Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: Can you introduce yourself and what you do at HuffPost?
Jess: So, I’m the Executive Editor, which means that I run the editorial side of it, basically. I run the newsroom. I came in as Head of News, and my role has expanded in the last month really to encompass the other sections.
Esther: And it’s been a really big couple of weeks for you because of all the announcements that coming out. I think you announced the closure of your blogs section last week – I think the US also, they had a contributor platform, which I think is quite similar.
Jess: So, the US did it a while ago. We sort of half did it about a year and a half ago. So I think the thing is, first of all to say that yes we did close it but we launched two new sections, opinion and personal, which are really exciting and encompass some of the best bits of the blogs platform.
And the thing to remember is that when Arianna Huffington launched Huffington Post and they had this incredible platform where they raised, they elevated lots of voices that weren’t heard in the media at the time and they were really ahead of their time. It was before Twitter really got going, before everybody had a platform with which to give their views, and give their point of view. And at the time it was really revolutionary.
Fast forward to where we are now. It feels outdated not to be paying writers. And we wanted to sort that out, and we also wanted to have much more control over the content that’s on the website.
So, we’d moved a long way away from the original thing, which was people self publishing and using our website as a platform, which was very exciting back then and now obviously…
Esther: That’s now Medium isn’t it, if you want to do that.
Jess: Yeah I guess it is or even Twitter to be honest, very long Twitter threads, which you could write quite a lot of words on. And so for us it felt like taking the best bits, which is elevating unheard voices, making sure that the site is still populated with lots of those things, and really distinct, compelling, interesting, experiences.
So our personal section will be about telling those personal stories and we’ve had some really great ones already this week.
We’ve got an amazing one on the site today about a woman who is talking about how every time she dates a man, she’s worried that he’s going to Google her and discover that she was a rape victim. So, it’s a place within the media and within our site where we can carry incredible stories like that.
And then the other half is the opinion section. So we will continue to have agenda-setting opinion pieces, but we will be paying people who write for a living.
Esther: Does that mean that you will have a lot more oversight about what is published, a bit more quality control, that sort of thing?
Jess: Yeah, I mean we were sort of there already to be honest – we’d moved to a much more rigorous system of editing, and we’d massively cut down the amount that we were publishing.
But this is very specifically a commission rather than submission role. So yeah, even more than we were already doing.
Esther: And you’ve recently relaunched the Life section as well. What’s changed around that?
Jess: So if you take a look at the site, something very obvious has changed and it suddenly looks really beautiful. So, we’ve relaunched it with lots of new graphics that actually looks distinct from the news section, which I’m really excited about because our life content is fantastic, and obviously it feels textually really different from the news stuff, and it’s really nice to give it home on the site that elevates it and shows that you’re coming to get something slightly different to what you would get on news.
But also we’ve built out the specialisms of our reporters. So somebody like Sophie Gallagher is focusing on sex and relationships and we’re building that up as a specialism. She’s launched a brilliant section called Sex Diaries where people talk about their sex lives. There’s some great variety on that.
And it’s about depth, and it’s about giving it a place that shows we’re really proud of it, I suppose, not that it’s an add on to what we’re doing with news.
Esther: And that changed a couple of months ago, has that had any impact since?
Jess: Yeah I think it has had an impact, definitely in terms of the response we’ve had from readers, and also in finding a place for us to do more thoughtful life stuff.
Our brilliant life team have been doing quite a lot of that over the last year and a half, but now it really feels like there’s a place on the site where those things can live. And I think that’s really exciting.
Esther: Sounds a bit magazine-y almost.
Jess: I like to think of our readers as people who don’t differentiate between different types of content as much as I think journalists obsess about.
So I quite like the idea of them coming and dipping in. And I personally love the stuff that they do on Life where they tell me which lipsticks to buy, or where to find the best houseplants for my flat. And that can sit alongside the news stuff.
But I think there’s a real place for as you said magazine-y content, and lifestyle content, stuff that helps you to spend your money better and use your free time best. Especially when politically it’s pretty depressing times.
Esther: And do you find there’s a different way that people come to access that news content versus the lifestyle content, or do they come through social for the lifestyle…?
Jess: It’s a mixture really. We have a very distributed platform model, which was purposeful. I think we all saw across the industry when Facebook turned those taps off. Some outlets literally, basically ceased to exist because they were so hooked up to one particular platform. So, we’re fairly evenly distributed and that’s across news and life.
