Back in the Game  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2011

Back in the Game   

Melinda Henneberger, whose Politics Daily site on AOL was a casualty of the Huffington Post merger, returns to action with the Washington Post. Tues., October 18, 2011

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      


Politics Daily, Melinda Henneberger's widely respected venue for politics on AOL.com, became collateral damage of the AOL-Huffington Post merger in February.

Now Henneberger has returned to the fray. Last week she started work for the Washington Post, where she'll write political profiles and launch a blog during the heated 2012 presidential election season. Her debut article last week tackled the question of whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry really wants the Republican nomination. Mostly, she says, she's excited to help out wherever she's needed.

"I think this is an all-hands-on moment for newspapers, and I just couldn't be happier with the fit," Henneberger says.

Henneberger says the Post approached her after the AOL/Huffington Post merger. Though the discussions carried on for some time, Henneberger says joining the Post was always a clear choice in her mind. "I wanted to do it and they wanted to do it since the first time we talked," she says. "It was more about how to make it work than whether to make it work."

Kevin Merida, national editor at the Post, says he has admired Henneberger's work for a long time. "She's a veteran journalist with political experience," he says. "She's a wonderful writer, and she's really good at finding stories and seeing politics in a way that's not always obvious."

Though the details are still being worked out, Henneberger says she is excited to get started with a blog, which was a major draw for her. Though she'll be doing all sorts of writing in her new position, she says she is keen to carry on a piece of the work she had done before at AOL.

The idea is based on the Woman Up blog that ran on Politics Daily. The blog was provocative and engaging, Merida says, and was able to reach women who are interested in political news but might not always find it in the form they want it.

The blog will maintain some of the original writers, but Henneberger is also eager to tap into the female talent pool at the Post. "The women there will probably be afraid to go to the bathroom and get hit up by me." Henneberger says. "I have a long list of women I'm greedy to have contribute."

Henneberger, who started telling people when she was three that she wanted to work for a newspaper, had stints at the New York Times and Newsweek before she launched Politics Daily in 2009.

Politics Daily thrived as a tiny enterprise with no corporate oversight, Henneberger says. The site was marked by an independence and zeal to fill gaps in coverage left by mainstream media.

Despite its short lifespan, the radically old-school Politics Daily did succeed with readers, Henneberger says. With a full-time staff of eight, the site garnered between eight and nine million unique views a month, including 2.5 million from outside the AOL network.

Her time with Politics Daily convinced Hennebeger that there is no conflict between excellent longform journalism and what works on the Web. Its longest reads, she says, were also some of the most popular.

"Readers, it turns out, want what they have always wanted: To learn something they didn't know before," Henneberger says.

Henneberger says her time with Politics Daily felt like a two-year miracle. She learned more in that intense period then she has since she first started in the industry in the 1980s, she says.

Though Henneberger says it was clear that Politics Daily wasn't going to survive the merger, she says she did not actually hear the news until she read it in the New York Times.

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong didn't have any sort of vested interested in journalism, Henneberger says. In a way, it was a blessing because she never had anyone at AOL looking over her shoulder. One the other hand, she says, "He was very interested in doing something involving a silver bullet that would make a huge splash. Journalism is a lot of work, and it requires resources.

After the merger, Huffington took command of AOL's journalism. "Now that Arianna has the checkbook, she's able to do the journalism we couldn't afford," Henneberger says. "In a lot of ways, even though she killed us, good for her."

For The Huffington Post, it was simply a matter of avoiding duplication, says Mario Ruiz, vice president of communications for Huffington Post Media Group. "We already had a thriving, active politics site on Post Politics, so we sort of merged Politics Daily into HuffPost Politics instead of keeping it on its own," Ruiz says.

HuffPost Politics was built as its own stand-alone brand, Ruiz says. Though Politics Daily was a casualty of the merger, the company did take on David Wood, a longtime and highly regarded military correspondent for Newhouse. Wood's 10-part series on war veterans received a high-profile launch on the site last week.

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