was just an extraordinary gift because it meant that my stories could be read by the people that I was writing about and it meant that they could come back to me to say ‘You really fucked that up’ or ‘You were wrong about this’ or ‘Hey thanks for noticing.’ And that ability to have that sort of feedback loop with your readers to me felt incredibly powerful. When I first signed up for a Twitter account — I was to say it was in 2007 — it was just as I was leaving West Africa, and initially I set up the account as private because I didn’t want anybody at The New York Times to know about it and I thought other, people are going to think it’s some weird self promotional thing or it’s going, but in time I was called upon to like try to persuade other foreign correspondents and journalists to get on Twitter and see the usefulness of it which is kind of ironic. But your question is really a good one because if you look at the people who became the big digital leaders at the Times in the current era, Cliff Levy, Ian Fisher, me, Sam Dolnick — we’re all people were foreign correspondents during this period. So I think the journalists who, and I mean traditional journalists, who are leading the digital charge at the Times have, all have that background as a foreign correspondent, which I think is not accidental.
One other thing I wanted to ask you about is when you were I guess particularly there were two or three different Africa postings …
LP: Yeah, so I was in West Africa and then I was in India for three years and then South Africa.
And these are places and this is several years ago the U.S. has changed a lot since then, but these were places where it’s probably hard to be out in certain ways. How did you navigate that?
LP: You know it’s interesting, I’ve always been out. I’ve never, I mean you know like once I came out in college I just have always been out and you know at work with pretty much everybody. My wife and I both working as journalists, because she’s a photographer, and often working together, you know would have to kind of navigate this weird world. When you’re trying to develop sources, when you’re trying to you know make personal connections with people, you inevitably want to share things about yourself and that can be really tricky. When it came to our life at home in a lot of these places you have a staff that you know that do your housekeeping and all that kind of stuff. In India we had a driver cause everybody has a driver. They all knew and were perhaps slightly confused by it, but didn’t, it wasn’t a big issue.
But it got tricky. I mean like for example in India, Candy wasn’t able to have a spouse visa which is how every foreign correspondent’s spouse is able to live there. India’s notoriously difficult. It’s visa routine is notoriously difficult to get a residency permit and all that stuff, so that threw up all kinds of complicated barriers for us. I remember once having to go meet with the foreign ministry official and say ‘You know look I have a real problem here. 'My partner' — we weren’t married at the time but — I said ‘Look this is effectively my spouse you know can, what are our options here, so that she can stay in India?’ You know he was a really nice guy and he said: ‘Is this person really important to you?’ And I just thought ‘My God.' You know my wife and I have been together since college. You know it’s 20 years. And to be confronted with that question was kind of mind blowing. I don’t think he meant it in any kind of prejudicial way or you know I think he was speaking in the language that felt right and comfortable to him and was trying to be respectful. But it was really, it was really an extraordinary moment.
I had another experience where I was interviewing an Archbishop in the Episcopal Church and I don’t know if you remember, there was this big schism of our homosexuality in the Church, and this was in Nigeria, this guy Peter Akinola, he was one of the very hard core like anti-gay.
That really split the church.
LP: It really split the church globally. And Nigeria was in the midst of this incredible anti-gay hysteria, there were all laws that were passed and things like that. I’m sitting there interviewing this guy and he tells me this story about once realizing that he had just shaken hands with a homosexual and, like, jumping back in horror. And here I am sitting across the table from him, having a friendly but tough reporter-to-source conversation. The mind reels …
And yet you know you’re my age, you’re I think you’re born in 75, somewhere in that ballpark …
I think the way identity gets talked about on the internet has changed so much. I mean there wasn’t when you were coming up as a reporter. There wasn’t I don’t even think like probably a space for so much a conversation about identity, and I wonder as a reporter of that vintage coming and seeing now there’s a huge conversation about identity on the internet. How do you feel about that?
LP: It’s so funny I mean I really struggle with it. To be perfectly candid. You know I have a perhaps naive point of view informed by my own kind of snowflake-in-the-unique-sense rather than the political sense, personal story. I mean I feel like my experiences are so hard to map onto any kind of generalized identity. For example, I’m a black person, but I come from a very particular black experience which is not unlike the experience of the President of the United States right, former President of the United States. (I guess all of us forget every once in awhile. Hard to forget that happened.) But I have an African mother and a white father and I feel like I have a different experience of being a black person as a result of that identity than someone who is from the descendants of slaves. Or someone who comes from perhaps further back Caribbean diaspora background. And yet I also was educated in a deeply kind of un-politically-correct way. I went to St. John’s College which is this kind of Great Books school which is equally popular with hardcore conservatives who want their kids to read the Great White Men canon and sort of free-thinking liberals like my parents.
So I have this very kind of like heterodox idea of what an education is, what underpins identity. I don’t think I’m very easily pigeon holed in any of those boxes, so I confront this and I, like you, I have a staff full of young people who came up in a very different tradition and who feel very fired up about the big identity battles. I listen and I try to navigate them, but I don’t find them mapping onto my life in a personal way which is, which is hard.