I mean obviously something like Twitter will drive a lot of news or politics traffic, because we have such brilliant politics team. Somebody like Paul Waugh, he’s our political editor – his Twitter feed alone will drive lots of traffic – and then some life stuff or entertainment stuff might be better suited to Facebook.
So we still get quite a lot of traffic to Facebook, and then there’s other third party apps like Flipboard or Upday. So it’s a mixture to be honest, and homepage traffic of course.
Esther: You’ve just launched the HuffPost School of Journalism, which you’re doing in partnership with Birmingham City University. Can you talk us through some of the reasoning behind that and why you’ve chosen to get involved with Birmingham?
Jess: Yeah, I’m really really excited about it, on a personal basis as well as what it will mean for us at HuffPost. So, Birmingham first of all, a year ago we actually closed the London newsroom and we spent a week running a newsroom out of an empty shop in Birmingham city centre, and that was about trying to see what happens to a news outlet when you move the centre of gravity, and you step away from London where most news outlets are based, certainly nationally. And also what happens when you place yourself in people’s lives.
So the biggest thing that I learned from that, was actually that it wasn’t so important that we were in Birmingham as much as we were in a shopping centre. So lots of people popped in on their lunch break. They came in after work because they’d heard that there were this crazy bunch of journalists doing this thing in the Bullring. And it was a really interesting way of talking to people in a space where they weren’t expecting to talk to journalists or encounter news.
And I think one of the big challenges for the industry when frankly we’re competing not just against other news outlets, but we’re competing with the likes of Netflix – what you read or watch or look at on your way to work may be news, but also you might be catching up on your favourite TV show. I think finding spaces to pop up in people’s lives at their own convenience frankly, is something that we all need to be looking more at.
So we had that Birmingham legacy. We had a fantastic time in that city and we discovered it was full of all these great stories, it’s a very young city, it’s a very diverse city. So there was that Birmingham legacy, which was the beginning of that relationship with Birmingham City.
But more than that, I really like what they were about as a university. They have a real focus on making students employable. They have a very diverse student body, and that sense of opening up journalism and making it more diverse. Not for worthy reasons, but because that’s the way to make journalism survive and thrive in the future, we have to write news that is relevant to people, we have to have journalists that reflect the people that they’re writing for. Not making patrician statements about the way that things are that don’t make any sense to people.
So, there was a real synergy there I think in terms of the visions that we have, and the team at BCU.
And also they’re about a multi-platform approach, that feels very modern to me, quite a lot of academic approaches to journalism are still based on whether you focus on broadcast, or whether you focus on print, and that’s starting to feel increasingly just not the way that the industry works.
I’ve worked in TV, I’ve worked in digital, we are having to kind of move across and be more multi-platform, but also it doesn’t really relate to the way that consumers think about content – I hate the word content – think about news or entertainment or lifestyle coverage…
Esther: A lot of the time they don’t, they’ll just get to it and not think about that process.
Jess: And if you main way of accessing news is your mobile phone, which it is for lots of people, you might watch a bit of video, you might look at an infographic, you might read a long read on your mobile phone, you might have saved it for your commute home from work.
And I think we need to loosen up a bit as an industry and recognise that some of the boundaries in terms of platforms that frankly I was trained to believe in, are just not there anymore.
Esther: And that partnership with you guys in Birmingham City University, what do both side get out of it, what does the actual partnership look like?
Jess: So the brass tacks of it is that we will help them set some module questions, we can give them access to a really busy national digital newsroom, and also a global newsroom.
So we’re obviously originally an American company, although we have full editorial autonomy here. We have outlets in India and Canada and Brazil. We’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation, and that’s a nice thing to have access to if you’re a journalism student, and I think it’s just injecting some of the realism about the real pressures and the real decisions that are made in newsrooms.
So I’m hoping that doing things like pitching stories to us and our editors will get them a sense of the real decision making as it actually happens in newsrooms. So I think we have a lot to offer them.
I also think they have an enormous amount to offer us, which is really really exciting. They’ve got this great student body who will be able to talk to some of the stuff that I was just talking about, and the way that young people access news information.
And I’m excited about some of the things I’m going to learn from them that I have no idea even existed. There’ll be platforms that they are accessing news or information from that, me, I’m 36 and I probably don’t even know that they exist. So that’s really exciting for us.
Esther: You’ve worked in places like BBC, ITV. You’ve gone from broadcast to digital journalism. Are there lots of new things you’ve had to learn, or are a lot of the skills the same? What’s it like transferring from those two?
