Lydia Polgreen: The Change Agent
How a queer black daughter of missionaries turned her outsider perspective into a mission statement for the future of journalism.
The last time Lydia Polgreen felt boredom — real boredom, the soul-crushing kind — she was 21 and working for a company in suburban Virginia that helped applicants for H-1B visas . The job was a stopgap between college, where she’d studied Marx and Hegel, and a hazy, uncertain future in which she imagined she might teach philosophy. In the meantime, there she was in some random job, waiting for each day to end. “At some point I thought, This can’t be how my life is going to go. This isn’t for me,” she recalls. “I’m not a person who should ever be looking at the clock, waiting for things to be over — that’s not my destiny.” A friend was interning at Washington Monthly, a small policy magazine in D.C., and offered to get Polgreen in there, too. But the position was unpaid, and Polgreen had no money. “I was completely penniless, had student loans to pay off, so I was like, There’s just no way I can work for free. But then I thought, Well, maybe I can find a waitressing job at night, and that’s what I did.” The internship led to a poorly paid job which led, via reporting gigs in Florida and upstate New York, to The New York Times on a trainee program designed for applicants like her “who didn’t have the kind of background or résumé that you typically would have to get hired at the Times.” By this Polgreen means black, she means queer, she means people from families of limited means — all the things that made her atypical at the paper.
“There’s nobody who looks like her in most of these newsrooms,” says Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter who specializes in writing about al-Qaeda and ISIS[JM1] . “When I first started at the paper, she brought me into the Page One meeting, and she was basically this very young woman who happens to be black, who happens to be a lesbian, who was presenting in front of all these mostly older white guys.”
Polgreen’s experiences covering West Africa and India for the paper were instructive. She saw firsthand how new technologies gave people access to news, and thus more agency in their lives. Whereas 20 years ago stories like hers would be read only by embassy officials, now everyone could read them — and the rise of social media meant that information was suddenly a two-way street. Twitter was a baptism of fire for Polgreen. She signed up in 2008 and now has 77,000 followers. “She was on Twitter before most of the people on our staff had any sense what Twitter was, much less that it was an important medium either for gathering information or for directly communicating with your audience,” says Kahn. Polgreen’s highly active Twitter feed serves as a barometer of her passions. Politics flows through her veins, but it’s mixed in with a deep love for pop culture. She enjoys The Real Housewives (“Beverly Hills, mainly”), Vanderpump Rules (“guilty pleasure”), home-improvement shows, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, which she considers a cultural touchstone. Now try to imagine an editor in chief of another major media company sounding as exuberant about reality TV. “She really loves being alive,” says Callimachi. “She has an unbelievable balance in her life.”
Long before they met at a hotel in Dakar, Callimachi used to follow Polgreen’s stories from West Africa. “She was the opposite of the war correspondent who shows up in West Africa and immediately goes for the bang-bang,” she says. There was, for example, a story about a young man in Monrovia, Liberia, who ran an unusual news service, The Daily Talk — nothing more than a blackboard on the side of a street on which he’d write that day’s headlines, culled from the newspapers he scoured. To help the illiterate, he incorporated symbols. “It was one man’s effort to inform his public,” recalls Callimachi. “She wrote it with such lyricism and insight into a society that had been wracked by war and that had very limited means.” A similar story, about the critical role of the wheelbarrow in Monrovia’s economy — so critical that it was incorporated into the national seal — reflected the same eye for locating depth in the prosaic and pedestrian. “It’s taking something most people would overlook, and finding this incredibly insightful story about a country where the infrastructure has been shattered,” says Callimachi. It is also the kind of reporting that Polgreen, who left The New York Times to become editor in chief of The Huffington Post last December, invokes when she praises great shoe-leather journalists like Jimmy Breslin, who wrote for New York’s Daily News, and had an ear for the life of the street and an instinctive mistrust of the well-heeled. “What we’re seeing right now is a collapse of empathy in journalism,” Polgreen said in January at a debate organized by Harvard University. “Journalism has become a highly elite profession that feels extremely distant from the experiences of the people that we write about.”
When he first encountered her work, Jonathan Shainin, now the editor of the Long Read section of The Guardian, responded much like Callimachi. “She’s someone who can just have a conversation with anyone, who is totally at ease in almost every possible situation with almost every type of person,” he says. He was working at a magazine in India when Polgreen was posted to Delhi for The New York Times. “We got to be friends in part because I saw her as someone who was really making an effort to try to understand the country and its politics,” he recalls. “An interesting thing about her is that she spent part of her childhood abroad, and I wonder if something of that has given her a sense that you have to be able to inhabit these stories from the position of the people who are in them.”
This much is clear: No one has a bad word to say about Polgreen. “She’s warm, she’s open, she’s a straight-talker,” says Hillary Frey, who first bonded with Polgreen over cheeseburgers and fries at the Time Warner Center in 2014, and now consults at The Huffington Post. When Polgreen left the Times, the toasts at her leaving party came thick and fast. “We all knew her star was rising very quickly and she was either going to have great things happen to her here, or they were going to happen elsewhere,” says Kahn. “This is a fast-changing world, so none of us were shocked that she got an offer like that.”
