This week’s Recode Media with Peter Kafka featured Lydia Polgreen, who broke with journalistic tradition and left her post at the New York Times to take over as editor in chief at the Huffington Post. On the podcast, she discusses her reasons for the change, her background as an expat and a foreign correspondent, and her vision for the future of HuffPost.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. It’s powered by Digital Media, a real company with an awkward name. I’m here with Lydia Polgreen, who is already laughing. Hi, Lydia. How are you?
Lydia Polgreen: I’m doing great, Peter. How are you?
Good. You have a newish title. You are the editor in chief of the Huffington Post.
Thanks for coming. I know you’re busy.
Up until late last year, you were working with the New York Times.
That is correct. I spent almost 15 years at the New York Times.
We’ll talk about why you left and what you were doing, but let’s talk about your current job first of all. You are running the thing that has someone else’s name on it. It’s Arianna Huffington’s company, but she’s no longer there. You took over, what, late December?
Yeah. I officially started on January 9th. My first official decision was that I wasn’t going to call it the Polgreen Post.
Probably not as much SEO value in the Polgreen Post.
You’ve done a lot of panels, and you’ve been sort of vocal in public. I don’t think you’ve made any significant changes to the site. Is that right? Am I missing anything?
No. I’m in the process of thinking through a fairly significant reorganization of the editorial staff and thinking about the best way to organize what is a pretty robust newsroom to chase what I think our mission should be.
Let’s start there. You have alluded to reorgs. Something’s coming. What’s that going to look like? What do you want to change?
I think that the mandate of HuffPost traditionally has been a little bit ... It’s shifted over the years. It started out as kind of an answer to the Drudge Report, kind of a lefty aggregation site.
And also a salon for Arianna Huffington and her famous friends.
Absolutely, and the blogging platform was a way to bring a lot of excitement and lots of different voices to the site. I think that the landscape has changed so much since then. It used to be a unique thing to be able to publish on the Huffington Post and say I’ve been published on the Huffington Post, but now you have Medium. You have people publishing on LinkedIn, Forbes. There are lots of people in that space.
Right, so for a while then, HuffPo moved to really heavily leaning on unpaid contributors. That was rightfully controversial. There were lawsuits involved and people not getting paid. Peeled back from that a bit.
Yeah, although it’s kind of funny to think of all of the fights over paying contributors. I mean, we are all uploading our most private information into Facebook every day, and they’re making ...
Well, that’s because we’re waiting to sue Mark Zuckerberg.
Good luck, but they’re making billions and billions of dollars and their whole business model is essentially that.
I think part of it, right, like you said, like the idea of you contributing something to someone else’s platform, everyone sort of gets the rules of the road at this point.
Yeah, no, so that’s been a real kind of substantive change in the nature of the landscape. You know, HuffPo definitely has had a tradition of having really strong original reporting. They won a Pulitzer Prize and have won ... We just won an Ellie this year for a big piece that ran on the High Line.
That’s the Oscars for magazines.
It’s the Oscars for magazines, exactly. Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, you pick the award.
The Ellie is an elephant.
The Ellie is an elephant.
There’s now an elephant sitting in the Vox Media cafeteria for Eater. It’s very cool.
Yeah, yeah, it’s a very magazine-y award, and it’s also quite awkward and takes up a lot of space. It’s copper, so as you’d expect for a magazine award, it’s very design-y. Anyway, so we’ve always done original reporting, and we’ve always tried to be really impactful with that original reporting.
But it’s not known for that.
It has not been known for that as much as I think it should be known for that, actually, because I think that they’ve had a really ... You know, we’ve had a really strong record of doing original reporting, but it has not been the reputation for whatever reason despite winning all these awards.
Well, in part because they did tons of aggregation, right? So that was one of the things they were fighting against.
There was a significant amount of aggregation, yeah.
Then also there was a period where the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed went through this as well, in order to signal that they were very serious, would hire someone from the New York Times or some other august publication. That person would then leave a year later. Sometimes they did good work in between.
I think one of those people won a Pulitzer, like you said.
But he’s still there.
He’s still there? Okay, my mistake. But a lot of those folks would come in from sort of old media, established media, and for whatever reason, they did not stick around.
Yeah. As you know, that’s a pretty common pattern at a lot of publications, right? People come in. Digital media companies make hires, make prestige hires. They stay for a while. Then people move on. I feel like the days ... My career feels very atypical for someone of my age. I’m 41. I stayed at the same place for 41 years. Most of the people who are my peers have worked at three or four or five news organizations over that period of time.
15 years, right?
Yeah, 15 years. Yeah, almost.
I just fact-checked you.
What did I say?
41. We’ll keep in there. It’s part of the record.
It sounds like what you’re leading into, I keep interrupting you, is you want more original reporting. What do you want to focus on? That presumably means you’re going to spend less time on something else.
Yeah, I think we want to do more original reporting. I think that for us, that sort of branches in two different directions. One is, I’m really fascinated by power. To me, that’s the big story right now, and who has it and who doesn’t have it. At the moment, the powers that be, whether they’re in Washington, in the White House, or the Democrats, or big corporations, our primary job needs to be to hold those powerful institutions to account.