Yeah I mean when you were hired there was a big conversation about how cool it was that for the first time you had a queer, black woman leading this big organization. There’s like amazing pictures of you and Ev which you’ve seen, turned out you enjoyed like being photographed in beautifully, expensive clothes. Who among us wouldn’t? But it also felt like I’d never seen you portrayed like that, I’d never, you’d never quite had that happen before.
LP: Yeah and I think like a lot of journalists of our vintage and earlier, I think we are not so comfortable with being the story. We’re not so comfortable with the facts of our biography being taken as indicative of like the direction of our journalism and, you know, I think all of us in the pursuit of more perfect version of the truth and the story need to reckon with what we bring to the story, and I think that I’m confronting that in a very real way everyday. I’m extremely proud of who I am and it’s nice to see it celebrated, but if someone were to ask me to list in order the biography, you know journalist comes first.
Yeah I was, I always thought when I sort of think about your identity, the first thing I think is that if I cut you you would bleed New York Times ink.
LP: Yeah, yeah and I think that’s right. And to me, that’s the foundational fact of my identity is that I’m a journalist and so it’s hard to imagine putting anything else first.
Was it hard to leave the Times? Because I think of you, you are sort of like the most, like the purest embodiment of what you just said this kind of unambiguous embrace of the profession of journalism, really probably of anybody I know and I always thought you were the perfect New York Times person. They loved you and you were really on this track to maybe run the place one day, who knows, but certainly you were beloved there and seen as a real star. I just thought you would never leave.
LP: I thought I would never leave. The New York Times I think really is the gold standard of a certain type of journalism and in some ways it’s the most important type of journalism, this chronicle of the biggest and most important stories of our time covered with a level of rigor and seriousness that is really unparalleled. I think like a lot of people after the election I ... Well let me back up a bit. I’ve always been a sort of curious and restless person. You know I’ve always wrestled with ambition. I think that there was a really clear path for me to do lots of amazing things at the New York Times, but it’s also a big place and there are lots of other talented people who, some in line ahead of me, some behind me, and I felt like I was ready for something I wasn’t ready for. I was sort of wrestling with that and making my peace with the idea with that it was O.K. if I didn’t scratch that itch right in that moment.
Then when I met Jared Grusd, the CEO of HuffPost, I really didn’t think that it was going to lead anywhere I just thought ‘Oh we’re going to have some nice conversations and I’m always interested in what’s going on in media and you know who’s doing what and like you I'm sort of obsessed with the future of this intersection between media and technology. So as our conversations progressed I was like ‘Oh wow I really like this guy, this guy’s brilliant and he’s got really smart ideas and this is an interesting opportunity.’
But I think the real sort of decision moment for me was election night and just realizing that there was something happening in the country and in the world that had a very deep relationship to the nature of the current media landscape and that this opportunity that was in front of me could be a place to try to work on that. To try to fix what was going wrong and, or at least make an attempt. It suddenly became like a very real and serious thing to me, like ‘Oh this is an opportunity that I should really consider.’ Not to sound grandiose but I mean beyond my own personal ambitions it felt like a kind of civic opportunity that if I didn’t do it than you know someone else would and maybe they’d do a better job, maybe they’d do a worse but like, there are worse things to do then to try to take this massive platform with huge reach and make it into something even better.
It also I mean you’ve talked about there’s some, there’s something about Huffington Post’s vibe and approach has a kind of a root in New York tabloids and you’ve talked about the Huffington Post being a modern tabloid and I’m curious what you think that means?
LP: To me the tabloid sensibility, in the best sense of the word, and I think people as like tabloids have receded as a kind of force in media people have started to associate the word "tabloid" with like National Enquirer and stuff like that.
What it really literally means is just that kind of paper that you fold, you fold over …
LP: Yeah and it happens to be really easy to read on the subway. To me the sort of like, the ethos, if you will, of like tabloid is like Daily News in the 1970s, you know, you’ve even got Jimmy Breslin covering you know there’s crime, there’s a little bit of like T & A to keep the gents interested, but it’s fundamentally a working-person’s newspaper. It’s a news organization that thinks of its mission to speak directly to people who are kind of , the people who are sort of the foundation of the American workforce or were at one time …
LP: But what I loved about, what I love about this conception of the tabloid is that actually everybody read it, right? I mean the janitor read it and the CEO read it, right? They might read it for slightly different reasons, but …
And you had to read it …
LP: You had to read it, right? Cause like that’s where the conversation was happening. I think the great tabloids were always driven by a sense of outrage, you know a sense of righteous indignation about hypocrisy, about corruption, about the foibles of the super rich, and had this sensibility of, like, 'There are people out there that are trying to screw you and we’re going like expose them for it.'
To me that feels like a great place to be in this particular moment in American journalism and frankly global journalism, right? I mean we’ve traditionally thought of media on this traditional left/right spectrum and most media’s kind of clustered in the center and I think people have traditionally thought of HuffPost as being this kind of liberal, progressive voice and that’s, you know I think they’re are good reasons for thinking that. I mean it started after George W. Bush was reelected and was an answer to the Drudge Report.
