HuffPost UK editor on why rivals, backing political parties and suits are old news

Having journalistic rivals, backing political parties and wearing suits are "old-fashioned" concepts in the new media world, according to the editor of Huffington Post UK.

Stephen Hull, who took over from Carla Buzasi just over a year ago, says HuffPost's "mission" is to be "neutral and report stories in a really articulate way".

Hull, 40, joined HuffPost UK shortly after its 2011 launch as executive editor. He was previously head of content at Metro.co.uk and started his career in journalism at the Reading Chronicle in 2000.

In his four years at HuffPost, he estimates the website's editorial staff has grown from ten to 42. Hull quotes Comscore figures showing that the site now attracts 13m unique monthly users. 

Asked who he sees as HuffPost's main rivals, in a phone interview with Press Gazette, Hull says his website "thinks differently".

SH: We really try not to look at other publishers as rivals, as such. I think that’s really quite an old-fashioned way of working. We try to see them as partners.

So we’ll often feature Buzzfeed videos on our AOL offering and feature those on our pages.

I think that old-style way of ‘leftie papers hate the rightie papers’ – I think that’s a legacy thing.

And as a forward-looking guy, I’d hope I wouldn’t be taking that into a new era.

And I think a lot of people think like that now – they don’t really think as rivals, they just think that you’re part of an eco-system, I suppose, and you’re putting out certain content which consumers hopefully love and share.

We don’t square up against anybody in the street, any other rival publishers – and actually we’re quite good mates with a lot of them.

Where does HuffPost UK sit on the political spectrum, left or right?

SH: We get accused of being both, actually. And that’s probably just something that comes out of the fact that we’re read by a lot of people.

But we really try to be beyond left and right: we try to look at the issues that people are talking about.

Although we do cover party politics, and we’ve got a big team – it’s doubled in the last year… we try to treat politics in a different way.

We try not to get into those PMQs-type ding-dongs about ‘this guy’s right because of this’, ‘and this guy…’ – we try and look at the issues beyond that.

Huffington Post UK did not back a political party at the general election.

SH: I think the market really has changed, and people look at us to be part of the conversation about what’s going on – they don’t necessarily come to us to be told: ‘Yeah, this is the right decision, this is the right policy'…

It’s a tradition in newspapers. It’s nice and it’s fun when they come out and say who they are, but I just don’t think that’s our position in the market.

I think we’re about enhancing the conversation around an event, rather than telling people what to think.

Earlier this year, Hull described political coverage as being a "critical part of HuffPost’s DNA". And since taking over as editor he has doubled the size of the political team – from two to four – and appointed Politics Home editor Paul Waugh as executive editor of politics.

Last week, Waugh launched '100 Days of Dave', "a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face". So far, the series has featured blogs from the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, Caroline Flint and the heads of various charities and other organisations.

Hull says Waugh was someone he had "always massively respected" and that it was his "dream… getting someone of his calibre" to HuffPost UK. He met Waugh at a cafe near HuffPost's offices that he calls Freddy's – named after 'Freddy's Rib Joint' in political drama House of Cards. 

SH: I explained to Paul where it was and I said I’ll meet you in Freddy’s at this time and we had a good chat and a cup of tea – and I think we had a slice of cake as well actually – and we just talked about our visions of journalism and where we would take Huffington Post in an ideal world. And we both agreed we liked the sound of what we both had to offer…

I think a lot of other websites have noticed the intent that we’ve got with politics.

It’s one of those things where there's a huge open goal, and getting away from that old-fashioned left and right reporting – we’re much more about the issues: the how and the why of politics, why things are important.

And Paul brings that in abundance.

What do you see as HuffPost's biggest and best stories?

SH: We used to get quite excited when we had an exclusive because we’re a small team and it was quite hard to do those things.

With? [former political director] Mehdi Hasan we got some really great political exclusives – but in the last couple of months we’ve just seen tons.

Only this week [last week], we had Ken Clarke giving us an exclusive about how he thought Jeremy Corbyn could actually go on to be the prime minister – not just the leader of the Labour Party, but the actual prime minister. Which is remarkable.

Today [Friday last week] we’ve got Yvette Cooper coming to us exclusively on our blogging platform to write about the nine things she thinks David Cameron’s got wrong since he came to power…

The ambition is always to be breaking – if we’d had Lord Sewel, for example, that would have been remarkable. And I think that’s the ambition I’ve got – to be breaking those landmark stories that people talk about for days and weeks and months and years.

And we will get there. For sure. But we’re building a business that’s sustainable, and four years in is a good point to start ramping up what we’re doing.

You don't have 'rivals'. But who is performing best in your market. And who is in your market?

SH: It’s a tricky one because I wouldn’t want to call out individual companies, but Vice have been applauded and won awards for their video coverage – and we’ve all certainly enjoyed watching how they’ve developed that brand. It’s quite a remarkable change in three years.

In terms of Buzzfeed, very similar to the Huffington Post – they identified that there’s a shift in the way that people share news and consume news, and the tones and the styles…

People who think that newspapers are done and dusted are kidding themselves – newspapers and newspaper companies, they offer multiple products: they offer digital, they offer mobile and they offer papers.

The papers are often – not always, but often – the source of stories, they’re often where things come from. That raw story telling is something that papers do really, really well – and something that, as an editor, I want to be doing.

And I think I’ve got a team in place which is bringing those stories much more to the market. And we are picked up regularly by mainstream newspapers and actually feature not only in their digital pages, but in their printed pages as well, which is actually an honour.

In May, it was announced that Huffington Post owner AOL had been taken over by Verizon. Hull says HuffPost staff have been told Verizon is "fully behind" the website. He also says Arianna Huffington – who founded the Huffington Post ten years ago – is "committed" to the cause, having recently signed a new four-year contract.

What is the work atmosphere like at Huffington Post in the UK?

SH: I did the Steve Wright show a couple of months ago, and he asked me a similar question. And I said to him: ‘I’ve never worn a suit to work, and I don’t intend to.’ Right now I’m wearing a denim shirt, black jeans and a pair of brogues…

So it’s informal, but it’s bloody effective as well. I mean, some people wear suits – some people have to wear suits, the politics team have to wear them to go to Parliament – but the team’s pretty young, they’re really up for it, really sociable, they really know their stuff.

I’d say it is more relaxed [than old media organisations]. But you wouldn’t mistake being relaxed for a relaxed attitude in the way we work. They’re razor sharp and genuinely one of the most exciting bunch of people I’ve worked with: very collegiate, helping each other, very open – they share ideas. There’s a competitive edge, but it’s constructive…. they’re not out to get each other – they work for each other. And that’s not easy to create.

It’s very easy to create an office where people don’t work for each other – and we’ve all been in those places. And it comes from the top as well: Arianna’s very clear about the kind of culture she wants and the sustainable office culture she wants. And it’s important it comes from there – because that comes down to me and I send it down to my team as well…

I don’t sit in an office, I’ve got what we call a ‘huddle room’… and it’s free for anyone to use, and it’s where I have a lot of my meetings or interview people.

But I sit out with the rest of the team. And we all sit together – it’s very much about shouting out ideas across the room. There’re TVs playing, there’s… stats on the wall so we know how we’re doing. I think that’s pretty common place in any media company.

We have a beer fridge on a Thursday where everybody sits at their desk and has a drink, which is quite a good laugh.

But again, we’re careful not to mix up that spirit of new newsrooms with not being as good as old newsrooms.

I think we’re tons better to be honest with you, having worked in both.

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