I think you’re going to see an increased emphasis on investigative reporting, maybe not on the most obvious targets. You’re going to see obviously the Washington Post, the New York Times. They all have big staffs that are going after the biggest and richest targets, and so we’re going to pick our shots a little carefully and figure out where are the places where we think we can get the most bang for our buck. I think you’re going to see a significant premium on that.
The other piece of it is the people who don’t have power and figuring out ways to listen to and tell their stories. I think traditionally when we’ve thought of the powerless, we’ve thought of minorities, or we’ve thought of people who feel voiceless. I think there’s actually a much larger group of people who feel kind of voiceless right now, and it includes significant numbers of people who voted for Donald Trump. I think part of why they voted for Donald Trump is that they felt that there was this kind of elite establishment that didn’t really hear them or represent their concerns. I’d like to think that the Huffington Post can be an important place for them to tell their stories and get their concerns heard.
This is one of the themes you heard post-Trump election from the Times, from the Post, from people who pay attention to these publications, saying, “They’re too elite. It’s the Acela corridor. This is why they couldn’t understand what was going on in the election.” A lot of them, I think with good intent, have said, “We’re going to go out into America, and we’re going to find Trump voters or people who look like Trump voters, and we’re going to report on them,” like they’re going out into the bush. The Times is the one I follow the most. They’ve done these stories. Here’s a woman in Niles, Michigan who did not go to the Women’s March, and here’s what she thinks. I think those are super useful. It still feels a little weird to send someone into America as if it’s a foreign country, which you’ve done a lot. Do you think that’s the model that works for you guys, or it’s something else?
I think that there’s basic reporting, which I think you need to do, which is going out into places and figuring ... We just dispatched a reporter to take a deep dive into what happened in Kansas with the shooting of this Indian engineer. I think that’s an important part of it. I’m really looking to find other ways to tell stories and be a listening post. I don’t want to say too much, because we’re still developing some of these ideas, but I think we need to have an even more radical approach to getting out into communities and listening to people.
So not just having a Kansas bureau or someone, a Trump reporter, or a ...
I don’t think so. I’ve been thinking a lot about, are there ways that HuffPost can collaborate very closely with local reporting organizations? Whether they’re newsrooms, it could be a Christian radio station in a small town. I’d love to find ways for us to take our really big platform and connect it to local communities in ways that feel more indigenous and authentic. I mean, I think the difference between the HuffPost approach to covering the people who, as I think of it, feel left out by the political and economic power arrangements is that it’s less of a question of the topics and the subjects than it is a question of who you think the audience is. Fundamentally, I think a lot of news organizations are going out and trying to explain the Trump voter to the elite back at home.
Yeah. Or, by the way, a good half the country that can’t understand a Trump voter, right? It’s not just people in New York and Washington.
No, absolutely, but I think that a lot of these organizations feel that they’re trying to explain to their readers what’s going on in this part of this country that they don’t really have access to and aren’t exposed to. What I’d love for the Huffington Post to do is figure out ways to tell the story of those people for those people rather than thinking of them as subjects to be reported on for somebody else. We have a media ecosystem that, like so many other institutions, there’s been this extraordinary drift between the haves and the have-nots, you know?
If you can afford to subscribe to the New York Times or the Washington Post, if you are a person who has access to these really rich media sources or seeks them out, then you can be a very well-informed person. But if you’re not, and if you’re not a news junkie, if you’re someone who’s just kind of living your life and catching news on the fly, there are lots of products that are designed to plug right into what your most passionate interests are. The problem is that they tend to be manipulative. It’s talk radio. It’s Fox News. It’s Breitbart, fake news that floats up on your Facebook feed.
Or you get just a very, very, very thin diet of other stuff.
Yeah. The DNA of the Huffington Post is very much a kind of like tabloid DNA, and tabloid in the best sense, tabloid like the Daily News in the 1970s. I would like to really double down on that DNA, but bring even more original reporting to it and bring it to the day-to-day lived concerns of people who feel like their stories don’t often get told.
The DNA of the HuffPo is also very left, liberal, progressive, pick your term. That’s from Kenny Lerer. That’s from Arianna Huffington. It’s an audience that I think traditionally has sort of seen it as like, “This is our version of MSNBC or our version of Fox News, our version of Drudge before there was Breitbart.” How do you think that audience is going to respond to these changes? Do you feel like they’re going to feel like you’re undermining them or undercutting them?
I hope not.
Because you want to expand it, right? What you’re saying is you want a bigger audience.
I think we want to expand it. I would love for HuffPost to be a platform that makes it possible for people to see what they have in common with people who don’t share their political beliefs. I think that creating the conditions under which solidarity can occur is one of my big goals.
Well, that’s a biggest goal ever, right?
I mean, it would be a gigantic, idealistic reach in any era. It seems like particularly now, both because of the division and also because you can see now clearly what that world ... I think a lot of folks like myself have started sort of dipping into Breitbart, or we make sure to dip into some weird corner of Facebook we wouldn’t normally ever go to.
It’s black and white, right? We don’t share any common ground. Half of Trump voters think that Pizzagate might have happened, on down the line. It seems like there really is no way to reconcile those two groups.