It is a Monday morning, and Polgreen has flown in to D.C. from New York to join The Huffington Post’s weekly politics meeting. There are about 30 people in the room, evenly split between men and women, and the mood is mellow and a little droll. Two reporters have “Beyoncé for Prez” stickers on their laptops. On a TV screen from New York, the site’s senior political economy reporter, Zach Carter, appears to be eating breakfast. In July 2015 the Post, under then–editorial director Danny Shea, had announced it would cover Trump only as an entertainment story, describing his run for president as a sideshow. There was a certain logic to this — wall-to-wall press coverage had Trump omnipresent — but for many, the decision reeked of liberal condescension and made The Huffington Post seem out of touch. The Post could not, of course, sustain that position. Shea left last summer, shortly before Arianna Huffington. Now Trump is the only subject on the table, and likely to stay that way for some time. “We shouldn’t lose our sense of outrage through repetition,” Polgreen tells the assembled reporters, encouraging them to find “hyper-local stories” that epitomize her drive for “empathy journalism.” She illustrates her point with a story in that day’s New York Times, about a popular Mexican restaurateur in a small Illinois town in a county that had gone 70 percent for Trump. A community linchpin, who brought fajitas to firefighters and supported local charities, he was now in custody and facing deportation. Although many locals supported Trump’s stance on immigration, they made an exception when the target was someone they knew. For Polgreen it was a perfect illustration of one of her core convictions. Abstract beliefs often change under the cold hard light of reality. “The fact is that if you’re confronted, face to face, with racial diversity, with queerness, with a person you love with HIV/AIDS, it’s very hard to remain hateful,” she tells me later, when we have left the conference. It’s why the spontaneous crowds that gathered in airports around the country to protest Trump’s Muslim ban in January left her hopeful. “To me that speaks to exactly that exposure argument, because everyone in this country has a story about someone who came here, either fleeing something or seeking a better opportunity. It may be your family, it may be your neighbors, it may be someone in your church, and I think that pulls very strongly against this white-nationalist view that’s coming out of the Steve Bannon world.”
Polgreen likes to point to her own backstory as a classic American tale: “My mother is an African immigrant, my father is a disabled veteran, my grandparents on my father’s side were sort of WASPy Goldwater Republicans who had a Catholic son, a gay son, and a son who married an African.” This is not, she says, the exception. It’s the fabled melting-pot America that advertisers like Cadillac were appealing to during this year’s Oscars. “If the biggest companies in America are running away from the identitarian agenda of the Trump administration, that tells you something.”
If Polgreen’s calibrated optimism sometimes sounds like President Obama’s, that may be because they have things in common. Like him, she was raised largely abroad and in a mixed-race family. It gives her a unique perspective, enabling her to see America from the outside as well as from within, flaws and virtues alike. Her father, a Baha’i missionary, was traveling in Ethiopia when he met her mother — a lapsed Seventh-day Adventist whose previous boyfriend had been thrown out of the country for manufacturing LSD. The two raised their daughter in Ghana, where she developed her voracious interest in the news. “I just had this passion for knowing what was going on,” she recalls. As editor of her high school newspaper, she scored a coup with an exclusive interview with Ziggy Marley, and quickly discovered the power of her own voice. “I wrote an impassioned editorial about accepting gay people and was extremely excoriated for it by my homophobic classmates,” she says. Polgreen was only dimly aware of her sexual orientation at the time, but her father’s youngest brother was gay and in a long-term relationship. “I had this role model of someone who had always been out and had always been forceful about being out,” she says. “And my parents had this role model, far from the stereotype of the desperate, lonely homosexual, of a well-adjusted couple who’d had a loving, long-standing relationship.” She laughs. “In fact, their marriage outlasted my parents’ marriage.”
Polgreen recalls her own coming out as a “dawning realization” at college. “I always knew there was something different about me, but I didn’t know how to put my finger on it,” she says. “When I got to college, I met other lesbians and I was, like, Oh, this is who I am, I get it, I see it now. It was really like a light went on and suddenly this very clear thing about myself that had always been a subtext became text, and that was a remarkable thing. And then I met my wife [Candace Feit], and we’ve lived happily ever after since.” Callimachi met Polgreen and Feit for the first time at a dinner at their home in Dakar, where the couple were forced to be discreet about their relationship. “I always worried about her as a gay woman in West Africa,” Callimachi says. “Soon after she left, I did a story about this town of Thies in Senegal where people were exhuming the bodies of suspected gay men and dragging the corpses through town. To this day I don’t know how Lydia explained who she and Candy were to the staff in this incredibly homophobic space.”
