Having made its name as a home for liberals and the blog posts of coastal elites, the recently renamed HuffPost is seeking to reinforce its new, less partisan image with a seven-week bus tour through Middle America to “listen and learn what it what it means to be American today,” the site will announce on Thursday.
A traveling party of rotating HuffPost staff members led by editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen will visit more than 20 cities, eschewing the coasts for the likes of Fort Wayne, Ind., Oxford, Miss., and Odessa, Texas. At each city, the site will host events, roll out planned stories with local media outlets, send out reporters to write about the communities and collect stories from residents “in their own words.”
It’s a unique project for a media organization that made its name as the crusading home for progressives, even attaching a note to each story during the election about then-candidate Donald Trump calling him a “xenophobe,” “racist” and “misogynist.” (The tag was removed on Election Day.) Founder Arianna Huffington created The Huffington Post in 2004 to be a liberal version of the Drudge Report.
But Huffington left her namesake site last year to found a new health-and-wellness start-up, leaving the renamed HuffPost in the hands of Polgreen, formerly of The New York Times, and chief executive Jared Grusd, who are reshaping the site’s identity.
“This would be identity defining for HuffPost,” said Polgreen in an interview. “We are in a moment for [determining] our own identity and the role we play in the overall news ecosystem and what the next iteration of that looks like. And this felt like a great way to go out and … report out the story of who we should be in the world.”
Though many of the cities the group is visiting voted for Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, all but two of the states went to Trump. But Polgreen says they’re not visiting “Trump country,” pointing to a reason for each city or state on the tour like an interesting community college system in Fort Wayne or Detroit’s large Arab-American population. Hillary Frey, HuffPost’s director of editorial strategy who came up with the bus tour idea, also pointed out that logistically it didn’t make sense to go to the corners of the country where the distance from one city to the next would be too far.
“We were basically looking at a pretty eclectic mix of communities that represent a lot of different facets of American life,” Polgreen said. "All of these ideological divisions [in the media] are confusing right now and for me it’s less about left or right — it’s who are you more oriented toward, more oriented to the interest of the wealthy and powerful or are you orientated toward the people who are not in the top 20 percent."
For Polgreen the HuffPost has always been “about listening and having an ear to the ground” through their contributor network. The bus tour, she said, would give a real-life version of that contributor network "to go out into the country and really listen to these people’s voices in a direct and in person way.”
Polgreen pointed to The Atlantic’s James Fallows’ three-year tour of the country in a single-engine plane he piloted as inspiration.
"A lot of us are thinking about journalism and how journalism relates to people’s lives and this project was really a direct result of that, wanting to get out into the country and hear from people about the things that mattered most to them rather than us deciding from our office in the East Village what are the stories that are most important to Americans and hear what people have to say,” she said. “So much of journalism today is elites speaking to elites and I see the role of HuffPost as speaking for really everyone.”
Media organizations have been criticized for parachuting journalists into areas where there normally little national media presence, instead of actually hiring a correspondent who lives and works in those communities. While Polgreen acknowledged that the bus tour is in a way, drive-by journalism, she pointed out that HuffPost is partnering with local news organizations and hopes to use the tour to inform their hiring decisions in the future.
“As we expand to places beyond the coasts we’re going to use what we learned on this trip to decide where to deploy people,” Polgreen said. “This is less about were hear and parachute in to do the stories as it is we’re here to understand and listen and use what we learned to figure out what positive role can we play.”
Salena Zito, a columnist for the New York Post and Washington Examiner who lives near Pittsburgh and rose to prominence last year through her reporting showing a clear path for Donald Trump to win the presidency, said that real investment in local media by hiring reporters has the better pay-off, though a listening tour can be an important step in understanding local issues and problems.
“The attempt is important. It’s a recognition that there needs to be a better understanding of different cultures in the country,” Zito said. “It depends on their approach. If it’s a lot of grandstanding associated with it, that might take away what their ultimate goal is, which is to have a better understanding of the people and culture outside of Washington and New York.”
Two sources with knowledge of the tour said its total price tag could be near $1 million, which will come just weeks after the HuffPost newsroom was hit with some 39 layoffs as part of parent company Verizon Communications Inc.’s acquisition of Yahoo. A HuffPost spokesperson declined to comment on the cost of the tour, but Polgreen rejected the notion that the bus tour will suck up money that could be used for hiring more journalists.
“As part of the merger there were layoffs — that does not mean we’re not investing in hiring more journalists in addition to undertaking this really cool project. The things are not mutually exclusive,” she said. "I reject the notion that this is somehow an either-or. I think this a both-and.”