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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:20 PM ET, 09/27/2011

Huffington Post D.C.: Built to last?


Arianna Huffington speaks at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington in July. (Brendan Smialowski - BLOOMBERG)
WASHINGTON* — Huffington Post D.C., a local news portal that launched this month, didn’t get off to the most provocative start. The site’s top editor, Michael Grass, wrote a welcome note invoking an oft-invoked quote from John F. Kennedy, some words of wisdom from Frederick Douglass, and this:

As I’ve been planning our local D.C. coverage at The Huffington Post, I’ve been turning to some wise words from Henry James, who called Washington the “City of Conversation.”

Hold on here — did I make a mistake? Was I reading Grass’s application for a job as an operative on the Tourmobile? Host of the Washingtoniana room?

As Huffington Post D.C. editor, Grass has a staff of two to corral stories about the city and its environs and post them on a classic Huffington Post news site. While Grass will go heavy on politics and transit, associate editor Arin Greenwood will work legal stories, and assistant editor Rachel Tepper will handle arts and entertainment.

Says Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz: “We’ll be covering the gamut, from high to low, with the fresh, irreverent attitude for which HuffPost is well known. We also see the site as a starting point for conversations, where the community can engage around the issues, news and trends that matter most to them.”

Simple as that? Not even close — nothing is simple in the AOL Huffington Post Media Group (AOLHPMG). Though the title “Huffington Post D.C.” creates an expectation that you’ll be clicking on a self-contained news site that’s all about this region, that expectation gets hijacked by AOLHPMG brands. Just cruise along the navigation bar on the Huffington Post D.C. page. If you click on “entertainment,” you’ll get HuffPo’s famous/infamous national entertainment offerings. If you click on “tech,” you’ll get HuffPo’s national tech offerings or in-family options like Engadget or TechCrunch.

The same model applies to other Huffington Post city sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Denver and San Francisco. People in those cities may well not care that their local HuffPo portal serves as a referral platform for related properties.

As a 24-year resident of the District of Columbia, I do. I have no meaningful representation in Congress; my adopted city is overshadowed by states to the north and south; people elsewhere barely realize that people live in the nation’s capital. Tired of living in a territorial sub-domain, I’m offended that Huffington Post has exiled me to an Internet sub-domain.

Oh well. I’ll go there if Grass and his team post good stories. So far, so uneven. Grass has busied himself with decent crime and transportation coverage; Greenwood did an excellent story on Sunday hunting in Virginia that said as much about a state’s culture as it did about the deer population, but then she pandered with a story on animal shelters; Tepper has been all over Vietnamese sandwiches, an American bike-sharing program and Asian fast food, among other stuff.

AOLHPMG gets a lot out of its threesome. In addition to doing stories from scratch, they aggregate other people’s stuff and otherwise do whatever has to be done to keep the site alive. Among the loathsome administrative duties at Huffington Post D.C. is making sense of the submissions by the guest bloggers, who occupy precious left-rail space on the D.C. page. This is where the community comes to vent.

The mere sight of advocates and politicians and do-gooders teeing up their thoughts triggers an automatic snark mechanism in the Erik Wemple Blogger. I’ve seen too many terrible first-person disasters come over the transom in my years as an editor; these folks can never put a coherent thought together.

Yet somehow they manage to at Huffington Post D.C. When I saw the post from Jody Melto, “Mandarin Chinese translator, interpreter and teacher,” I was ready to pounce. Her piece was about child car seats, and I had resolved that it would stink. It did not. It was entertaining and well written.

The Grass-Greenwood-Tepper trio and the guest bloggers: Those are just two of the HuffPo D.C.’s three-legged original content stool. The other is Patch, that gangly and much-discussed network of AOL hyperlocal sites. The region’s approximately 50 Patch reporters are supposed to be feeding their best stuff to Huffington Post D.C.

Here’s Ruiz on the strategy: “The dozens of Patch hyperlocal sites in the region will coordinate their reporting with HuffPost DC. It’s about using the Patch sites to create a narrative while enabling each to benefit from the powerful HuffPost platform — in addition to leveraging hyperlocal coverage to deepen our national reporting.”

