From France comes the mildly surprising news that Le Huffington Post has become the country’s premier online-only news source.
Figures released this morning by Médiamétrique/Netratings show that the site received 1.916 million unique visitors in July 2012, beating Rue 89 (1.476m unique users), one of France’s most popular websites, into second place. The rest of the rankings see Le Nouvel Observateur’s site Le Plus in third place (1.262m), Atlantico (1.258m) in fourth, fifth place taken by Slate France (966,000) and paying site Médiapart comes sixth with 578,000 unique visitors.
The success of the Huffington brand is not a shock in and of itself. In its prime, Le HuffPo’s US parent-site was able to surpass even The New York Times’s traffic rate and its mix of serious news, gossip, celebrity columnists, freelance (mainly unpaid) contributors and social media interaction means that The Huffington Post’s premise is one that has been rolled out around the world. However, only two months ago a review of France’s newest online information sites suggested that Le Huffington Post was still trailing behind its main rivals, with 6.7 total visitors and 14 million page views to Rue89’s 10 million visits and 37 million views.
News that the site now dominates the French online news arena is also striking because France’s web-based press is generally perceived to be a crowded market and a platform for hard-hitting journalism and serious content. Not exactly a category The Huffington Post naturally falls into. While Rue89 was honoured at this year’s Online Journalism Awards for "general excellence" as the best non-Anglophone news site, Arianna Huffington’s business was been widely denigrated by some of the media world’s most respected figures. Bill Keller famously penned an article describing the media maven as “the queen of aggregation… who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.”
How then to explain the frequently fluffy HuffPo France’s achievement?
Since its French debut the site has generated a healthy flow of traffic. By February, a month after it went online, Le Huffington Post recorded 4.2 million unique users, 5.6 million visits in total and 11.2 million page views. At barely four weeks old, the youngest member of the French pure-player family was ranked 12th out of the Hexagon’s 50 most-visited news sites. The impressive stats were not however solely attributable to the efforts of Le HuffPost. In France, the site works in partnership with Le Monde and the agreement between the two publications saw Le Huffington Post take over the French newspaper’s pre-existing news site, Lepoint.fr. Visitors to Le Point were redirected to Le HuffPo’s homepage, which undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the new website’s traffic levels.
Controversy surrounding the appointment of Anne Sinclair, wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as editorial director served to add to the hype that preceded the site’s launch, raising Le HuffPo’s profile before it had even begun posting. And yet nine months down the line, it is a little more difficult to attribute to the curiosity factor. Sinclair’s contacts in the world of politics is in all likelihood a key reason for the website’s ability to recruit a wealth of prominent politicians as guest bloggers and a comparison with the fortunes of its British counterpart goes a long way to explaining why Le Huffington Post is giving its French competitors a run for their money.
Questioned by The Times, Senior Vice President of AOL Huffington Post Media Group Jimmy Maymann pointed to a lack of contacts and networks on the British political scene: “We still need to see more agenda-setting and more breaking news. Just like Arianna knows everybody on Capitol Hill, we need somebody who knows everyone in Westminster and can bring in stories. In the UK, we didn’t go out and hire a local ‘Arianna’ — we went with a promising new talent instead as editor-in-chief.” The estranged wife of the former head of the IMF, Sinclair certainly has the connections to qualify as France’s Ms. Huffington.
The Huffington Post UK has come in for much criticism from the British press, in no small part because of its apparent lack of innovation. Though the US news scene may have been crying out for a liberal media voice when Arianna Huffington first created the HuffPo brand, Britain was well-served by The Guardian’s digital offering, leading to comments that a similar competing site was redundant. Comscore figures show that at present online titles such as The Telegraph garner eight times the number of unique monthly visitors who frequent HuffPo UK, and there is speculation that AOL’s decision not to team up with a national news title is directly responsible for the disappointing browser statistics.
In the same way that the UK site’s inability to offer British consumers a different perspective on the news is largely responsible for its lack of impact, the very fact that Le HuffPo’s "softer" content exploits a niche in the French online news market may be a central facet of its current success. Appealing to a gap in the market was the secret to the original Huffington Post’s success state-side, though said gap was a political, not editorial, one.
Médiamétrique’s data could not have come at a better time for Ms Huffington, who unveiled L’Huffington Post in Italy two days ago. Produced in association with Gruppo L’Espresso, publisher of La Repubblica and L’Espresso, the site is already being suggested as a potential "game changer" for the Italian media landscape.