Why HuffPo’s British Empire Dreams Could Fall Flat

Arianna Huffington by World Economic ForumUpdated. First Arianna Huffington conquered America’s longstanding web brand, scoring $315 million from AOL, the ear of boss Tim Armstrong and the role of the company’s editor-in-chief. Now she has her sights on the rest of the world — and her first stop is the U.K.

Speaking at an event in London held by the Guardian on Thursday, the Greek-born media mogul said she is accelerating plans to launch a British edition of the Huffington Post, probably this summer.

“The Huffington Post is a very strong global brand on the Internet,” she told the audience. “It is huge in America, it has one million users in the U.K., one million users in Canada. We are looking at a brand that is going to explode from a brand and usage standpoint.”

The level of her ambition might not surprise anyone. But if her choice of location comes as a shock, then perhaps it’s worth remembering that Huffington has plenty of links to the U.K.

As a teenager in the 1960s, the young Arianna Stassinopolous moved from her native Athens to attend Cambridge University where she was the first foreigner to become president of the university’s world-famous debating society. She then embarked on a high-profile nine-year relationship with Bernard Levin, a legendary British journalist and cultural critic some 22 years her senior. Through it all, she became fairly well-known through regular appearances on TV. When Levin refused to marry her in 1980, she moved across the Atlantic.

It may be more than 30 years since she left that scepterd isle, but it’s clear that the Greek entrepreneur doesn’t think her connection is ancient history.

But I suspect that a British HuffPo could prove to be a much more difficult ride than she expects, and perhaps even demonstrate the outlet’s weaknesses on a grand scale. Here’s why.

First, and probably most importantly, the media market in Britain is already hugely competitive. Broadcast is totally dominated by the BBC, which is more or less unassailable thanks to its reputation and the fact that public funding means it doesn’t need to chase advertising revenue. Subscription channels, meanwhile, are largely the province of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV, and the Australian mogul casts a long shadow over the country’s media landscape.

Meanwhile the British print and web news market — the area which proved the biggest gap for Huffington’s brand of news in the U.S. — is radically more competitive than America’s. Britain’s biggest non-tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, sells more copies every day in a nation of 61 million than USA Today manages to shift across the entire 50 states. The rest of the market is similarly inflated by comparison: on a per capita basis, the New York Times is smaller than every single one of Britain’s 11 nationally-available newspapers.

There are many reasons for this level of competition, not least that the British press is proudly aggressive and partisan, with each title wearing its politics on its sleeve. That transparent agenda makes the American print media cringe, but their distaste is what left space for the likes of Fox News and Huffington to step into. And it’s also helped the British newspapers find success online in a way that gives HuffPo UK less room to operate, since its chief ingredients — political news, diatribes, celebrity piffle and controversial op-eds — already well incorporated into the British media diet. Update: The Mail’s website, for example, has between three and four million unique users per day — and reportedly 50 million per month — and is growing fast. It’s much smaller than Compare that to HuffPo’s 40 million monthly uniques. but probably about as large as any profit-seeking website can hope to achieve in its home territory. Meanwhile the Guardian, which ploughs similar political territory, already made a deliberate move to ape HuffPo’s commentary with its Comment is Free site, launched five years ago.

All of this means that there’s not much of a gap for Huffington to exploit.

Second, the advertising market is crowded and small. The revenues from online ads are heavily concentrated: Google takes a huge share of the British online ad market, much larger than it does in America. That’s something Tim Armstrong should know, given his background at Google, but he may mistake it as a product of Google’s sales ferocity rather than Britain’s tendency to fall in line behind winning brands.

The result is that it’s been hard for new entrants to make significant revenues. Independent blog networks like Shiny Media have struggled, while any new launch from a larger player is usually countered by a spoiler from its rivals.

That’s not to say there isn’t any chance of success for Huffington, particularly since she has a substantial war chest and bloody-minded approach to the web. In addition, there are also plenty of out-of-work journalists in Britain who would jump at the chance to work for a well-known outlet like HuffPo, and hordes of celebrity bloggers who would give it a leg up in exchange for publicity. And who knows, perhaps the injection of a new name into the market will bring something that readers want — there are plans to go for other markets like France and Brazil, which may be more successful (though perhaps more hostile to an American invasion).

In the end, there are really only two reasons for editorial projects to launch in foreign countries: influence and money. In Britain, at least, neither of those are going to be easy to come by — something that could turn Arianna’s ambitions into nothing more than an expensive vanity project.

Update: This story was updated to clarify the Daily Mail’s daily and monthly unique users.

Photography used under CC license courtesy of the World Economic Forum