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How Will Arianna Huffington’s Departure Affect the Huffington Post’s DC Bureau?

It's been a relative island of calm in an always-changing organization. Will that continue?
Arianna Huffington in 2013. Photograph by Sven Hoppe/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.

When Arianna Huffington surprised her staff by announcing Thursday that she planned to leave the Huffington Post, the publication she founded in 2005, journalists in its DC bureau had some good reasons to worry. The publication’s office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, has always been a relatively stable workplace compared to its New York headquarters. Remember Jimmy Soni? Huffington’s weird initiatives around sleep and icky partnership with Uber? The parade of top editors from legacy news orgs? Chaos tended to be a New York production.

The DC office, by contrast, has been boring in the way that journalists love (we like chaos in the workplaces of others, not our own). It’s a place where reporters and editors can often pursue what interests them and the chain of command is usually clear–a contrast to New York, where even now, with a fairly stable group of people in charge, DC employees say it can seem like there are a lot of people with similarly important-sounding titles. Those same people say managers like DC bureau chief Ryan Grim, politics managing editor Amanda Terkel, senior politics editor Sam Stein, and enterprise editor Kate Sheppard have consistently formed a human shield against some of the flakier initiatives blowing from the north.

They haven’t been able to stop everything–the silly decision to cover Donald Trump in HuffPost’s entertainment section came from Huffington herself, people in DC say, and she also reportedly meddled with Jason Cherkis‘s 20,000-word story about heroin treatment (an eventual Pulitzer finalist), throwing roadblocks in its way in part because she disagreed with its skepticism toward 12-step programs.

The DC bureau made it through those incidents relatively unscathed, even in an election year that’s been kind of star-crossed for the organization. It lost Jon Ward, a reporter deeply sourced on the right, to Yahoo in 2014; his replacement, Scott Conroy, got whisked away by Vice in late spring.  S.V. Date is now in that spot, and his colleagues say he’s doing a fine job without the benefit of a head start. Still, a lot of big stories have skipped HuffPost reporters in this campaign season, and its politics section has lots of stories that appear to have been engineered more to work well on readers’ Facebook feeds than to shake the system. Some people there say that interpretation is incorrect, and that the publication was responsible for some important stories–sussing out Ted Cruz‘s long game back in October, for example, or Conroy and video producer Sam Wilkes‘ video of Chris Christie talking about drug addiction.

Grim, Stein, and Terkel are part of the new interim editorial leadership, and they’ll work alongside New York folks: Executive Editor Liz Heron, front page editor Whitney Snyder, news director Katie Nelson, and editorial director for lifestyle Kate Palmer. That’s going to tie the two offices together in a way they may not have been before.

Which might not be a problem. HuffPost staffers blame a lot of New York’s early bumpiness on hires like Tim O’Brien and Peter Goodman, who came from the New York Times in 2011 to add a professional veneer to the then-more-freewheeling publication, and, these sources say, couldn’t build newsrooms that outlasted them. Heron, Palmer, Nelson, Snyder–these are people folks in DC tend to like working with. Now a lot of the uncertainty comes from higher up the org chart–Verizon bought HuffPost’s corporate parent AOL last year and plans to acquire Yahoo; in that corporate structure, “there will be a new set of fiefdoms and power structures,” Peter Kafka reported Thursday. Filling open positions has been frustratingly slow across the organization in recent months; HuffPost media reporter Michael Calderone says company CEO Jared Grusd assured employees in an all-hands meeting Thursday that hiring would pick up.

None of these things need to be impediments to journalists doing good work, particularly when they’re located 200 miles south of the storm. Distractions just become a problem if they become, you know, distracting. And in the spirit of those, here’s one more: In Politico’s media newsletter Friday morning, reporter Joe Pompeo floated a scenario: What if Grim is named Huffington’s successor, and the DC office essentially takes over New York? Palmer and Heron are other top contenders, Pompeo wrote.

I put all this stuff to the Huffington Post, but it declined to comment.

So. Who knows. In a memo to staffers following an all-hands meeting Thursday, Grusd listed five points of focus that would determine the organization’s future. “Owning news and politics” was first, and “Differentiating ourselves by focusing on wellness and solutions”–both signature Arianna Huffington editorial initiatives–was last. If you’re in the news-and-politics-focused DC bureau, that order of priorities probably seems pretty good to you. As does this line: “HuffPost is about so much more than any single person.”

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.