By Ruth Conniff
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As we undergo the greatest global communication and cultural revolution since Gutenberg gave the world movable type, it has become difficult to pick up a newspaper or log onto a news website and not find an article laden with the sheer terror that the print news media is about to go extinct.
The inescapable debate tends to go something like this: The elders and well-established professional publishers and journalists blame online aggregators, bloggers, and even advertisers. The new media glitterati wag their fingers at traditional media’s inability to creatively transfer their readership online.
Arianna Huffington is one of the leading finger-waggers.
In May 2005, she created The Huffington Post as a liberal response to The Drudge Report, a popular conservative news aggregator. To say that Huffington was in the right place, at the right time, with the right resources would be an understatement. There were many attempts to create similar sites before hers, but they lacked the prowess and tenacity that Huffington has become famous for. Over the last four years, the HuffPo (as many now refer to it) has become the Internet newspaper.
Huffington believes the future of journalism does not depend on the future of newspapers. If you saw the numbers on her own site, you’d see why she feels that way. The HuffPo claims to swallow more than twenty-two million visitors every month, and it is the most linked to of all blogs on the entire Internet. No newspaper I know of could compete with such numbers.
But focusing merely on the numbers to understand the site’s continued success would be a mistake. The HuffPo is known for its breadth of content. While the site started out as an aggregator of reportage, analysis, commentary, and blogging, it has developed a number of new programs and platforms, including integration with Facebook, a series of local sites (New York, Chicago, and Denver), a citizen journalism program, and a nearly $2 million-funded investigative journalism initiative.
Whatever the future has in store for print and for the institution of traditional journalism, Huffington has certainly left her mark on the history of the news media.
Huffington’s own political evolution is as interesting as the rise of the HuffPo itself. During the Nazi occupation of Greece, her father published an underground newspaper and was subsequently arrested and sent to a concentration camp. In the early 1970s, she studied economics at Cambridge University and became the president of the prominent debating society, Cambridge Union. After moving to the United States in 1980, she associated with liberal Democrats and became involved with the then-governor of California Jerry Brown. Five years later she met oil billionaire and Bush family friend Michael Huffington, and they were married. In 1992, Michael ran for Congress in California on the Republican ticket. Arianna helped secure his victory by soliciting conservative religious voters to support his candidacy. He then lost his race for governor in 1994. By 1997, Arianna and Michael divorced, and Michael came out as a bisexual. One year later, Arianna launched Resignation.com, one of her first major online experiments, intending to bring conservatives together to demand President Clinton’s resignation.
She then underwent a controversial political transformation—from Newt Gingrich Republican to leftwing progressive. In 2000, she joined with other progressives who were critical of both major parties and their corporate sponsors by helping to create the “Shadow Conventions.” Then, in 2003, she ran for California governor as an independent in that year’s recall election. She pulled out of the race but still placed fifth. In 2004, she endorsed John Kerry’s candidacy for President during an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
At her request, this interview was conducted by e-mail.
Q: What do you attribute the success of The Huffington Post to?
Arianna Huffington: I think people are attracted to The Huffington Post’s blend of up-to-the-second news and thoughtful opinion, delivered with an attitude. Plus, I think they enjoy that we cover so many different things—from politics and entertainment to style and satire. There is always something interesting to read and think about—and even to laugh at. And we have a very vibrant community—last month alone, we had 1.7 million comments.
Q: How do you respond to the charge that your site is primarily an aggregator—ripping off other people’s work without compensation?
Huffington: HuffPost serves as a starter page for news consumers, a place to find, and be directed to, the best content available on the Web. We consistently link out directly to other sites—often from our top-of-the-page headline. We send more than twenty-five million page views out to other sites each month—it’s why we are sent more than 100 requests a day from news outlets highlighting stories they hope we will feature and link to.
But aggregating is only a part of what we do: HuffPost offers a combination of original blog posts (approximately 200 a day), original reporting, syndicated news (like from AP) that we pay for, and licensed content (via content-sharing partnerships). Original blog posts and pieces from our reporters account for more than 40 percent of all content viewed on HuffPost.
Q: Why is it OK not to pay bloggers on your site? Why should people work for free for you, when you get the benefit?
Huffington: The Huffington Post pays more than seventy full-time staffers—editors, reporters, and our tech team, as well as two dozen part-time comment moderators. Our 3,000 bloggers are not paid, but they post as often or as infrequently as they like, with no deadlines or expectations. They value the large audience and prominent platform that HuffPost provides, plus all the tech support, comment moderation, and links to their books, CDs, upcoming speeches, etc., that we offer.
Q: One criticism is that HuffPost is too much into celebrity, with your big name bloggers, your celebrity coverage on the homepage, and with some staff appointments. For example, you recently appointed Ethan Axelrod, son of the President’s senior adviser, to head up your Denver bureau. One local Denverite commented that your Denver bureau “will be manned by a twenty-two-year-old college grad with no professional journalism experience who’s barely (if ever) lived in Denver—and who happens to be the seed of the President’s top offensive coordinator.” How do you respond to such criticism?
Huffington: We’re proud to offer a wide variety of bloggers from a wide variety of fields. Some are well-known, some are unknown—but all have something interesting to say. And we cover everything from politics, to entertainment, to media, to business, to style, to green, to our upcoming launch of a technology page—it’s why we call HuffPost “The Internet Newspaper.”