There is. I think that there is a kind of hard nut of support for Donald Trump that includes some unsavory types of people who probably are never going to be readers of the Huffington Post.
“Deplorables.” You don’t want to say that.
We can use that term.
With a quote around it.
With a quote around it. But I think that it represents fundamentally a pretty small group of people. Don’t forget, Trump did not win the popular vote, right? There’s a significant number of people who voted for Trump who, four years earlier, had voted for Barack Obama. I actually think that the divides are serious and meaningful, but I think they’re actually not ideological. I think they’re really much more about how people live their lives and the fears and concerns that they have. That’s why I talk about creating a platform in which solidarity becomes possible, telling stories in a way that allows people to see what they have in common rather than what divides them.
You took this job post-election, so obviously you knew what you were getting into. That said, did you know what you were getting into? Did you know that you were going to be doing daily Trump? Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.
Yeah, and actually I think a lot about Trump fatigue, because I think that I look at our homepage or our app, our Twitter feeds and our Facebook, and I worry that people are eventually going to kind of burn out and say, “Ugh, give me something else.” I think we’re trying to mix it up.
We’re six weeks into the Trump presidency.
We’re six weeks in, but from a traffic perspective, the audience doesn’t seem to be burning out. Maybe that’s just me projecting, but look, I knew coming in that — and in fact, it was a big driver of me taking this job — the fact that Trump was going to be president. It felt like a moment where, I don’t know, I felt almost possessed by this idea that somebody had to take this extraordinary platform and do something really big with it. I’d already been talking to HuffPost obviously before the election result came down, but it certainly added a sense of urgency and increased the appeal. This sounds grandiose, but I feel a deep sense of civic mission in trying to make this platform into something that speaks to a very, very broad swath of America and frankly the world, because it is a global media company.
I don’t think it’s grandiose. I think you have this cool opportunity, which a lot of people in journalism don’t have, which is the election happened. What am I doing? Why does whatever I’m writing about make any sense to write about? What is my purpose in life? You’ve got this chance to say, “Oh, my purpose is I’m running this big new platform. It’s been kind of drifting, and I get to steer it in a direction and affect a lot of people.” That’s pretty cool.
I think for me, that was very much the motivation. You know, look, HuffPost is an extraordinary thing, because I worked at the New York Times for almost 15 years. See, I got it right that time. For the last three years of my time at the Times, I’d been working on this global expansion effort. I’d go all around the world and talk to people about media brands. Who do you read? Who do you trust? What do you like? What are you looking for in an international media brand? Of course, it’s not surprising that the New York Times, given its huge sort of popular culture resonance and how long it’s been around, is almost universally recognized by anyone who’s a consumer of the news in the world. But right there with it was HuffPost, which has only been around for 11 years and change. The idea that this news organization had created that kind of brand resonance in such a short time was just absolutely mind-blowing to me.
I want to talk to you about how you actually got the job and what you were doing before that and a million other things, but we pay some of our bills here through advertising, so we’re going to hear from a fine sponsor. We’ll come right back.
I’m back here with Lydia Polgreen, formerly of the New York Times, currently editor in chief of the Huffington Post. Talk a minute about how you got that job. I’m assuming someone came to you. Or did you raise your hand and say,”"I want to edit this thing”?
No. Jared Grusd, the CEO of Huffington Post, got in touch with me. We had a series of conversations.
He’s an AOL executive.
Basically his job is to run the Huffington Post and some other content sites under that. Says, “I’d like you to ...” Arianna Huffington has left.
Or had she left already?
She had left already.
She had left.
She had been gone for quite a while.
This is last summer.
What do you think? What is your reaction when someone comes to you and says, “What about running the Huffington Post?” By the way, you had one of the cool gigs at the New York Times. The global editor job.
I really thought that I was a lifer at the New York Times. It’s one of those rare institutions where people very, very rarely leave. I was on a great trajectory there. It’s an institution whose mission I feel incredibly passionate about. I felt fairly certain that this wasn’t going to go anywhere, and partly out of just curiosity, I ...
So you take the meeting to take the meeting.
I’ll take the meeting just to learn what’s out there in the universe.
But what are you thinking about when you think “Huffington Post” in the summer of 2016? It was a loaded question, because a lot of people don’t think much of it.
Yeah, it was more like the fall. I think like most people, I had kind of a mixed opinion of the Huffington Post. Stuff would kind of come to me from HuffPost, some of it fun, some of it funny. I had always been a big fan of the HuffPost splash. I felt like it had this wonderful ... which is the big headline and photo at the top of the homepage.
The front on the homepage.
Yeah, the homepage.
Which some people still look at.
A lot of people still look at it. I mean, that’s actually one of the great strengths of HuffPost is that it’s still a destination, and so we have this power to set the agenda. I liked its sense of fun, that it didn’t take itself too seriously, but I didn’t have a strong feeling or opinion one way or the other. When I started having these conversations with Jared, who I found incredibly impressive, he had been an executive at Spotify, at Google, and it was really a personal connection with him and feeling like, if I’m going to jump in and do something crazy that’s not staying on the path that I’m on, this would be the kind of person that I’d want to do it with.
