The set of HuffPost Live, the 12-hour-per-day live news stream that launched last August, is separated from its newsroom by a transparent glass wall. Throw pillows cover tufted leather couches, oriental rugs lie under rough-hewn wooden coffee and side tables, and floating bookshelves line the clear walls—lending a hipster chic hotel-lobby vibe, which makes sense, considering the set was designed by the team behind trendy establishments like the Ace Hotel and the Standard.
In spite of this casually polished vintage aesthetic, there is an amateur quality to many of the HuffPost Live broadcasts, as “experts” (a term broadly defined) offer their opinions via Skype and video chat. Part radio-call in show, part curated chatroulette, part cable news, HuffPost Live has moments of profundity and moments of drivel. It is, in this way and many others, the Huffington Post come to life.
A recent panel about Rudy Giuliani, for example, featured six guests, most of whom were reporters calling in from their work desks or living rooms or possibly some local Starbucks. One reporter spoke into his cellphone, the glare of his computer screen visible in his glasses. Another reporter had his laptop at an odd angle, creating an unflattering facial effect that no traditional network would ever abide.
Even the formatting of the site is telling. The comments section is given greater prominence than the live cast—half the page is given over to real-time viewer discussion, while only the top-left quarter displays the actual show. The top-of-the-page banner displays a constant scroll of the “greenroom,” where commenters are invited to weigh in on segments before they even occur.
It may seem messy, but according to Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of the Huffington Post and president of HuffPost Live, that DIY aesthetic is all part of the plan.
“Marshall McLuhan famously said the medium is the message,” Mr. Sekoff told The Observer last week while sitting in his office overlooking the HuffPost Live set. “Well, I feel that sometimes the production value is the message. And the message here is: these are real people, and they’re in their space.”
In fact, real people everywhere are encouraged to participate. And not just as commenters but “on equal footing with our other guests,” as Arianna Huffington put it to us. Hosts read tweets and comments aloud and even allow them to guide some of the content. After watching a few hours of the live stream, one begins to wonder: are the inmates running the asylum?
When HuffPost Live launched last summer, the plan was for a constant live stream on which Huffington Post reporters, bloggers and editors would appear regularly, giving viewers “a real-time sense of what is happening on verticals all across HuffPost,” according to a press release.
The idea for HuffPost Live originated not long after AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million in early 2011. Arianna Huffington had taken charge of all of AOL’s editorial content, and informal conversations began at lower levels about how to start a video network.
“We felt that whatever it was, it had to be real-time, because that is so essential to what Huffington Post does,” said Gabriel Lewis, a co-creator of HuffPost Live and head of AOL Studios.
In May 2011, Messrs. Sekoff and Lewis presented their idea to Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong. And aside from a few name iterations, the final product has stayed pretty faithful to their original conception.
The site launched with a staff of 100, including 10 hosts/producers. Abby Huntsman (daughter of Jon Huntsman), Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who came from Al Jazeera, Janet Varney and Marc Lamont Hill, a veteran of Fox News and MSNBC, were among those hired to become the first faces of HuffPost Live.
There are no scheduled shows, just a constant stream of segments. And even community members—a k a commenters—can volunteer to go on air via an interactive button. (They go through a light vetting process before being cast, not unlike how one gets a blog on one of the Huffington Post’s many verticals.)
“I wanted a new audience and a new opportunity to do something ambitious that would be kind of like radio, kind of like TV, but more importantly bring new voices and diversify who is a media personality and who is a credible voice,” said Mr. Shihab-Eldin, who hosted The Stream on Al Jazeera and is an adjunct professor of digital journalism at Columbia’s J-School.
In addition to the commenter volunteers, many guests are Huffington Post bloggers and editors, or reporters from other outlets. They lend their expertise to segments that range from international politics and gay rights to Justin Bieber’s mom and the recent “Britney Spears In Bikini.”
Having hundreds of editors and writers just one floor away doesn’t hurt when it comes to booking guests for the show. After all, 12 hours is a lot of airtime to fill.
