HuffPost and the Times of India Group have ended their partnership, multiple, reliable sources, including current and former employees, have confirmed to MediaNama. The deal was Times Bridge’s flagship partnership: Times Bridge is the Times of India Group’s international investments and partnerships division, and its investments and/or partnerships include Airbnb, Coursera, Uber, Vice, Business Insider, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, PC Mag, Advertising Age, Goal, Tech Radar and Techpost. HuffPost (previously Huffington Post) partnership had launched the Indian website in December 2014.

This would be the second AOL deal to collapse in India. In 2013, Techcrunch’s India partnership with NetworkPlay fell apart after their India event.

Sources said that HuffPost decided not to renew the 3-year partnership for business reasons, and also cited editorial strategy interference from Times Bridge’s head of content strategy Thane Richard.

The deal with the Times of India group

The sources described the Huffpost-Times Bridge deal as follows: The Times Group would pay the salaries of Huffington Post India employees and in return, Huffington Post globally would share some of the revenue. 

“Essentially, our cheques came from Times Internet always,” said a source who was laid off in June. Others concurred, and added that this is the same with other news publications which are under Times Bridge in India.

This year, sources said that Times Internet had asked the website to trim its budget. While one source said that Times Internet had halved the budget for HuffPost, another senior employee said that budget for editorial was to be reduced from Rs 5 crore to Rs 4 crore this year. The Times of India group hasn’t responded to an email sent requesting a confirmation or denial of this.

“Please disregard the email from Thane”

The sources added that the staff started facing editorial strategy interference from Thane Richard in August shortly before editor-in-chief Sruthijith KK announced that he would be stepping down from HuffPost. Sruthijith KK and HuffPost India interim editor-in-chief Rituparna Chatterjee declined to comment for this story.

On August 18, Richard sent an email to staff titled “HuffPost Reflections”. It seemed that Richard was looking to set the editorial agenda and wanted feedback from employees and that it was mandatory to reply. According to the email, of which MediaNama has a copy (and was confirmed by multiple sources), Thane wanted employees to articulate in writing, their views on the following questions:

1. What is HuffPost today? Talk about style, voice, coverage, quality, market perception, etc. Assume I have never heard of the HuffPost brand.

2. Who is the HuffPost reader today? Dont worry about describing our reader quantitatively, I have Google Analytics for that. Describe our reader qualitatively.

3 & 4. Answer 1 & 2 again but instead of what HuffPost is today, answer for what you think HuffPost should be. If the answers are the same (i.e. we are exactly what we should be already) simply write “no change.” Be sure to answer “Why?” as an addendum to each answer if you are advocating change.

5. Who are HuffPost’s major competitors in India and how do you think we are stacking up against them? If we are ahead, what is our competitive advantage? If we are behind, what are they doing better than we are?

6. Why did you come to work at HuffPost? Are you getting what you came for? Elaborate on why or why not (strengths and weaknesses).

7. Why are you a journalist? What do you want to be doing in your work as a journalist? If you are not on track with that vision right now, what would it take to get on track?

8. Write the job description for your ideal role at HuffPost including title, beat, format, etc.

9. Any other thoughts you care to share.

Thane mentioned in the email that the “only wrong answer in this exercise is an incomplete, unthoughtful, or dishonest answer”, and that if he felt the answers didn’t go deep enough, he would write back to people and push for more.

In response to this email, HuffPost global editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen bluntly asked staff to “Please disregard the email from Thane regarding editorial strategy.”

Sources felt that Richard was overstepping his boundaries. “He was basically trying to take over editorial operations of HuffPost and the contract says that Times of India Group will not interfere with the editorial operations (MediaNama was unable to independently verify this)”, a source still with the website said.

On August 24th 2017, HuffPost international editor Louise Roug sent an email in which she stressed that future editorial operations will be decided by her and Polgreen. This was after Sruthijith KK’s departure, and said that interim editor-in-chief Rituparna Chatterjee had “full authority to make day-to-day editorial decisions. As for more long-term editorial strategy, that is something the editor-in-chief will develop in conjunction with Lydia and myself. It is not the purview of anyone else.”

Things were further complicated sources said that Richard assumed the role of editorial head of Business Insider. Neither Richard nor the Times of India Group confirmed nor denied this. However, Debadatta Das, the editor-in-chief, quit Business Insider India in July according to her LinkedIn profile.

“How can he head both HuffPost and Business Insider and other properties when globally they are competitors?” a source added.

Note that we’re yet to receive responses by email from Thane, Polgreen, Roug and the Times of India Group regarding these emails exchange. Thane and a Times of India Group spokesperson also declined to comment on this story, when contacted by MediaNama on the phone.

Employees asked to join other properties

Earlier in June, Huffington Post laid off 9 employees from the editorial staff across their technology, business, lifestyle and trends verticals. The website had a peak strength of around 25 employees in January this year.

Currently, Huffington Post has a strength of 13 employees on the editorial side and more employees are expected to leave the organization.

On Monday, around HuffPost 10 employees were made offers to join other publications which were under Times Bridge. “We have until Friday to accept the offer or not,” a source said. However, this was not the first time the offer was made to employees. “So, some people were offered jobs 3-4 weeks ago as well,” a source added.

Future plans for Huffington Post India

A HuffPost source said that the company is planning to make new offers to existing employees but they will be coming from New York directly. The source said that members of the global team, including Lydia Polgreen, will be meeting the staff on November 22. “The idea is that Huffington Post will be relaunching in India,” a source said.

*Update: A quote which could potentially identify a source has been modified on request. The same reflects in the copy