Once I felt that I had this really strong personal bond with the CEO of the company, then it became much more thinkable. I thought, “Well, this actually is a really compelling opportunity, and the fact that HuffPost is interested in hiring someone like me with all of my kind of stodgy newspaper background and old-fashioned reporting bona fides seemed like a good sign.” As the conversations progressed and got more serious, I was like, “Wow, I’m actually really thinking about doing this.”
Were you part of the ... Because there was, for a while, and maybe this is just old ancient history now, but there were a lot of people at the New York Times and traditional media places that for years, in 2007-2008, were really angry about the Huffington Post. It’s that you’re taking our work. You’re making money from it. You’re not citing us. You’re lifting it whole cloth, back and forth and back and forth. Were you part of that crew that was upset with the HuffPo?
I wasn’t. I mean, I’ve always been a pro-future person. I grew up in Kenya and in Ghana in a very kind of information-starved environment where we had very, very few sources of news.
I was going to ask you about this later, but why did you grow up in Kenya and Ghana?
My parents were working there. My dad did development work. They were also Baha’i missionaries. They were there. It was kind of a dual purpose thing. You’d get a job working somewhere else, and you’d spread the faith. Then also you work and live there. I spent most of my grade school years in Kenya and then most of my high school years in Ghana.
From that experience, I just ... People romanticize being disconnected, and I find it impossible to romanticize being disconnected, because I’ve actually experienced it for long stretches of time. I mean, I didn’t have a home phone as a high school kid. Forget about a cellphone, I didn’t have a home phone. Anyways, so no, I wasn’t among those who railed against the Huffington Post, although it’s interesting to note that HuffPost got more traffic by aggregating my coverage of Nelson Mandela’s funeral than the New York Times did.
Mm-hmm. And their argument would be, “Well, we’re doing you a favor, because we’re going to point people to …” There was a lot of back and forth. That has sort of settled, but I think there was an argument that had real teeth to it that said, “You’re taking our work, and you’re not compensating for it.”
And you’re not compensating for it. I think that again the technology and the sort of the platforms have changed so much. I mean, the great thing about the New York Times business model right now is that when we aggregate their stories, it just burnishes their brand and gets it out there and exposes it to more and more people. But in fact, we don’t even really do aggregation in the way that we used to. We do much more of just linking out and frankly just doing our own reporting.
Right. I was looking this morning, and your main two stories on the homepage, if you click on either one of them, were not Huffington Post stories. They just sent you to Politico or the Washington Post.
And that’s intentional on your part, saying, “Look, here’s the best version of that story. It’s someone else’s.”
Yeah, no, absolutely. I think we do a mix of that and then also if someone has a scoop, just like the New York Times. When the Washington Post broke the story about Jeff Sessions’s meetings with the Russian ambassador, the New York Times didn’t link to the Washington Post. They chased it, and they wrote up their own version of it.
Right, they matched it.
They matched it, and it cited the Washington Post as having broken it first. I mean, everybody does this now, and it’s just become part of the way that we all spread information on the internet.
Back to you thinking through this job in the fall, you don’t have that HuffPost stigma. It is owned by AOL, which in turn is now owned by Verizon, which is trying to buy Yahoo. If all goes well, you’re going to be part of this giant media conglomerate which is part of a giant telco. How do you think through and how did you think through what life working for Verizon was going to be like?
Yeah, I think for me it was part of the attraction, in part because I am, like a lot of people who work in journalism, obsessed with where media’s going. The New York Times is an independent company, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small company. I think that they’ve worked out a fantastic business model that’s going to sustain and grow their journalism. I think that that’s fantastic, but I think that where media is going is to this greater consolidation. You’re going to see more and more of the telco companies, the dumb pipe companies, getting into the content business. How all that plays out is something that I think all of us are obsessed with and fascinated by. What better way to understand it than to get right into the belly of the beast?
To be in the middle of it. See it up close and personal. One of the potential downsides here is that this is a cyclical thing, that right now everyone wants to marry content and distribution, so you’ve got AT&T buying Time Warner, and Verizon buying Yahoo and AOL, but especially Verizon. Their core business is still selling phone service, right, and will be that for a long time?
Yeah, of course.
If they’re extraordinarily successful with AOL and Yahoo, it’ll be just sort of marginally.
At the margins for them.
It’s very easy for them to walk away from this as well and go, “Eh, we’re not in the content business.”
Turns out it’s difficult. There’s all kinds of issues with privacy and ad targeting. I guess I’m just telling you that you know this, right? Because you’re a smart person.
Well, yeah, I think that there’s always a chance of that. I think what you’re seeing is a trend towards ... Especially if net neutrality is dead, right?
Well, I mean, we’ll see. It could always come back, right?
It could come back, zombie-like. You could put a stake through it.
The content offerings that any particular carrier can offer free of charge with no data charges, things like that, I think actually could become a really important differentiating factor. I mean, why does Amazon pay Jill Soloway to make “Transparent”? Ultimately, it’s to push people to be Prime subscribers, so they’ll buy more paper towels. Are they ultimately going to say, “Eh, the content business is not worth it”?
They might. They might.
They might. It’s possible, but I think that it is a shrewd way to get people bought in to your service and committed to your service in a deeper way and in a non-commodity way. That’s the issue, right? Is that ultimately if your service is a commodity, the only thing you compete on is price.
