In 2014, HuffPost Live will try to turn cool ideas into a sustainable business
When HuffPost Live launched in August 2012, it was an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. Twelve hours of livestreamed content per weekday with hopes to expand to 16. Studios and fully staffed newsrooms in New York and Los Angeles. A whole new way to watch and deliver news that was digitally native, interactive, and not bound by the time slot or format constraints of traditional cable news networks.
Sixteen months later, HuffPost Live has changed a bit. Several hosts have moved on to places like MSNBC, Fusion and Pivot TV. The L.A. studio is closed (though the Washington, D.C., office just got a new studio) and the livestream has been cut back to eight hours. The free-flowing, boundless nature of HuffPost Live's programming has been given a bit more structure.
"It's in a different place now than it was three or six months ago," said Danny Shea, who became HuffPost Live's editorial director in August. Shea, who began at Huffington Post in 2005 as an intern and has worked his way up the editorial food chain, has had an unofficial role in HuffPost Live since its launch. Now he's charged with "trying to bring more of the HuffPost voice and sensibility and tone and story selection and just sort of HuffPost DNA to HuffPost Live."
HuffPost Live is also trying to position some of its coverage ahead of the news curve rather than as a response or follow-up to what's trending on the site. HuffPost Live producers met with Huffington Post's editorial staff on a recent gun violence series, for instance, trying to figure how to best integrate HuffPost Live's series into Huffington Post's coverage (which has its own vertical) as the anniversary of the Newtown shooting approached.
"I think that integration has been a big part of our growth," HuffPost Live co-creator and president Roy Sekoff said. "That's what we've gotten better at."
And there has been growth. A record number of video views in November (just under 109 million, 510 percent more than this time last year, Sekoff said), which beat the previous record set in October, which beat the previous record set in August. And the channel has also been able to drum up -- and maintain -- advertiser interest. Citi, for example, just renewed its sponsorship of HuffPost Live's music series, with eight more parts scheduled to run between January and April.
HuffPost Live has yet to make a profit, but Sekoff said it's actually "ahead of schedule" to do so (he declined to go into specifics).
"We wouldn't have launched something this audacious if we didn't have the knowledge that we have this great platform in the Huffington Post and in AOL," Sekoff said. "We knew if we could tap into those audiences that already existed and already showed a desire and a hunger for video, then we'd be in a very good place."
The timing couldn't be better. BuzzFeed says digital video is "set to take over the world." Mobile use has grown exponentially as well in the last year. Ad revenues, too: according to the Internet Advertising Bureau's most recent report, mobile ad revenue skyrocketed, up 145 percent from the same time last year to $3 billion. Digital video ad revenue was up 24 percent, to $1.3 billion.
As more traditional brands like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times continue to develop and refine their efforts to corner that market, brand new digital news companies have entered the arena. Venture capital firms are putting money into video news startups. It's safe to assume that they're expecting a positive return on that investment.
At least $10 million of venture capital has gone into startup NowThis News, which launched in the fall of 2012. NowThis also has some Huffington Post DNA; it was co-founded by Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer and former CEO Eric Hippeau. Like HuffPost Live, NowThis aims to be the mobile video news source for its viewers, though its take on reinventing broadcast news is quite different.
NowThis News is focused on creating bite-sized news clips (upwards of 70 a day) tailored to the platform that distributes them. Instagram users can get their news in 15 seconds or less. Vine viewers get it in six, somehow. If HuffPost Live is for the Web and mobile viewer, NowThis is for the social mobile viewer.
"We wanted to create short-form social video content that ultimately is a utility for people who don't necessarily have a lot of time on their hands," said Steven Belser, NowThis News' VP of production and creative services.
NowThis now boasts between 10 and 12 million views a month on its website and app, though Belser said the real number is probably much higher, as that doesn't count views on the many platforms on which NowThis is often viewed (Vine, Snapchat and Instagram, for instance). And, of course, there are all those other media companies NowThis has partnered with, such as BuzzFeed and Atlantic Media.
"The average mobile session length in the news space is quite short, and quite often it's determined by your environment," Belser said. "We want to offer you a variety of content options that vary in length to help you maximize your experience."
HuffPost Live does this, too, though it makes clips out of its livestream. "We do more quick hits, if you will, that we can mine for good VOD [video on demand] play," Sekoff said. "And then we're really leaning in to our longer form programming."
