On the day Arianna Huffington announced she would leave the news and lifestyle website she is known around the world for, Huffington Post CEO Jared Grusd sought to reassure the troops. "Today is a day of change," he wrote in a staff memo last week, shared with Ad Age. "It is an opportunity to reflect on our past, to discuss our present, to express our gratitude to Arianna, and to define our future."
He discussed an effort, launched earlier this summer, to develop a "go-forward strategic plan," not unlike the project underway at The New York Times (and at other news companies trying to put their best foot forward).
In an interview with Ad Age this week, Mr. Grusd discussed how the company will change once Ms. Huffington leaves (unclear), when a new editor will be picked (to be determined), whether he's concerned by dips in traffic (not really), and whether or not The Huffington Post needs to do something to regain some of the momentum it seems to have lost to well-financed digital competitors like BuzzFeed and Vox Media (no need).
On that last point, about The Huffington Post's place in the media landscape, he said:
I have a deep admiration for what other companies in the landscape are doing, but I have an even deeper admiration for what we're doing. Because we have pioneered so many aspects of digital media that many of those competitors are following, from the idea of global expansion, from the idea that there should be video innovation, from the idea that media companies need to also be technology companies. Those elements have been core to our DNA
, and other companies have realized that, and congratulations for that, but for us we never study that in that way. For us, we're really focused on how do we continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, to perpetuate the things that we've always done. ... We're ahead of the pack in terms of embracing virtual reality. We continue to be ahead of the pack in all our international efforts.
The Huffington Post has formed an "interim editorial committee" of newsroom leaders "that will be stepping in to fill Arianna's role and they will be involved in an ongoing search for a new editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post," AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said in a memo.
Asked when a new editor will be picked, Mr. Grusd said:
"That process is just beginning. The most important piece is that we find the perfect person who celebrates our identity and our values and our mission. And I don't have a timeframe for when that will be picked or announced. But we're certainly excited to embark on that process."
The Huffington Post has always cared a lot about traffic. In September 2014, Ms. Huffington sent out a memo celebrating a "major milestone" reached a month earlier: 115 million global unique visitors. "I have to say that this news made me a lot more emotional than a ComScore stat usually does," she said at the time. And, last week, Mr. Grusd wrote, "Our ambition is to reach as many people as possible and, of course, reach means scale."
But The Huffington Post is going through something of a traffic dip. Even though it was named NewsWhip's top Facebook publisher for the month of June, it experienced a 17.9% decline in U.S. multiplatform unique visitors compared with a year earlier (as measured by ComScore). Mr. Grusd, when asked about this decline, said that traffic is not the end-all-be-all, which is an opinion shared by other publishers, like BuzzFeed, that have increasingly focused more on social, off-platform publishing. He mentioned journalistic accolades as an important metric, which is fair, considering that The Huffington Post is a journalism company as well as a content, advertising and technology company. (Also, the company is focused on growing internationally, which is not represented in the domestic data ComScore provides to reporters.)
On the question of declining traffic, Mr. Grusd said:
"I think the tools of measurement often lack the reality of what's happening in the ecosystem. ... I think a pure focus on some of the traditional measurement tools, such as traffic, as you elude to, often may gloss over the dynamics that are actually taking place, because there's multiple different ways to think about how you're relating to your audiences. And at its core, there's no one metric, or actually no few metrics, that accurately capture that. What you're really trying to figure out is: How do you actually create real true connections? And there's multiple ways of thinking about that that arent simply in the data. ... There are many, many different ways that one should think about having an impact, and for us it's not just about traffic, it's about having a true impact on the world."
What Mr. Grusd could not vocalize throughout our conversation is how The Huffington Post, post-Arianna, will change. "The thing that has always been consistent at HuffPost is a very deep sense of our mission and our purpose and values," he said, when asked that question. "That is something that Arianna began the company with having a clear point of view on. ... And that focus clearly does not change, and will not change going forward. We will continue to be focused on our editorial pillars, sharpen the work that we're doing in those areas, to ensure that we maintain and grow our authentic connection with our audiences."
Ad Age spoke with Mr. Grusd, a former Spotify executive, the same day it was announced that Gawker.com, which has aggressively covered The Huffington Post, will cease operations next week. Against this landscape of disruption and realignment, Ad Age asked Mr. Grusd if he's confident The Huffington Post will be one of the media companies to make it out on the other side. He said:
"I'm very optimistic about the future of media, and the future of media companies who embrace a fundamental principle, which is delivering content in a way that creates authentic relationships with consumers. And I think as long as media companies stay true to those principles, there's a bright future. "