Yet there is a certain black comedy in the story Polgreen tells of her and Feit, a photographer, going to interview a Sudanese warlord responsible for the cleansing campaign in Darfur. “We’re at his mercy, we’ve been driven to this village in one of his trucks, he’s holding court, and the two of us are sitting there, and you just imagine, What would that be like, if he knew we were a couple?” Although she can find wry humor in their predicament, the vigilance required was taxing. “We were living there at a time when gay people were being murdered in Uganda and places like that, and there were front pages of newspapers outing people, so that was an eye-opening experience,” Polgreen recalls. “My last posting for The New York Times was in South Africa, where gay marriage is law but there are huge problems around homophobia and violence, particularly against queer African women, so it was a tremendous relief to come back to the U.S. and be safely ensconced in New York City.”
Since returning to New York, Polgreen has noticed a glaring contrast between the United States and the nations she once covered. Corrupt government in countries like Nigeria and Congo had left civil society to take on the role of social transformation. “Coming from the United States, I always looked a bit askance on this, and said that until changes come via political systems, it will never be truly systemic,” she says. “I think in America today we have the opposite problem, which is that we have too little skin in the game, and we’re kind of happy to stand aside and let the professionals do the job of democracy.”
In spite of the extremely partisan nature of politics, Polgreen believes that we are living in a profoundly non-ideological time. She is hopeful that we’re in a process of rediscovering a sense of civic identity and purpose, regardless of political affiliation. If media platforms like <The Huffington Post> can help bring people together around “fundamental kitchen table interests,” she notes, it becomes harder to divide them over cultural differences like transgender bathrooms or political correctness on campuses. “Tremendous strides were made because of visibility, but I think we were inattentive to the backlash that would engender,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the emergence of a president backed by a white-power ideology came after two terms of an African-American president.” She believes The Huffington Post can repair some of the damage. “I’d love Huff Post to be the place where the real conversation is happening about who gets to define what it is to be an American, and what the real America is,” she says. “My goal is to be the place where that conversation is happening.”
This is not, of course, how The Huffington Post has presented itself in the past, often preferring to peddle in clickbait headlines and indignant bloviating. It’s easy to forget now that Andrew Breitbart (who had interned for Arianna Huffington when she was still a conservative) was among the Post’s four co-founders in 2005 , before deciding to take what he’d learned and create a site in his own image. That site was Breitbart, long dismissed as the lunatic fringe, but which increasingly competes with the Post in page views . That may be temporary, but The Huffington Post faces daunting challenges. After a decade of proliferation, digital media is struggling to find a way to make money as Google and Facebook eat up an ever bigger share of advertisers. The Huff Post model of endlessly scaling up by propagating new editorial categories feels broken. When, in January, the website Medium fired a third of its editors and closed its New York and D.C. offices, the site’s founder Ev Williams declared that the current path of advertiser-supported page views was untenable. It served the advertisers but not the readers, he said. Coincidentally, Polgreen had published a piece in Medium last summer in which she singled out The New York Times for bucking that trend and creating a healthy subscription model. “Ninety percent of our digital revenue comes from just 12 percent of our readers,” she wrote. “I love the idea that our most important financial relationship is with the reader, not the advertiser .”
Now Polgreen is at The Huffington Post, which practically invented clickbait journalism as a mechanism for driving page views to satiate advertisers. Despite winning a Pulitzer in 2012 — a first for a digital-only media brand — the site’s traffic depends heavily on low-hanging fruit. In mid-March the top three trending stories across the site were “7 Signs of a Nervous Breakdown,” a withering review of Girls titled “ ‘Girls’ Is Now Officially Unwatchable,” and “7 Reasons Your Pee Smells Weird.” You might be tempted to read those, and that’s the point, but it means that real journalism, such as a recent piece on the shadowy Trump-funding billionaire Robert Mercer, can get lost. Polgreen knows she has to change that. On March 15 she announced a newsroom revamp that would mean adding a five-person team of deputies, an indication that she plans to bring more structure to the editorial team. In a conference call to business executive within AOL, the parent company, Polgreen elaborated on her mission, saying that Huff Post would be neither blue nor red, but instead would serve those who were fed up with the status quo — the grassroots populist audience that Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into. She suggested that video content would be a good place to reach a new audience. So far, at least, the reception has been warm.
Polgreen is no stranger to the challenges of the business. At the Times she was elevated into a management role, overseeing an initiative designed
to attract more international readers. The hurdles of her new task are greater, but among those who have worked with her, none doubt her will or ability. “She’ll be worth watching really closely to see some of the things she puts in motion, as they’ll likely be early indicators,” says Kahn. There’s no question that in the site’s 12-year history, Polgreen is the most talented and prestigious hire the Post has made, with an impeccable record and a reporter’s instincts, but she faces widespread skepticism that the Post can ever be the quality publication she envisions. But should it not work out, there are friends who have her back. The New York Times is rarely generous to deserters, but Kahn closed our conversation with a sincere invitation. “If you talk to Lydia again, just tell her to give me a call if she’s unhappy—we'd gladly welcome her back.” She probably knows that already.
This story appears in the May 2017 issue of Out magazine.