If you put all the resources together, you’d have a Washington area newsroom of nearly 60 staffers, far more than a paper like the Washington Examiner and not too far shy of the Washington Post’s local staff. Even with all that personpower, however, Huffington Post D.C. doesn’t feel like a regional news powerhouse, and that’s because of how Patch operates.

The latest stories on the Clarendon-Courthouse-Rosslyn Patch are as follows: a deadline extension for the 2011 Rosebud Film Festival; an interview with a D.C. blogger; Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary; “10 steps to a healthier life” (under “Arlington Fit Bits”); Clarendon Day 2011; something on the airports board; more.

If you were a HuffPo editor, which of those would you feature on the D.C. site? If you answered “Peace Corps,” you may want to send your resume to Grass & Co. That story was among the site’s “top teases” on Monday morning, according to Grass.

For those who clicked through, this is the lede that awaited:

Thousands of volunteers, their friends and their families celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps on Sunday on the grounds that serve as the final resting place of the man who brought the service organization to life.

Who wants that stuff?

That a bureaucratic anniversary rated a “top tease” on Huffington Post D.C. says a lot about the frailty of its relationship with Patch. Content on the 863 Patch sites was never conceived to appeal to everybody in a region or even to many people in a region. It’s meant to reach just those folks in a tightly drawn Patch community boundary.

Earlier this year, Patch editor in chief Brian Farnham talked about the self-contained mindset of a local reporter in the network: “If you’re in a town of 50,000 people and you get 50,000 uniques, you’re doing your job,” said Farnham. Feeding the regional Huffington Post D.C., accordingly, is a leap of mission requiring the Patch editors to abandon their hyperlocal posts. No?

No, comes the official reply from Patch HQ: “Patch wants to serve its readers with the most compelling, engaging, relevant local content. We feel lucky to be able to collaborate with the HPDC team to make sure our collective readership is getting the most out of interacting w/our sites, be them Patch sites or HPDC.”

Official denial notwithstanding, the launch of Huffington Post D.C. appears to put the already overstretched regional Patch reporters in a bind. If they do their jobs as Patch people, they probably won’t produce much buzzy stuff for Huffington Post D.C.; and if they do much buzzy stuff for Huffington Post D.C., they won’t be doing their jobs as Patch people.

Fortunate, then, that there is no quota binding Patch editors for contributions to Huffington Post D.C. Says Patch spokesperson Janine Iamunno: “We collaborate on stories, offer them links if we think a story is a great fit for them, discuss topics that are bubbling up locally to see who’s covering it and how, in case there’s room for collaboration, etc. — but there’s no obligation of any kind.”

A former Patcher insists there’s a way for these hyperlocal reporters to fulfill both missions. “You need to find a way to bring the [regional or state-level] story back to your community,” says the former Patch person. “Add some local feedback to the story on how the state budget cuts affect your town and school district, for example. But that’s not necessarily what happens.”

Why obsess over the dynamics of Huffington Post D.C.’s nexus with Patch? Because unless it figures out the partnership, Huffington Post D.C. will suffer from a lack of distinctiveness in a local news market packed with like-minded properties.

At its core, after all, Huffington Post D.C. is a white site speaking to a mostly white audience and in search of advertising dollars in the arts-entertainment-dining sector. It also goes heavy on quality-of-life/transit issues — guaranteed traffic drivers — and jumps on any regional story with talk value, like that one about that Spanish-language Redskins fight song.

That editorial profile, give or take, describes TBD, Washington City Paper, DCist, the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide and various blogs as well. (Disclosure: I previously worked for Washington City Paper and TBD).When they combine energies, these outlets can over-cover any minor culinary or entertainment event in town, especially if it’s the opening of a new chain restaurant or a tattoo-removal parlor. Once posted, the stories then get mutually aggregated by all these sites, just so they all can read one another’s stuff. (Maybe The Post, by going in a different direction — RootDC — had the right idea.)

DCist editor in chief Aaron Morrissey, though, says the addition of a new competitor brings good incentives: “From our perspective, the more material from other outlets that produce content which is unique drives us to produce more unique content as well.”

There’s a storyline that Huffington Post has got to like: Company built on aggregation pushes other outlets to do more original reporting. Now if Huffington Post D.C. could just get rid of those silly “WASHINGTON”* datelines on a site that has “D.C.” in the banner.

By  |  01:20 PM ET, 09/27/2011

 
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