Right, although if I’m an AT&T customer, I’m still going to be able to get to HuffPo.
Of course, but I think the broader content strategy is, it’s not just HuffPost, right?
It’s a lot of other things as well. $85 billion is a lot of money to pay for Time Warner, so assuming it goes through, I think that AT&T must have some big plans there.
Yeah, well, that’s probably a different podcast, but one more thing about AOL and Verizon versus the Times. The Times is moving more and more toward a subscription business model. They’ll still make most of their money from ads ... Maybe it’s split.
Nope. Nope, they don’t.
You know this.
It’s more than 50 percent.
They’ve already tipped over. They said this is our future is we’re going to be Spotify. We’re going to be Netflix. You’re going to pay for us. That’s how it’s going to work. Verizon is very much moving toward advertising, targeted ads, video. Obviously you were comfortable in that business model, I guess, since that’s where you joined, but it’s a big switch.
I think it’s a big switch mentally, but I think that again this goes back to my slight discomfort at the time, this was post-election, was, “Wow, as we become a subscription-first organization, we get much better at figuring out who our subscribers are, and the product ultimately has to fit with that market,” right? If you’re talking about people who can pay, if you’re talking about people who are going to lean forward and become subscribers to the Times, you’re talking about a fairly narrow band of society.
Big but narrow.
Big but narrow, right?
Like I said, I think it’s amazing that you’ve seen this huge boom in people wanting to subscribe to the Times, but it can’t be the only option out there. There’s got to be other things. Look, there are major problems with the ad-supported model. Believe me. I live it every day. I think that there needs to be much, much more innovation in this space. I think that’s whether it’s ad tech or whether it’s different kinds of subscription models that are much lower cost or bundling, there’s all kinds of things that are out there that people are talking about that could possibly be solutions to this problem. Look, the New York Times exists as a kind of public service. The Washington Post also, right?
Right, owned by a billionaire, owned by a very rich family.
Well, yeah. No, it’s true. I think Jeff Bezos is a lot richer than the Sulzbergers.
They’re very different. Yes.
I think that when you talk about the conversation about aggregation, the New York Times and the Washington Post have always set the agenda for the nightly news broadcast, for example. All the way back to Walter Cronkite, to Lester Holt, whoever’s doing it today, they read the Times and they essentially aggregate from it to make up their broadcast.
Now they have to read Breitbart and Twitter because the president does.
They do. They do. It’s interesting. I have long been a fan of Breitbart, fan meaning in the Facebook sense, on Facebook. I follow them on Twitter and a bunch of other right-wing sites, just because I like to ...
This is pre-Trump?
Sure. Yeah, I just like to know what else is going on out there in the information landscape. Of course, Breitbart enjoys a very close kinship with HuffPost.
They took your playbook.
We basically are kind of separated-at-birth twins on the other side, which then they did take our playbook and I think have done very well with it.
A bunch of different places, but I want to ask about the Times and your career there. You were there for 15 years, we’ve got that right now. I think of you mostly as a foreign correspondent.
Yeah, that’s right.
Africa and India.
Yeah, so I started out as a metro reporter. I went through all the paces. I was hired into the kind of trainee reporter program. I was pretty young. I was 26 at the time.
How do you get to the Times at 26?
I had worked at the ... I’d gone to Columbia Journalism School. My first job in journalism was at the Washington Monthly. I was an unpaid intern, I waited tables at night. Then I went to journalism school at Columbia and was very lucky, I got a scholarship. Then while I was at Columbia, I met a woman named Nancy Sharkey who used to run this trainee reporter program. She was an editor at the Times. She met me at Columbia and said, “Oh, you seem like someone I should keep an eye on, who, you know, maybe 10 years down the line could be a ...”
That’s a program where the Times specifically wants people of color.
Yeah, or just people who don’t have the kind of resume that would ... One of the problems I think the Times has is that you tend to get people later in their careers, and you don’t necessarily grow your own talent. It’s good to have a mix. It’s not specifically designed for diversity purposes, but obviously I think that’s one of the very important goals. Like any news organization, I think the Times is very keenly aware of the need to diversify its staff in many different ways. I got hired into that program. No, sorry, I was at the Albany Times Union right out of journalism school, covering a few small towns there. Then I worked briefly at the Orlando Sentinel, and then got hired into this special program at the Times.
Traditionally, the Times track is, or the old track was, you’re going to go do metro and national, and you’re going to go to Russia at some point and deal with the various stations of the cross. That’s how you ascend the masthead. I didn’t look that carefully, but it seems like you spent a lot of time overseas, which must have meant you liked it or you wanted to be there.
Yeah, no, I did. I came in as a young metro reporter, and they sort of put me through the paces. I spent some time at One Police Plaza in the shack, as most reporters do, which was a great kind of formative experience.
Explain to people who don’t spend all their days in newspapers what the shack is.
The shack is this disgusting warren of closet-sized offices attached to the brutalest building that is the New York City Police Department’s headquarters down at the southern tip of Manhattan. You go there and get basically verbally abused all day every day.
And your job is to go in and say, “What do you got?”
You go in and you say, “What do you got?”
What’s the weirdest crime?