Jess: It’s interesting, it’s something I get asked a lot actually. And I was quite far through the process of deciding to move from my previous job in broadcast – I mean I was a producer for a decade, so I was totally rooted in broadcast journalism – I was quite far through that process before someone said to me, ‘You’ll be leaving telly,’ and to be honest I hadn’t really thought about it, which sounds mad!
But I think particularly once you get to Editor level, storytelling is storytelling, and news editing is news editing. And if you’re grappling with interesting ways to find compelling stories and tell them, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is, if that makes sense? So in some ways it’s been less different than I expected. We’re still trying to find interesting ways to tell stories.
I mean obviously I’ve had to learn, I’ve had a crash course in SEO and CMS and various other acronyms that I wasn’t particularly [across] before I started here.
Also we use Slack, the messaging app, to run our newsroom – something I had never come across before I arrived here, and I still find people will ask me a question on Slack, and I’ll stand up and give them a verbal answer, which to a millennial newsroom can be a bit confusing sometimes.
Esther: And are there things during that time that you’ve seen in the way journalism has changed? People say these days we’re a lot more polarised, I’m interested if that’s actually the case?
Jess: Journalism has changed loads since I first started out. I’ve been a journalist for twelve years now I think, from being a very junior researcher on Question Time when I first started out. The digital revolution and social media has basically put a bomb under lots of things, but certainly under journalism.
I’m a female journalist, I’m subject to constant abuse from members of the public every day on social media.
Esther: I think you just put up a piece about that?
Jess: I did. In fact the piece I wrote wasn’t so much about the abuse. It was just about the low level patronising responses that you get from a lot of men. And the abuse is funnily enough in a different bucket, I would put that in a different category. And I’m a white woman, it’s even worse for colleagues of mine who are people of colour. It’s pretty disgusting I think, and that is just part and parcel of being a vocal and ‘seen’ journalist on social media. So there’s that.
I also think social media is full and was full of opportunity, it did open up and led to what some people have described as the democratisation of journalism. But within that, it shook some of the values that we had around fact checking and truthfulness.
I hate the term fake news, but it’s unavoidably true that the amount of information coming from that many different sources, many of whom are completely unverifiable, has been a massive danger to the news industry. And in the early days of the digital explosion, it also meant that in the rush to understand it, newsrooms hired lots of young people, because the people in charge didn’t understand digital.
Even towards the end of my time at the BBC, there were some brilliant people doing digital at BBC. They have such exciting stuff going on. But in some bits of the BBC, the digital job is still done by the most junior person on the team. That’s crazy.
Digital journalism is not a separate adjunct of journalism now, it is journalism, and you cant avoid it. And I think that more traditional places – that terrible term, legacy media – has been slow to pick up on that. And it is in danger of not surviving because of it, basically. So in answer your question, it has changed massively in so many different ways. There is opportunity in that, it’s not all negative.
Esther: Do you think fast forward 5 / 10 years down the line, it will all shake out and calm down? Or is it just on a downward trajectory?
Jess: If I knew just that I’d be a very rich woman. But I don’t believe it’s on a downward trajectory. I mean I run a digital newsroom, right. That wouldn’t have existed 30 years ago, and we are doing great on the ground reporting. We still have the same values of old fashioned, solid, shoe leather reporting. Proper journalism. Credible stuff. All our sources are cast iron and verifiable, and I think we’re now at a phase in journalism and digital journalism where we’re circling back to some of these things, and they’ve become more important than ever.
And actually in that very crowded chaotic landscape, and with things like fake news, I actually think proper journalism has become more important than ever. It’s just sad that the legacy of those years has meant that maybe the public don’t realise that. And obviously getting people to pay for journalism is the thing that none of us have really unlocked.
But I’m just as bad, when I used to go get on a flight, I would buy a magazine, or if I’m getting my nails done, I might sit and scroll through Instagram, which I’m not paying for. So it’s interesting, because I’m both a consumer of journalism, and a journalist.
So I’m thinking all the time like, what are the ways that we can persuade people about the value of what we’re doing.
Esther: Especially for your UK team, a lot of the Brexit coverage must have been absolutely non-stop for the last two years. How do you manage the team, keep them going, when the pace of the news cycle is like that?
Jess: That’s a really good question, although I was thinking about this, because actually, things have started to slow down a little bit this summer. I mean we’re getting a new prime minister next week, that’s a massive thing.
Esther: I think that’ll probably kick it all back into gear again!
Jess: Well it may, but then it may end up meaning that everybody goes on holiday after that and we actually get a silly season for the first time in a few years. But it’s been going on for much longer than Brexit.