But to me we’re living in this very profoundly non-idealogical time where the real divide is between people who have power and people who either don’t have power or feel that they don’t have power, right? And the feeling part is really important, right? Because I think everybody’s talking about like facts and truth and you know like that 'We’re here to fact check' and all of that, that’s the base material of journalism. You cannot have journalism without facts and truth. But if facts and truth were what actually you know sort of moved people’s lives and moved their decision-making like the election would have had a different outcome, right? So I think we need to reckon in a very serious way with the emotional content of news and the way that people perceive facts and their perception of their situation and to me I think the tabloid is like fundamentally an emotional form of journalism and that kind of emotional valence is what distinguishes it from the broad sheet.
Yeah and that emotional valence is also what spreads on Facebook, what works on this end …
LP: Totally, yeah and I think facts and truth are essential to journalism but you need to reckon with emotion. You have to deal with how people feel, otherwise you miss the story.
There’s also always been a kind of cruelty to tabloids.
LP: Yeah, Central Park jogger case, you know, Jimmy Breslin of course accused of racism at various points, you know so there’s a kind of sexism to them. So yeah definitely …
Isn’t that sort of part of leading with your gut, with sometimes your worst...I mean, when I look at a lot of the worst on the Internet right now it’s content that people know will spread because it panders to people’s instincts.
LP: No I mean I think that’s right. For us what we’re trying to do is find the right balance of creating a space for emotion that leads to a sense of empathy and solidarity rather than a sense of division. In my most grandiose moments I think of HuffPost as a platform that makes solidarity possible, that really thinking about the emotional content of stories is a way to help people who think, or who have been manipulated to think, that they’re interests are opposed to one another, that they actually are aligned in a fundamental way and they’re actually in the same boat.
A lot of the stories that we’ve been doing about the effects of Trump administration policies on rural people I think speak directly to this. There’s this trope that came out of the Trump campaign but also it’s been prominent in conservative politics for a long time that, you know, the takers are the people you know these black and brown people who live in the cities who are on welfare and public housing... but the level of dependence on government among rural populations is actually extraordinary. They suffer even more when that assistance is taken away because they don’t have access to the economic dynamism of cities. So if there are ways to tell stories that help people in rural areas see their kind of mutual need for care, that to me is the kind of thing that I want HuffPost to try and do.
You said non-ideological but that sounds like what Nancy Pelosi said yesterday more or less.
LP: Well I mean is that ideological? Ideology to me is fundamentally is an elite pursuit. I mean most people are just not all that interested in single payer vs. government pay … they’re very interested in you know, 'Wait, are there going to be death panels?' But that’s all a creation of this like hothouse media and politics environment, right? So maybe if humanism is an ideology then it’s ideological [laughs], but I don’t see it as being on the traditional left/right spectrum.
So you don’t see HuffPost as being left wing?
LP: I don’t even know what being left wing means anymore. I feel that the left/right spectrum has been so fundamentally scrambled primarily by the politics around globalization — and you saw it in Brexit, you saw it in the French election, you see it in our election, it’s happening everywhere. I just don’t know if this left/right way of thinking is actually a very useful framework.
Now you do sound like Arianna Huffington.
LP: [laughs] I try. But you know if you think, if you think about the horizontal access as being left to right I’m much more interested in the vertical access which is you know haves and have nots.
And you made a hire that you were going to tell me about on this tabloid.
LP: Very excited about this.
Tell me about this.
LP: So Jim Rich, the editor in chief of the Daily News until late last year is going to be joining as our executive editor and I could not be more excited. Jim is many different things but he has a great combination of a kind of old school tabloid reporter and editor’s sense for what’s a great story, but he’s also incredibly passionate about social justice. I think Shaun King called him the most woke editor in American, if that’s a compliment.
Is that in his Twitter bio?
LP: It’s not in his Twitter bio, yeah. [laughs] But you know I think one of the things that really impressed me about Jim aside from him just being like an all around great guy is I think he instinctively understood that the Daily News could punch way above it’s weight in the air of the internet and that he could use the megaphone of the tabloid wood and their storytelling power to …
The wood being the front page of the tabloid.
It used to be cut in a wood block. They call it that.
LP: Exactly. There was a time when the Daily News seemed destined to just complete irrelevance and had no, really no purchase and I think he managed to turn it into a real phenomenon.
Now it’s just a JPEG, but that front page really became a powerful thing.
LP: Yeah, I mean it had an almost meme-like quality. And that shares a real kinship with the HuffPost splash. We’ve always had a kind of slightly backward looking clever headline driven, slightly shocking or funny image, but that again connects back to that emotion idea, you know? So Jim I think is someone who really knows how to run a great journalistic crusade and I’m excited to like get on board and run something with him.
Congratulations on that, to both of you. Thanks for coming in. That’s all I got.
LP: So great to talk to you Ben.