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Huffpost UK exec editor Jess Brammar says 'old-fashioned tabloid values' are at its heart

As one of the new breed of digital-only news websites Huffpost UK draws natural comparisons with rival Buzzfeed, but according to executive editor Jess Brammar it is “most like the Mirror”.

“We have old-fashioned tabloid values at heart,” the former BBC Newsnight acting editor told Press Gazette. “We like delivering the news that our readers are really interested in.”

Brammar joined Huffpost UK as head of news in February last year under then-editor Polly Curtis.

She was made executive editor in March this year after Curtis left in October, and now heads up the editorial operation under editor-in-chief Jimmy Leach, who has a more strategic and commercially-minded role.

Her first 18 months at the website were about “consolidating our vision and talking about who we are now”, Brammar said.

It followed a “realignment” of the global newsbrand under US editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen, who took over from co-founder and namesake editor Ariana Huffington in late 2016.

Within six months Polgreen had rebranded the news group it to its more familiar nickname and in July this year Huffpost closed its free blogging platform, which had helped define its early identity.

‘Big established national brand’

Brammar, 37, said Huffpost UK had “really punched through in the last year” within the journalistic community. “People here notice what we are doing and get a sense of what we are about – that’s been the job,” she said.

“To be a really big established national brand is where I would like to take it in the next year.”

Huffpost UK now has 7m monthly unique views, 80 per cent of which come via mobile devices.

Despite losing its bloggers, Brammar said the site continues to put people first with a focus on communities, and has made a number of hires from regional newspapers to prove it.

Ham and High editor Ramzy Alwakeel comes on board as news editor next month, joining former Archant colleague and Paul Foot Award-winner Emma Youle and ex-Lancashire Post journalist Aasma Day.

Said Brammar: “I think it goes back to quality in-depth reporting that is based out in communities but is done in a digital way – with the deftness and savvy of reporters who understand how to speak to digital audiences.

“That felt like a space that we could own. The next year is about living that and seeing what works and what doesn’t work for us with that space.”

London bubble ‘challenge’

Brammar said reporters from “really great regional newsrooms” have a good understanding of community-based news values.

“It isn’t a strategy of hiring people only from local papers,” she added.

“It just happens that when they apply I find generally it has been very successful to have people who have done well at local papers because they understand how to do news stories that resonate with communities.”

Huffpost UK, like many other London-based news outlets – its newsroom is in Holborn – continues to battle the effects of the so-called “London bubble”, which has been blamed for the media’s failure to foresee Brexit.

Brammar said while it is a “challenge” to look beyond London, “the Brexit story isn’t just happening in Westminster”, adding: “Things feel and look quite different from different parts of the country.”

Physically placing reporters outside of London is one way of tackling the issue because it “changes their centre of gravity and the stories they are hearing and reading”, said Brammar.

Day is based in Preston while former Bristol Post reporter Sarah Turnnidge is in Bristol, although Birmingham-based reporter Armadeep Hassey has left Huffpost UK without being replaced.

Another tactic is moving the whole newsroom to a different location, which Huffpost UK did when it opened a pop-up newsroom in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre for one week last summer.

Media must diversify to ‘survive and thrive’

For Brammar, newsroom diversity is crucial to the media’s survival in the face of market challenges that have wiped millions from publishers’  balance sheets and continue to disrupt traditional business models.

“I genuinely believe that journalism needs to open up and diversify in order to survive and thrive,” she said.

“It needs to talk to people and be relevant to people or they are simply not going to read journalism. The best way to do that is to build newsrooms that look like the communities that want to read us.”

She described Huffpost UK as the most female newsroom she has ever worked in – more than half of the 40-strong editorial team are women – and “refreshingly non-Oxbridge”.

But she said she would like it to have more ethnic minority journalists.

Brammar said she also recognises the “democratic deficit” left behind by the shrinking of the local news industry, with a net loss of nearly 250 local titles since 2005 according to Press Gazette research.

She said Huffpost UK’s “What it’s like to lose” series came from the “niggling feeling that austerity wasn’t being publicised”.

“That’s about saying sometimes, for wider stories like this, we have to turn traditional news values on their head,” she said.

“If you only approach it on the scale that would make it traditionally a good news story then you are missing important stories in those communities that have to be told.”

On the print / broadcast divide and Twitter

Although Brammar began her journalism career in broadcast, she told Press Gazette she had “always been driven by telling interesting stories” with the medium in which they were told “an afterthought”.

The former ITN producer said she believes the rigid divide between print and broadcast journalists will fall away in the coming decades as audiences increasingly dip in and out between both media, particularly on mobile.

“Now we are competing with a lot more than our rivals in the news industry,” she said, pointing to the likes of Netflix and Instagram.

As part of this, Huffpost UK’s centre for journalism, established in partnership with Birmingham City University and launched this term, is offering multi-platform journalism training to students.

“That feels like a more natural way for journalists to be trained,” said Brammar.

When it comes to platforms, Brammar said Twitter had “in many ways not been great for journalism”, having blurred the line between comment and reporting which had confused readers.

“It’s been a massive challenge and continues to be for journalism,” she said.

But the social media site is still a “fantastic platform” to get stories out and is “great for newsgathering”, Brammar added.

“It’s almost not worth having a positive or negative take on it. It just is part of what we do now. We just have to use it in a sensible and proportionate way.”

She added: “We have really moved away from the early days of digital where people sat on Twitter gathering everything online.

“You can get incredible eye-witnesses [on Twitter]… but you can never replace knocking on the door or going and talking to people.”

Picture: Huffpost

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