Personally as someone who has been in the thick of it for the last few years, we had the summer leading up to the Scottish referendum, then we had Jeremy Corbyn take over the Labour Party, which obviously kept us all extremely busy. Then we had Brexit.
It has been a completely mad few years, and amidst all that I spent a summer for Newsnight in Greece because Europe was also collapsing at the time economically. I think we’re all exhausted, but I think we’re all going to look back and think, ‘What a time to be a journalist.’
And if you’re not enjoying covering this, then you’re probably not in the right job to be honest. It is exhausting. But that’s what we’re here for, to thrive on this stuff and to be excited by it. And so, I think you just have to make sure that you’re also living a life outside of work.
Esther: How do you think that is for the readers, because at the same time you guys are producing all of this and trying to keep up with all of this, so are the general public, people have talked about news fatigue recently.
Jess: It’s interesting because I was on the panel for the launch of the Reuters Digital Journalism report, and news fatigue came out that very strongly, and Brexit fatigue in particular came out of that. And I said then and I would stand by it now, that I don’t know how honest the public are being about that, because the biggest days for us in terms of traffic are the big Brexit days. If you were to take a dispassionate, objective, outsider look at our traffic numbers, you would come away with the impression that the public cannot read enough about Brexit. It’s really interesting.
But when I say that within that, it’s explaining Brexit. It’s not assuming a lot of prior knowledge, and also a BBC apprentice said to me last year that they find with Brexit coverage, they feel like they’ve come in at Season 7 Episode 3, and so they can’t engage with it. So that’s something that I say back to our newsroom a lot; what’s the thing that we want explaining today, and I say a lot, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
I’ve sort of finagled our Entertainment team into doing Brexit coverage, and I want the Life team to be involved next week when we get our new prime minister, because it’s so valuable to have people who aren’t covering it day in day out.
And then on top of that we’ve also got our politics team who have the best contacts, and who can get the best exclusives, but always we’re saying, who are we are writing this for? And if something is interesting to us but not interesting to readers, well, there’s no point in writing it.
Esther: And what’s been the most memorable story you’ve worked on in your time as a journalist?
Jess: Can I say more than one?
Esther: As long as it’s not Brexit!
Jess: God actually I wouldn’t have ever considered it but that’s because it’s not one story. I think maybe in ten years time…
Esther: It’s an ongoing saga.
Jess: Yeah it would be very hard to say it’s Brexit. I think it’s the ones that have made an impact on people’s lives.
When I was at ITN I was Laura Kuenssberg’s producer, when she was the Business Editor there. And we did some work around the garment trade and a factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. And we went over there and we did some stuff around that with all the victims and holding to the fire the feet of the big British and international brands who had been in that factory.
And then we went back to do a follow up piece, and while we were out there, another factory set on fire. And we drove to the factory overnight and we arrived there and the fire was still burning, and it was horrific. Some of the garment workers had died.
And on the way there we rang various international brands that we knew were operating in Bangladesh, and they all denied having anything to do that factory. And we turned up, there were no other journalists there, and we went into the building, and we found, soggy from the water that had been used put out the fire, all the records of all of the order books from all the big UK brands, and they were forced to pay up.
That wasn’t a story that lots of people will remember. The amounts of money involved were probably a rounding error for those big companies. But to know that if we hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have had to pay up, was just massively important for us, I think. So that’s something that will really stick with me.
And then on a completely different note, I think the last story that I did at Newsnight, the Westminster bullying scandal with Lucinda Day and Chris Cook, which when we were working on that story, it took us months and months, and Lucinda and Chris did the most incredibly diligent job, I think we had nearly 80 sources in the end. We knew that we were going to make allegations about John Bercow, which many of our BBC colleagues thought…
Esther: I mean that’s all still ongoing.
Jess: And when we first put those right of replies in, I can’t remember the wording but basically the Parliamentary authorities said, this is nonsense.
And now there’s been, as you say it’s still ongoing. It’s now a known thing that there is a bullying scandal in Westminster, and that would not have been known if Lucinda and Chris hadn’t worked really hard on the story.
And it was great for me as well because it was the first big investigation I did as an editor. And that transition from being the reporter or the producer to being an editor, you worry that you won’t be so deeply involved in the stories.
But I think it was a great learning experience for me as well because it was up to me when we went with a story, how much more information we kept gathering, whether we made it focused on John Bercow, or where we went with it. And it was just a really extraordinary experience.
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