When The Huffington Post was getting ready to launch Highline last year, its editors weren’t wringing their hands (publicly) about drawing tons of eyeballs to their stories.
Greg Veis and Rachel Morris, two transplants from the New Republic, just wanted to publish good, quality narrative journalism once a week. And they were betting readership would follow.
A year, dozens of stories and several journalism honors later, both say their bet has paid off.
“It’s always nice to have data support what you want to exist in the world,” Veis told Poynter in an interview Thursday.
Morris chimed in.
“At times you get really idealistic and think: Oh, people have this real hunger for things that are high quality and things that are gorgeously written,” she said. “And when it turns out that that’s it’s true, it’s really heartwarming.”
Although Morris and Veis declined to disclose traffic data, The Huffington Post says that stories from Highline — the company’s ambitious longform journalism venture — are consistently among the site’s best-read stories. Highline’s top performing stories include a harrowing narrative by Jason Cherkis examining the rape of Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs and an in-depth examination of child imprisonment that was a finalist for the Livingston Award. Clickbait this isn’t.
The early traction Highline has gotten among general-interest readers and media types alike might be the motivation for an announcement Thursday that The Huffington Post is bringing aboard three contributing writers to the longform venture. The announcement marks the first time Highline has retained consistent contributors for the section; each will write about three pieces for Highline on an annual basis. The writers are:
- Julia Ioffe, who recently wrote a much-discussed profile of Melania Trump and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and GQ, among others.
- Jason Fagone, a deep digger whose work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ and WIRED.
- Luke O’Brien, a contributor to POLITICO magazine, who has written profiles of Michael Bloomberg and Tina Brown.
Also coming aboard Highline as a contributing editor and producer is Michael Hobbes, who has written for The New Republic, Slate, Foreign Policy and Pacific Standard.
Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, said a longform venture in the mode of Highline was long in the making for HuffPost. The site had previously created The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a nonprofit venture that aimed to tackle “a wide-range of investigative journalism created by both staff reporters and freelance writers.”
“I had been wanting to build a longform department at HuffPost for a while and it was question of finding the right editors to lead it,” Huffington said. “During my conversations with Rachel and Greg after they left the New Republic, I knew that we had found the leaders we were waiting for, and everything they’ve done over the past year to build Highline has exceeded all our expectations.”
Highline’s success with longform content fits into a growing consensus that readers are willing to consume ruminative content in the age of the smartphone. A report from the Pew Research Center last week noted that readers spend more than twice the amount of time reading and scrolling through articles longer than 1,000 words than they do on short-form stories.
That trend also describes Highline. More than half of its audience reads on mobile, with the average person spending nearly 40 percent more time on a single Highline than other HuffPost stories, according to a statement from the company.
“Sometimes you just find these pockets of people who really care about these subjects,” Morris said. “And you didn’t even know they existed, but they find you and then they start sharing and the story takes on a life of its own.”
What’s next for Highline? In the coming year, Veis says he and Morris will push to do more multimedia work now that they’ve gotten their footing at a digital-first news organization and discarded some of their print-centric tendencies.
“We have learned so much in terms of how to tell these stories differently and how to create something that’s not just a print magazine story,” Veis said. “So that to me is the most important thing I’m excited about for Highline season two.”