When Arianna Huffington announced plans two-and-a-half years ago to publish a blog, she was greeted with derision by many of the vocation’s purists.
The archetypal blogger, after all, was supposed to be a solitary outsider who worked from home – preferably in pyjamas – railing against the arrogance and excesses of the so-called mainstream media. Ms Huffington, on the other hand, was a multi-millionaire author and socialite with a Rolodex of well-connected friends from Hollywood to Washington.
In spite of that frosty reception, the Huffington Post has emerged as the fifth most popular blog on the web, according to Technorati, the internet tracker. The blog claims to attract 3.5m unique users a month.
“They laughed when Arianna sat down at the keyboard, but she was right, and she’s built something pretty incredible,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York who also writes a media blog, BuzzMachine.
These days, Ms Huffington and her partners tend to recoil slightly when the Huffington Post is called a blog. To them, blogging is merely the latest technology tool to transform the news industry – just as cable television yielded CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. While that tool may be central to their success, their aim now is to expand the Huffington Post into a mainstream media business – a path that other blogs are also pursuing as the once-fledgling medium becomes more professionalised.
Toward that end, the site is today expected to announce that Betsy Morgan, a senior executive at media group CBS, will become its first chief executive. The site has also added new sections focusing on entertainment, media and business in an attempt to lure more readers and advertisers.
With backing from Softbank Capital, the venture capital fund, the Huffington Post has also bulked up staff numbers. It now has 43 full-time employees, including nine advertising sales representatives and a publicist. Its editorial offices, on the fourth floor of a Manhattan loft, include rows of desks and flat-screen televisions that resemble nothing so much as a traditional newsroom.
Perhaps the most dramatic – and revealing – recent move was to hire a handful of well-known journalists to do old-fashioned reporting. “Our goal,” Ms Huffington says, “is basically to become an online newspaper”.
Others blogs, such as Gawker, Talking Points Memo, PaidContent and the Drudge Report, have also matured into fully fledged businesses with multiple staff on the payroll, advertising revenues and regular conferences.
They are moving to the mainstream just as traditional news companies are making a determined effort to become more “new media”.
“It gets confusing when the New York Times starts launching a ton of blogs, and the Huffington Post starts offering news,” said Jonah Peretti, a 33-year-old MIT graduate who is the company’s resident tech whizz. “Things start to blur.”
Ms Huffington’s roots are decidedly old media. She was born in Greece and studied economics at Cambridge (she was president of the Cambridge Union debating society) before becoming a prolific author and columnist.
She casts the Huffington Post as an online version of a sprawling dinner-party conversation with a global crowd of more than a thousand well-connected friends. At any moment, it might feature postings from comedians such as Larry David and Harry Shearer, journalist Charlie Rose, British columnist Simon Jenkins, talent agent Ari Emanuel and the odd senator or congressman.
Not all of them took to it instantly. “‘What’s a blog?’” Ms Huffington recalled Arthur Schlesinger, the distinguished presidential historian, asking when she first approached him about contributing. Mr Schlesinger ended up faxing in his submissions on typewritten pages. That did not bother Ms Huffington, though. “If it has the fingerprint of the author’s mind, to me, it’s a blog,” she said.
The Huffington Post has developed a loyal following as a sort of liberal-leaning anti-Drudge Report. Its home page tends to feature a bevy of links to news stories critical of the Bush administration – all of which serve as grist for more impassioned blogging.
The site has also built its audience with a relentless focus on selected stories. One was the scandal involving Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who published reports before the Iraq invasion detailing Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
“Definitely, the Judy Miller story spiked traffic and established who we were – that we would not accept the conventional wisdom,” said Ms Huffington, whose own postings on the subject were not only more pointed than would be found on many newspaper editorial pages, but far more numerous.
Like a standard newspaper, Ms Huffington insists that her contributors maintain accuracy. All errors must be corrected within 24 hours, lest bloggers have their posting privileges withdrawn. Yet she argues that one of the blog’s strengths is an attitude and immediacy that distinguishes it from the mainstream media’s sometimes-tortured attempts at objectivity. “None of this ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’, ” she says. “You have to believe that there is a truth to be ferreted out.”
While they may not have the resources or brand recognition of established newspapers, Ms Huffington and her co-founder, Kenneth Lerer, believe they have advantages. One is that they do not have to maintain an army of reporters to gather news. Another is that they are not weighed down by a legacy business. That means that they have lower costs and can afford to take risks without unnerving long-time readers.
“That’s why these big media companies were never successful at launching cable channels in the 1980s,” says Mr Lerer, a former Time Warner executive. “They had to buy them, and the same thing is happening now with the internet.”
But there is still one constituency where the Huffington Post’s blog heritage is a handicap: Madison Avenue. Advertising agencies are increasingly taking notice of the audiences attracted by a few elite blogs. Yet many are still wary of the free-for-all, uncensored perception attached to them.
After some false starts, in which Mr Lerer has shuffled strategy and sales personnel, he claims the Huffington Post is now breaking even some months. The privately held company does not disclose actual figures. With the 2008 election approaching, the partners are confident that the Huffington Post is heading for prosperous times.
In the meantime, as its home page and public face are becoming ever more like a traditional newspaper – with a clean layout and discrete sections – Mr Perretti is busy introducing new features to stoke conversation among readers and bloggers.
It is an approach that he refers to as “the mullet strategy” – a reference to the infamous hairstyle that features a trim front and a scraggly back: “It’s business up front, party in the back.”
Online salvo sparks a ‘Mel Gibson’ debate
The virtues of blogging as a medium were given an unlikely demonstration last year when Mel Gibson, the actor, was arrested for drunk driving and caught on police audiotape making anti-Semitic remarks.
Hollywood types largely remained quiet in the immediate aftermath of the scandal. But Ari Emanuel, voluble founder of the Endeavor talent agency, was outraged. Not wanting to go through the ordeal of crafting and pitching a newspaper op-ed piece, he instead called Arianna Huffington and dictated an entry.
“At a time of escalating tensions in the world, the entertainment industry cannot idly stand by and allow Mel Gibson to get away with such tragically inflammatory statements,” Mr Emanuel wrote, urging industry heavyweights to shun Mr Gibson – even if it meant sacrificing their bottom line.
The posting, widely quoted in newspapers and magazines around the country, seemed to precede a widespread condemnation of Mr Gibson. “It really shifted the debate,” Ms Huffington says.
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