Everybody is looking over their shoulder at who’s got what, right? I mean, the Post guys are super focused on whatever salacious crime. High-minded New York Times reporters, of course, are looking for stories of police corruption. I got to work there with Willie Rashbaum, who’s like a legendary New York City reporter, still works at the Times. He’s the guy that broke the Eliot Spitzer with prostitutes story. I was very well-taught the ins and outs of police reporting.
Then I got shipped up to the Westchester bureau back when we had one, but all in all, I was really only in New York for about two years. Then again, on a very compressed time frame, the West Africa bureau came open rather suddenly, because the West Africa bureau chief at the time, her husband got a job in New Delhi, and so she wanted to go to New Delhi. They transferred her there. I said, “I actually would love to go to West Africa.”
You raised your hand.
I raised my hand. You know, I’d already had a couple of breaks. They had sent me to Haiti during the bicentennial crisis, and then Jean-Bertrand Aristide ended up being pushed out of the country, so I covered that. I think they had a sense that I had a passion for this.
Actually, during the whole Jayson Blair debacle, they had started posting all of the jobs that were open at the time, because one of the things that happened during all of that was a sense that people were getting opportunities that didn’t necessarily deserve them or weren’t necessarily the right people, because these were being handled in a very secretive way. One of the things that happened after the Jayson Blair debacle was they started ...
The bulletin board says we’re hiring for this slot.
Yeah, basically they started posting all the jobs. They posted that they were hiring a Johannesburg bureau chief. I was, I don’t know, 27, 28 at the time. I had been with the paper like maybe a year and a half. I had the temerity to put my hand up for it. Roger Cohen, who is now an opinion columnist but at the time was the foreign editor, sort of gamely met with me and was sufficiently impressed that he sent me down. He basically said, “There’s no chance I’m giving you this job. This is a very prestigious posting.” Two former executive editors of the New York Times had been Johannesburg bureau chief, Joe Lelyveld and Bill Keller. He said, “I’m not giving you this job, but I do need someone to fill in until I can find an actual grownup to do the job.” He sent me down there for about six weeks, which was an absolutely thrilling experience. But I kind of proved ...
That you could do it. So when you said, “I want to do this. I want to go to West Africa,” was your thought, “This is what I want to do for my career,” or, “This is something I’ll do and then I’ll come back and I’ll keep moving up the ladder”?
I didn’t really think that far in advance. I mean, I was really young. I was so passionate about being a foreign correspondent. I loved the work. I loved being in the field. I loved covering conflict. I loved covering development. To me, I’d grown up as a kid watching these extraordinary events unfold. I lived through my first coup attempt when I was like 6 years old in Kenya. I’d seen a transition from military rule to democracy in Ghana when I was in high school. I thought this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and I really, really loved it. But the truth is, after 10 years, I realized that I didn’t want to be an expat anymore. I had grown up as an expat kid, and I think that there is a kind of ... I think that long-term expatriate life has the potential to deform your character if you’re not careful.
In what way?
Well, you lose your ties. For me, it was very clear that the friends who’d been super excited to come visit my wife and I in Senegal or in India when they were in their 20s and early 30s suddenly had like 2- and 3-year-old kids and were like, “We’re not coming to India to visit you.”
We’re done, and so if we wanted to keep up those ... That included my brothers, by the way, who I’m very close with. I realized that if I wanted to keep those ties up, that I ...
You had to come back.
I needed to come back. That was very important to me. You also, I think, realize that over time, you do want to do different things and you do want to have different kinds of experiences. I had this very strong interest in technology and media. I was one of the first people to use Twitter at the Times. I was one of the first people to use Twitter as a foreign correspondent, and I remember ...
When you used Twitter as a foreign correspondent at the Times, especially when you did it, what does that entail?
Well, just meaning that I had an account and that I was tweeting, right?
Right, because there was this back and forth, and I think there’s no longer a debate about it, people just say if you have something, if you have a thought, put it up on Twitter. Don’t worry about saving it for the Times. I think at some organizations, still to this day, there’s, “We’re not paying you to publish on Twitter. It needs to go on the wire.”
This was even before that debate, right?
Right, so they didn’t even just know what Twitter was.
I think nobody really knew what Twitter was, except for a few geeky people back in New York. The culture at the Times was so self-effacing, I mean publicly self-effacing. Of course, there are huge egos all over the place, right?
And tremendously insecure. Works both ways.
Always. Journalists are insecure overachievers, right?
But the Times has a really weird mix of, “We’re the New York Times,” and “We’re the New York Times. Do you think we’re going to die?”
Right. At first, when I joined Twitter, it had this weird kind of sheen of self-promotion about it. I didn’t want anybody to know about it. I thought, “Oh, this is a really interesting thing that I want to play with, but I don’t want anybody to know that I’m actually doing it.” I joined Twitter just as I was leaving West Africa and going to India. In India, Twitter was huge. It was the way that you tapped into the important elite media conversations and powerful political circles and things like that.
I had gotten very, very interested in technological change in media, how information travels and things like that, and sort of through that, I think the folks back in New York knew that this was an interest of mine and eventually they asked me to come back and be a deputy editor on the international desk, in part because I think they were trying to ... This was before the Innovation Report came out. They were trying to really bring in people who had traditional media backgrounds but had ...