“We have the upstairs at HuffPost, which is filled with experts,” Mr. Sekoff said, pointing to the site’s vast newsroom. “If you’re the editor of a HuffPost section, you better be the most informed person on that topic, or you shouldn’t have that job.”
And beyond the ready-made guest list, it’s not for nothing that HuffPost Live has the backing of one of the most sprawling sites on the Internet.
“We wouldn’t have launched something this big if we didn’t know that we had HuffPost and AOL as great fire hoses of traffic with a lot of people coming to them, right?” Mr. Sekoff said. “We knew that we had a sort of built-in audience that we could hopefully attract to what we were going to do.”
The numbers seem to bear this out. Last November, they got 17 million views, according to comScore. By March, they claimed to be “trending towards” over 48 million views, although those figures comprise both clips displayed throughout the site and the live stream itself. They’ve had over 7,000 guests and garnered almost a million comments.
HuffPost has clearly invested a considerable sum in the venture. “When we first launched, there was something out there in terms of how much we cost, and we did not cost that much,” Mr. Lewis said of the $30 million figure cited in some early reports. “That’s as far as I will go.”
Still, hiring 100 staffers—many from established outlets like CNN and Al Jazeera—getting hip architects to design a New York City studio and newsroom, and developing a new, site-specific CMS (not to mention an L.A. bureau) can’t be cheap. It’s an investment that, one media observer pointed out, should speak for itself.
So while it remains unclear whether HuffPost Live is actually making money, for now that may be beside the point.
“Eventually, we all know, that mythic convergence that people have been talking about for God knows how long is happening,” Mr. Lewis said, referring to the integration of news across platforms. “So this is a little ahead of the game. We got a good jump-start.”
And they aren’t the only ones.
At a time when banner ads are getting dwindling returns, media outlets from The New York Times to Vice are beefing up their video departments to figure out how to cash in on online ads. Unlike print content and its corresponding banner ads, video creates a captive audience for advertisers, and pre-roll spots go for way more than traditional display ads.
“Online video ads is probably going to be the fastest-growing segment of the Internet this year in terms of percentage,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media. “There is an evolutionary process going on here, and as connection speeds get faster and you get more professionally made content, you are going to see more online ads.”
The Huffington Post seems to have gotten in on the game early, or at least early enough. Advertisers will pay more for viewer engagement, which, as the constant stream of comments attests, HuffPost Live has in spades. Whether video is a momentary gold rush or a long-lasting change in advertising dollars and news consumption is undetermined, but organizations are placing their bets.
HuffPost Live sells display advertising on the live stream’s main page and pre-roll commercials that run before on-demand clips. In general, pre-roll commercials run about $20 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) while display ads go for closer to a dollar, according to Media Kitchen’s president Barry Lowenthal, who advises brands on where to advertise.
Unlike banner ads, which are basically a web adaptation of magazine advertising, video is being heralded as the next frontier, which seems obvious when you consider that even legacy organizations are pouring money into video.
“If you have a video model, you can essentially run television commercials,” said Andrew Essex, CEO of advertising network Droga5. “The web is emulating TV more than it’s emulating print, in terms of its ad supported contextual structure.”
Mr. Adgate agreed with that assessment. “You are comparing online ads to video, but I’m looking at them and comparing them to television,” he said when we asked him to contrast display and video ads.
And therein might be the genius of HuffPost Live: by rolling for half of the day, it can provide virtually unlimited clips for the main site that can be teased out and used as content.
“We always designed it as a clip-generating machine, knowing that VOD is how people consume things online currently,” Mr. Lewis said. “And the live part is a longer game. Part of the thought behind those 12 hours was so we could generate those clips.”
So is HuffPost Live the answer to the vexing question of how to monetize video content? Well, maybe—if you’re the Huffington Post.
“For Huffington Post and AOL, this was the right solution for this particular business,” Mr. Lewis said. “Should every site launch a HuffPost Live? Probably not.”