As for Ethan, he applied for the job and, after doing a creative mock-up of what he had in mind for the Denver version of HuffPost, we decided he had the right approach to edit the new section. We like his vision for the section, and he has done a terrific job getting ready for the Denver launch.
Q: You’ve said: “Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.” Could you elaborate?
Huffington: The key question facing those of us working in the media (old and new) is whether we embrace and adapt to the radical changes brought about by the Internet or pretend that we can somehow hop into a journalistic Way Back Machine and return to a past that no longer exists and can’t be resurrected. There is no question that, as the industry moves forward and we figure out the new rules of the road, there will be—and needs to be—a great deal of experimentation with new revenue models. But what won’t work—what can’t work—is to act like the last fifteen years never happened, and that the survival of the industry will be found by hiding content behind walled gardens. Instead of sticking their finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flow of innovation, companies need to ride the rapids of progress and seize the opportunities it provides.
Q: Who’s going to do the reporting and the digging when newspapers die?
Huffington: For starters, I think all the obituaries for newspapers we’re hearing are premature. Many papers are belatedly but successfully adapting to the new news environment. I firmly believe in a hybrid future where old media players embrace the ways of new media (including transparency, interactivity, and immediacy), and new media companies adopt the best practices of old media (including fairness, accuracy, and high-impact investigative journalism). But it’s important to remember that the future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers. The discussion needs to move from “How do we save newspapers?” to “How do we save and strengthen journalism?”—however it is delivered.
Consumer habits have changed dramatically. People have gotten used to getting the news they want, when they want it, how they want it, and where they want it. And this change is here to stay. Despite all the dire reports about the state of the newspaper industry, we are actually in the middle of a golden age for news consumers who can surf the Net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and be able to comment, interact, and form communities.
Q: Why did you start an investigative journalism department? What should investigative journalists be training themselves to do in the digital era?
Huffington: As the newspaper industry continues to contract, one of the most commonly voiced fears is that serious investigative journalism will be among the victims of the scaleback. And, indeed, many newspapers are drastically reducing their investigative teams. Yet, given the multiple crises we are living through, investigative journalism is all the more important. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund’s goal is to produce a broad range of investigative journalism created by both staff reporters and freelance writers, with a focus on working with the many experienced reporters and writers impacted by the economic contraction. The pieces will range from long-form investigations to short breaking news stories and will be presented in a variety of media—including text, audio, and video.
Moving forward, investigative journalists need to train themselves to be media amphibians—just as comfortable with the classic verities of great journalism as they are with video, Twitter, Facebook, and, most importantly, citizen journalism.
Q: What is the role of the citizen journalist right now—whether in Alabama or Algeria—and how should both the alternative and the mainstream media be using citizen journalists in a more constructive manner?
Huffington: Citizen journalism is rapidly emerging as an invaluable part of delivering the news. With the expansion of the Web and the ever-decreasing size and cost of camera phones and video cameras, the ability to commit acts of journalism is spreading to everyone.
Nothing has demonstrated the power of citizen journalism better than the recent uprising in Iran. People tweeting from demonstrations and uploading video of brutal violence taken with their camera phones were able to tell a story, in real time, and circumvent the efforts of the regime to control the media and the flow of information.
Citizen journalists can attend events traditional journalists are kept from—or have overlooked—or find and highlight the small but evocative story happening right next door. By tapping this resource, news sites can extend their reach and help redefine news gathering in the digital age.
Q: What’s your take on the Republican Party and President Obama?
Huffington: The Republican Party seems unwilling and unable to offer solutions to the crises we are facing, other than pitching the same failed ideas that got us into the mess we are in the first place. That’s the real dilemma for the party: Its core ideas have been given full run over the last eight years—and they led us to the brink of disaster. It’s not like we took the GOP theories out for a test drive. We bought the car. And it was a lemon that drove us over the edge of the cliff again and again. But until they can come up with a new model—and not just a fancy paint job and a spoiler on the back but an actual new design—it’s hard to see what they really stand for, as opposed to what they stand against.
As for Obama, he needs to start showing a willingness to battle entrenched opponents, the way FDR did—and to more clearly stand up for ordinary Americans losing their jobs, their health care, and their homes, while Wall Street is benefiting from our multi-trillion dollar bailouts and guarantees. Recent polls show that while Obama’s personal approval rating remains high, only 49 percent of the public has confidence that he will make the right decisions—down 11 percent from April. This means that Americans still like him, but have less faith in his leadership. Given his incredible skills as a leader, this is deeply ironic. How could someone with a renowned ability to inspire, communicate complex ideas, and connect with voters find himself in this position? The President, though a dedicated student of history, has seemingly failed to learn the lesson of our nation’s most significant political confrontations: They’ve required single-minded determination, and the willingness to battle until the fight was won.
Q: What precipitated your political conversion from conservative to progressive?
Huffington: I’ve always been progressive on social issues: pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-gay rights—even when I was a Republican. The big difference is that I once believed the private sector would address America’s social problems. But then I saw firsthand that this wasn’t going to happen. Newt Gingrich and his fellow conservative Republicans talked a good game but, despite the lip service they offered about poverty and race and other social issues, they didn’t really mean it.
Q: Do you have any interest in running for office anymore?
Huffington: Never. I love my day job!
Matt Pascarella is a writer and freelance journalist based in New York City. He is the U.S. bureau chief for the award-winning citizen journalism photo agency Demotix Images (www.demotix.com), and is a researcher and producer for BBC reporter and investigative journalist Greg Palast (www.GregPalast.com).