But also knew how a computer worked or how Twitter worked.
Well, that had an aptitude and an interest in sort of digital transformation.
The Innovation Report you referenced, we were talking about this on a different podcast a couple weeks ago, that this was the initial thing that came out a few years ago. It was supposed to be internal, but it leaked. It said, among other things, “Hey, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are reaching a lot of people, oftentimes with our work, better than we are. We should figure out how to do this.”
That’s sort of what you tapped into.
Yeah, so when I came back, it was not long after that that they released the Innovation Report. It was clear that there was this strong need at the Times for great journalists to start really engaging with the fundamental problems of our industry.
Back to Twitter for a second, my perception of you, and maybe other people feel the same way, was you were someone I knew through Twitter more so than even your work. I’m an ugly American. I probably didn’t read that many international bylines. I knew you, and it was solely through Twitter. Were you aware, sort of consciously, that you were creating space for you and your personal brand through Twitter, or was it just a byproduct of being on Twitter?
I guess. I don’t know. I just think that one of the interesting byproducts of being a foreign correspondent is that you spend a lot of time alone. The great thing about Twitter is you’re never alone, and there are always people to talk to. To me, if it was sort of brand-making in that way, it was a symptom of being an extrovert in an introvert’s job.
Back to your resume, you were at the Times. You were moving up and up and up. You were everything the New York Times says they want to have. You were digitally savvy. You were smart. You had done international reporting. You’re a woman of color. You’re a lesbian. Not that they say they want those things, but they want a more diverse newsroom. It seems like you could go very, very high up the masthead if you wanted to.
I mean, I think, look, those are your words, not mine. I felt like the Times was a great place for me to work, and that it was definitely clear to me that the only limits to my ambition were what I wanted to do and living up to the promise that other people felt that I had. I felt like I was on a great trajectory at the Times and that they had made an extraordinary effort to keep giving me really interesting challenges.
There’s a public editor column out this week saying there is a real problem with women at the Times. There aren’t enough of them. There aren’t enough of them in real power. There aren’t enough of them in reporting. Now that you’re outside the paper for a couple months, does your perspective on that change at all?
No. Look, they’ve just appointed three very senior editors, female editors, to the masthead, which I think is great, but look, the facts don’t lie. One of the greatest lines in that piece was about how Maggie Haberman alone got 141 million page views. I was like, “That’s extraordinary.”
And she’s covering Trump, right, to be fair?
She’s covering Trump.
And she’s awesome at it.
She’s amazing at it. She does these very dishy stories. There are days when without anybody really thinking about it, you’ll have a front page that’s all male bylines. You’ll have a homepage that’s all male bylines. It’s clearly a continuing problem at the Times, and these things are deep. There was this great line in the book about the lawsuit against the Times called “The Girls in the Balcony,” and it’s right at the end where Arthur Sulzberger, the current publisher, is speaking to a group and says, “I hope that the newspaper that my son inherits is better than the one that I did.” I’m paraphrasing here: In an aside, one of the women says to the other, “I hope Arthur remembers that he has a daughter.”
By the way, his son’s going to run the paper.
Well, he’s the deputy publisher, but I think that it’s ... There have been powerful women in the Sulzberger family, definitely, but this time around, the three competing for the top spot were all male.
How important is it for you to have a diverse masthead and newsroom at HuffPo, and do you feel like you’ve got more ability to create that change there than you would have ... that the Times has?
It’s absolutely essential to me, and like a lot of people, I think about diversity in a very kind of broad and complex way. I feel like I’m very wedded to economic and class diversity. That seems extremely important in this moment right now. I think that ethnic diversity is always important. Are we doing as well as we could? Absolutely not. Can we do better? Absolutely yes, and I work on it every day. I’m super interested in religious diversity. I feel like it would be great to have more reporters who themselves are people of faith or who grew up at least in environments of faith.
Seems like the class and religion part of it is almost harder for at least a publication that’s based in New York City. Your offices are in Manhattan, right? You’re excluding a lot of people who cannot afford to live in or near Manhattan.
Right, but we also have people based all around the country.
One of the things that I’ve been trying to do is make it much easier for people to be based in lots of different places and still be full contributors to and staff, or staff members, of HuffPost, because I think that’s an absolutely essential part of it, not saying like, “If you want to work at HuffPost, you have to come to our office on Astor Place.”
What’s your relationship like with Arianna Huffington?
It’s very warm, friendly. We’ve met twice.
Because I saw you once right before you went to see her for the first time, right?
Yes, so I met her once right before my appointment was announced. Then she and I had dinner a couple of weeks ago. She’s been incredibly generous. She’s given me lots of advice.
So you met her once before the job was announced, but you already had the job?
So you weren’t going there to get her blessing.
Oh, no, no, no. In fact, we didn’t really talk about it because it wasn’t public at that time. It was very closely held.
She knew you had the job.
I actually don’t know if she knew that I had the job. I think she had some inkling, but we didn’t ...
This was a Kara Swisher thing. Kara said, “You should talk to Lydia.”
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I assume that she had some inkling that that’s what was the context, but I was under strict orders to keep it a secret and so I did.
