HuffPost’s Rebrand Is Everything Wrong With “The Media”

Meme-ified new look doesn’t take the news seriously

The Huffington Post, a digital native news brand often known for click-bait headlines and its tabloid-style homepage, is now HuffPost. The brand has received a makeover, officially shortening its title to its fan-given nickname and redesigning its website.

Each time a major brand gets this kind of overhaul, there’s always a conversation from design professionals and couch critics alike about whether it’s a “good” rebrand. So, of course, I’ll take a turn: while I find the aesthetics of HuffPost’s rebrand generally inoffensive to the eye, I think the message it sends doubles down on the often problematic HuffPost ethos, rather than creating a turning point for the site as all brand communications suggest.

The HuffPost ethos, of course, is summed up by their “splash,” the large, leading headline and image that sits atop their website to announce the biggest story of the moment. These headlines are at once a shout-out to their tabloid-inspired roots and a built-in meme machine. It now is the main emblem of their brand, taking up nearly all the “above-the-fold” space on their homepage and becoming shareable through “splash cards.”

“The splash is really the best of our editorial voice. It’s funny, immediate, bold, of the moment,” Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab. “In thinking about who we are, this is the best reflection of it from a product perspective.”

In a rebrand announcement by HuffPost’s media writer Michael Calderone, “[Editor-in-Chief Lydia] Polgreen said her ideal HuffPost splash is ‘a combination of a great headline and a great image that has an almost meme-like quality, which would be instantly shareable and always have the potential to go viral.’”

The splash, however, is the shallowest form of communication. This meme-ification of news requires little more than an instant of recognition, rather than true textual comprehension or analysis, and distills facts, debate and nuance into a punchline. It’s the image of the content they want you to share, not, necessarily, the content itself. Rather than focus on creating a solid product — journalism itself — this strategy focuses on the packaging, the selling of that information as entertainment, as something fun to check out while you scroll endlessly onward into apathy and low-level understanding of the world around you.

How can we expect journalism to engender engaged, informed citizens when we rely on headlines, the first stop on a reader’s journey, to entertain us rather than to inform? How can we expect readers to take the news seriously when our editors are brainstorming how to turn it all into a viral joke?

As late media critic Neil Postman would surely agree, the popularity of this feature (popularity being a key reason why the redesign focused on the splash) is further proof we’re Amusing Ourselves To Death.

While Beizer and Polgreen remark that the new logo and HuffPost typeface hearken back to the “great equalizing tabloids” of the ‘70’s to which they aspire (“We no longer need to have the look and feel of newspaper to have the same credibility,” Beizer told NiemanLab), I’d argue they look more like the Impact font commonly used in memes, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The press tour Polgreen has run about the rebrand is thus contradictory: she continually says she’s determined to help restore trust in media while literally turning the news into memes for clicks.

She told The Cut,

But because I spent most of my childhood in Kenya and Ghana and most of my career as a foreign correspondent, I’ve thought a lot about how important it is for people to have access to high-quality journalism at every level of the socio-economic ladder.
I saw an opportunity both in a civic and in a business sense to create a news organization that speaks directly to the lived experience of people who are probably never going to be Wall Street Journal or New York Times or Washington Post subscribers. And it seemed to me that HuffPost was a unique platform to experiment with the idea of a news organization that’s focused on everybody else.

In her Letter From the Editor about the rebrand, she writes,

Facts and truth are basic elements of the news. But they alone are not enough. Emotion, humor and empathy are also essential ingredients of journalism that helps you know what’s real. It’s no wonder so many people these days get their news from comedy shows.
How can we become better listeners? How can we serve you, our audience, better? We’re doubling down on our bold, splashy style, and serving up the news with a sense of humor, outrage and empathy.

Emotion, humor, outrage, empathy… I would certainly argue that these are not “essential ingredients of journalism that helps you know what’s real,” but rather the essential ingredients of running a site that trades emotional appeals for ad dollars. There is no way to build trust in “the media” when you’re peddling in your readers’ impulse clicks and watering down complex issues into share-friendly imagery.

Sure, humor can be the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down when it comes to hard news. But relying on the meme-ification of news as a business model while selling the notion you’re speaking for the people is frankly despicable.