From prioritizing diversity to a bottom-up editorial process and using traditional marketing practices to develop journalistic stories, HuffPost Canada was a digital-first innovator. Then it was shut down.
It’s now been a year since the small newsroom closed. Trying to make a big impact, HuffPost Canada fought against the narrative that it prioritized free content over quality journalism. Those who worked there thought they were playing an important role. Now that it’s shuttered, they’re moving on to different newsrooms, bringing experience that could influence practice across Canadian media.
I undertook interviews with HuffPost Canada employees as part of data gathering for the Journalistic Role Performance project, an international effort between 37 countries exploring if there’s a gap in journalistic ideals compared to practice.
After collecting thousands of stories in 2020, then coding them and surveying journalists from the news organizations who produced those stories, we’re now getting to the analysis stage. And, by coincidence, we captured some of the last days of HuffPost Canada.
A different kind of newsroom culture
With wood-planked floors, high ceilings, exposed brick and lots of natural light, HuffPost Canada had a different look and feel to it than many legacy news organizations. It was less utilitarian, more a place you’d want to hang out even if you weren’t working.
Another reason was the young and diverse staff.
Although some strides have been made industry-wide in terms of newsroom diversity, there’s still a long way to go based on a recent report from the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Of the more than 200 Canadian newsrooms that participated in its survey, almost half “exclusively employ white journalists.” About 90 per cent have no Latin, Middle Eastern or mixed race journalists, about 80 per cent have no Black or Indigenous journalists and about two thirds have no Asian journalists.
At HuffPost Canada, the focus on diversity didn’t stop with the people working in the newsroom, but flowed through to the use of sources and experts. One HuffPost Canada editor said:
“Our big thing is that we normalize diversity. We don’t have special sections, we just do it — and if that approach can influence other media, that’s a marker of success for us.”
In terms of newsroom hierarchy, one reporter said there was a “striking difference” at HuffPost Canada compared to legacy newspapers. At her previous job, the editorial process was completely top-down: decisions about what was covered were based on what editors “felt” should get published. At HuffPost Canada, the reporter was able to come up with their own ideas.
More than meets the eye
A study participant from another news outlet acknowledged HuffPost Canada did some good work, but questioned why it was part of our research. He said they were “national” only because anybody could “click on them” but their “reportorial footprint” was “pretty thin.”
Addressing this perception, one HuffPost Canada editor said it was a small team and there was “no illusion” that they could cover everything. They relied on agencies like the Canadian Press for stories they didn’t have the resources for and encouraged reporters to focus on what they were passionate about and develop stories they’d be “remembered for.”
He stressed they weren’t just going for “cheap clicks” and that speaking “truth to power” and giving a “voice to the voiceless” was their “brand.” However, he also said there was no shame in doing viral stories and didn’t understand why they were somehow considered “dirty” or labelled as “clickbait.”
My observations echoed his statement. At an editorial meeting I attended, there was a lot of talk about what was trending, but there was also a lot of discussion about politics, including an investigative piece coming out of Ottawa.
Most news organizations collect demographics to help better understand who their audience is. HuffPost Canada went beyond this, using data to create profiles of imaginary readers like Adam, a middle-aged millennial who had a partner named Taylor, and Adela, a young millennial who was on Instagram at 10 p.m. Before starting a story, reporters were supposed to use these imaginary profiles to “put a face” to the specific segment of the audience they were writing for.
Its understanding of its audience allowed HuffPost Canada to recognize that topics considered “lighter” or less “important” by other news outlets — like parenting — were actually important to its readers. One editor said that they always asked two questions about their content: “How does this affect me and why should I care?”
The editor said HuffPost Canada focused on making content as accessible as possible for readers, noting that information shouldn’t only be for those who can afford subscriptions or have a certain reading comprehension level. Serving only the most educated and affluent news consumers, and the use of paywalls in journalism, have both been noted as growing concerns by the Reuters Institute of Journalism.
Building community was important at HuffPost Canada. On a Facebook page they hosted dedicated to housing, for example, information was shared no matter where it came from, including other news organizations. Additionally, they responded to corrections from readers to try and “show a human face.”
A lasting legacy
I’m sure there were downsides to working at HuffPost Canada. As a former journalist, I’ve seen a laundry list of serious issues play out in a newsroom. However, I didn’t get to spend enough time there to get the full picture —particularly for those who might have been doing contract or freelance work.
But they undoubtedly exemplified priorities and practices that should be reproduced in other newsrooms: amplifying diverse voices, connecting with the community and breaking from traditional formats to engage more deeply with their audience.
When asked to describe the impact of the closure of HuffPost Canada, one study participant emailed this response:
“We combined relevance with irreverence, having fun with the news when appropriate, and digging in with our considerable editorial talents on investigations whenever possible. We prioritized diverse communities’ perspectives and sought out — and featured — the voices not often heard from, and Canadians are seeing less of that without HuffPost Canada‘s contributions to the landscape. That feels like the greatest loss, and hopefully as our journalists and editors get snapped up by other outlets, is a change that’s soon seen elsewhere.”
I hope so, too.
The JRP Canada study has received funding from Mitacs, Centre d'études sur les médias, X (also known as Ryerson) University, and Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.