You went and met her, and then you had dinner and ...
Then she and I had dinner a few weeks ago. She’s been incredibly generous and welcoming. I think she knows that she built this extraordinary thing, and I think she’s very happy to have another woman carrying it forward. I think that was something that was pretty important to her. I think she wants to see HuffPost thrive and grow, now that she’s moved on.
You joked about it at the beginning. You said it’s not going to be Polgreen Post, but it very much ... A lot of that publication’s success in the beginning and for a long time was tied to her personality. She decided they wanted to go on a protest of ... fill up a bus full of people and go protest in Washington. She went and did it. She decided that sleep was very important, so there was a sleep beat. What do you think of that model, sort of saying this is specifically my thing and I’m going to imprint my personality on it, versus this thing has its own DNA and I’m going to sort of steer it?
Well, I mean, I think a lot of news organizations kind of start out that way, right? I mean, they’re a vehicle ... I’m talking ancient history now. They’re a vehicle for a founder and a owner who has a particular point of view, an ideology, or interests. The Chandler family running the LA Times until the good Chandler finally came along. I think this has been the history of media for a very long time.
Ultimately, I think the ones that succeed find a way to marry the identity of the founder to something that outlives the founder and kind of extends that basic DNA into something much broader. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m incredibly proud of what Arianna built, and I see myself as very much standing on her shoulders and extending it.
When is it a good time to check back with you? Because you say you’ve got these reorgs, and you want to start shifting focus a bit. When’s a good time to come back and say, “Here’s what I’ve done”? Do you give yourself a year? Or two years?
Yeah. I hope that in a year, you’re going to see a pretty different Huffington Post, both in terms of how it looks and feels, the kinds of stories that we’re doing. I think some things are going to feel very familiar. The splash will always be at the core of our identity.
That’s the homepage, if you weren’t paying attention the first time.
Yeah, but it’s not just the homepage but the top of the homepage where we have the big headline and the big photo that gives you a snapshot of the HuffPost take of whatever the event of the day is.
There’s a great picture right now of Trump’s tie billowing over his head. It’s great.
I can’t let you leave without one more Trump question. You were one of the several publications that was banned from the press conference with Trump?
That is correct, yes.
Has that kept going? I see Spicer is continuing to have these gaggles that are now off camera. Have you been let back into the fold?
As far as I know, our reporters have been able to get access. It seems that that was a one-time thing. We’re watching that with very, very great concern. I think it’s extremely important that reporters be allowed to do their jobs. That said, HuffPost is not looking for stories in a briefing room.
Right, so I keep going back in my head around and around on this question, right? On the one hand, it’s bad for Trump to only speak to a handful of outlets and to cut people off. On the other hand, I think even in the best of circumstances, you’re all going to get the same information. We’ve seen over and over now that the things that Trump’s spokespeople say are often untrue.
So literally writing what Sean Spicer has said doesn’t help anyone.
Yeah. I do think it’s important that a number of journalists, and ideally as many as are accredited to the White House, are able to put questions to the administration. Even if it’s just theater.
Even if it’s just a brick wall or worse.
Even if it’s just theater, I think it’s important, like for the record, that these questions be asked and that they be confronted.
But if the response is going to be, “He is not retiring. He is not recusing himself,” any number of things ...
And then 30 seconds later, he recuses himself.
Right. It seems like that’s actually a damaging thing, to actually go ahead and say, “Sean Spicer said this,” because what’s the point?
No, but I think that again for the record, it’s important to have a full document of the madness of these times. I think that having journalists ask those questions, even if they’re getting absurd answers ...
Even if it’s entirely kabuki.
Yeah, even if it’s entirely kabuki. If that’s all you do, you’re not doing your job. I think this is one of those places where HuffPost can make judicious choices and say, “You know what? We’re just not going to go to the briefing anymore,” because there’s ... Or Jay Rosen had this great line, “Send the interns,” because if you’re basically just going to be taking down what this person says and that nothing that they say is actually useful or important, then yeah, send the interns.
It’s a tough line though, right? HuffPo tried this during the primaries and said, “Trump’s a joke. He’s entertainment. We’re going to cover him as such. He’s not a serious person,” and eventually had to track back because it turns out he’s the president of the United States.
Yes. Yeah. I mean, look, I wasn’t there at the time. It’s not what I would have done. I actually think that our job is to report — report, I would say, passionately. I wouldn’t say dispassionately. I think that we should write our stories and let readers make their own conclusions about whether Trump is a joke, whether he’s a misogynist. I wasn’t there at the time. It wasn’t my choice.
But I mean, as you think about maybe we’re not going to send anyone to the gaggle, maybe we’ll send the intern to the gaggle, that’s kind of the same decision, right?
No, I don’t think that’s the same decision.
Because at some point maybe something important happens there.
I don’t think that’s the same decision at all, because these are televised events. You can monitor them in a million ways.
If something of import is said, you’ll know about it.
Absolutely. I think that we will cover Trump aggressively. If we can free up more reporters to cover his administration aggressively or cover the Democrats or cover whoever by not sending someone to the briefing, so be it.
You’ve got a pretty cool job. Thanks for telling us about it.
Thanks for your time, Lydia Polgreen.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.