Longer form programming? That seems a bit counterintuitive. According to comScore, the average length of online videos has decreased, from 6.7 minutes in July 2012 to 5.1 minutes in October 2013. A New York Times article (from 2010) said almost 20 percent of viewers stop watching an online video after just 10 seconds. Forty-four percent stop watching after a minute.
Surely, everyone is going shorter these days? Maybe not as short as a NowThis News Vine, but there's the New York Times Minute, which debuted last month. Executive editor Jill Abramson said at the time it would be "a quick and useful way to keep up with the news." E.W. Scripps just paid $35 million for Newsy, a video news company that curates video news from a variety of sources into short "video news bites," usually less than two minutes in length. The sale should go through within days of the closure of the Scripps' wire service.
"I know a lot of people are focused on making short videos and making everything as short and tight as possible -- and that's great," Sekoff said. "But where does that then go to in a bigger place? That's what, I think, we're able to do. We have both. We have something that you could sit back and watch for an hour or two … Or something that you can grab on your phone while you're waiting in line."
"I'm incredibly proud of them," Sekoff said of the series. "They're smart, they're insightful, they're incredibly moving and to me that would be like a signature that we can do."
Conversation still makes up a good part of HuffPost Live's content. And for people with more patience, the longer segments are real conversations where guests have time to breathe – and those can produce news, too. Actor Chris Noth recently stopped by the studio and made two newsworthy pronouncements: that the director of his Sex and the City film told him to lose some weight before shooting began, and that the GOP and the Tea Party were racist. Both of those made headlines in several other outlets.
"I think that's really important for building the HuffPost Live brand," Shea said.
And, as the HuffPost Live brand is inextricably tied with the Huffington Post brand, it's going to do more global content, too, making use of Huffington Post's partner newsrooms all over the world as part of the new WorldPost initiative. It'll give HuffPost Live some local reporting on its global stories, of which we'll be seeing more.
Global coverage, too, seems counter-intuitive. Why invest in international coverage when the prevailing sentiment is that Americans don't want to watch it? As Pew Research Center's most recent "State of the Media" report says: "in 2012, Americans were far more interested in domestic news stories than foreign ones."
"Traditionally, media companies and networks have assumed that audiences don't care," Shea said. "I am a believer that Americans today care about world news because the world is smaller and because people are just more aware of the world."
There's also a significant international viewership. Shea said 40 percent of HuffPost's audience comes from outside the United States. "That's obviously a growth area," Sekoff said. In the last fifteen months, the network has hosted over 10,500 guests from over 90 countries. The increased access to broadband internet and webcam apps like Skype and Google Hangout make it relatively easy for HuffPost Live to see – and be seen by – people all over the world.
Belser's noticed a global audience for NowThis News, too. "There are countries that are exponentially higher on the social sharing scale than the US," he said, citing countries in the Middle East and South America (Brazil, for instance, is "one of the most sociable countries").
HuffPost Live will also make a big push to get college students watching and contributing – people who aren't so much "cord-cutters" as "cord-nevers," Shea said. People who don't necessarily have pre-conceived notions of what news programming is supposed to be. That's a good audience to target: thirty-four percent of millennials watch mostly online video or no broadcast television.
And there will be slightly more structure, which should help build up HuffPost Live's live audience (clips account for "most" HuffPost Live's views). Sekoff once said "we don't do shows." Now, it's "we're trying to do a little bit more programming that is not exactly tightly scheduled but you know [it'll be on around a certain time]," Sekoff said. "At the end of the day, people like that when it comes to the live part of it."
WorldBrief, which usually provides some of HuffPost Live's most popular clips, will continue in that vein. A Washington-centric show will be coming soon as well.
You might also see HuffPost Live on cable. A deal with Mark Cuban's AXS TV, announced back in April, is still going forward, Sekoff said – though it has changed. The original plan was to air six hours of HuffPost Live content every weekday.
"That didn't work out for a variety of reasons," Sekoff said. Though it's still an "ongoing process" to work out exactly how HuffPost Live and AXS will work together, Sekoff said that current hope is to make a "bespoke," dedicated show for AXS.
"I really want to be the Internet's video news network," Shea said. "I want to be the sensibility of the Internet and Huffington Post brought to life in video."
HuffPost Live has had sixteen months to find its footing. Now it's time to see if Shea and Sekoff can develop that Huffington Post sensibility into a sustainable business.