The queen of the blogosphere

The queen of the blogosp

By SHANI ROSENFELDER
September 30, 2009 20:37

You might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion, because of her name, that Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, who visited the country last week, is a conservative American. In fact, she is anything but. First, Huffington is her married name; Arianna Stassinopoulos was actually born in 1950 in Greece and only emigrated - to England - when she was 16. Since 1980 she has lived in the States, mainly in California, where her ex-husband, oil millionaire Michael Huffington, was active politically. Second, Huffington is far from conservative. She is a digital news media pioneer who runs a highly successful liberal Internet newspaper which was, and still is (though not without criticism), an avid supporter of US President Barack Obama. A self-proclaimed "progressive populist," however, Huffington claims the site avoids looking at American politics with the prism of Right and Left. After graduating with an MA from Cambridge University, Huffington began to focus on media, initially as a panelist on BBC radio, emerging later as a political pundit, before becoming increasingly involved in political campaigns. In 2003, she even ran as an independent for governor in the California recall election, coining the slogan "the hybrid versus the Hummer" in reference to her and fellow candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's private vehicles. As eclectic as her Web site, Huffington has written some 12 books, including a biography of soprano Maria Callas, tried her hand at acting (she had a spot on Roseanne) and worked with Comedy Central's election coverage before launching her Web site in 2005. The Huffington Post, a news and aggregated blog site, has quickly become one of the most widely read, linked to and frequently cited media brands on the Internet. According to the site's CEO, Eric Hippeau, Huffington Post has more than 23 million unique visitors a month. A year after the site's launch, in 2006, she was named to the Time 100, Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. Its staying power is evident and in 2009 she was named as No. 12 in Forbes's first ever list of the Most Influential Women In Media. The Jerusalem Post: I would like to start off with a quote President Obama made earlier this week: "I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding." Are you concerned too? Arianna Huffington: I think what President Obama said was an incredibly naïve statement. It is not born out of the facts. The world right now, in terms of media, is not about old media or new media. It's about yesterday's media and today's media. Today's media includes an on-line component. Is that what he means by the blogosphere? I mean, The Jerusalem Post has a vibrant on-line component and so does The New York Times and The Washington Post. It would be impossible to have a major newspaper without a vibrant blogospheric element to it. It also overlooks the fact that the two biggest stories of our time were misreported by the mainstream media: [First,] the war in Iraq in terms of the lead-up to the war. I don't know where the fact-checking that Obama was talking about was when Judith Miller was allowed to write on the front page of The New York Times about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And of course the other major story is the economic meltdown. It was missed, though with many honorable exceptions, by the mainstream media. So I believe the blogosphere and all on-line media have a huge responsibility to fact-check, be accurate, be fair, but there's absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be able to cover news just as well as traditional journalists. The advantages of citizen journalism are known: speed, immediacy, the fact that it's a genuine voice of the people, who now have a massive platform they can use to express their opinion. How do you think its problems, such as credibility, professionalism, opinion disguised as news, can be solved? Can/will bloggers be the new journalists? I really don't think it's either/or. I think that bloggers need to adopt the best traditional values of journalism. Fact-checking journals and traditional journalists need to adopt the best of the on-line media world. I believe that the existence of on-line media can really facilitate the breaking of stories and staying on stories because we in a way suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and the mainstream media suffer from attention deficit disorder, and you need both to be really able to stay on a story. Many major stories break on the front pages of newspapers in the US but die there. We can keep the stories alive by staying on them until there is some real impact. Regarding credibility, how can this work? First of all I don't foresee that you will ever be able to have journalism without professional journalists and editors. I am not a believer that you can have just technology-produced content. I don't believe that and we certainly have never tried to practice that at The Huffington Post. I mean, there are editors and reporters that are actually producing a lot of our content, plus even the blogs are looked at before they are posted. We have a strict rule that if there is an error, bloggers need to correct it within 24 hours or their password is withdrawn, and there have been literally a tiny handful of examples of that. Sure there are more errors on the Internet, but they are also more quickly and easily corrected. They are caught astonishingly quickly and they can be corrected transparently astonishingly quickly. So we have to always remember that. Generally speaking, the on-line ad model doesn't work. How has it been for The Huffington Post? Will it go behind some kind of pay wall? What do you think of the micro-payments model, where people pay a very small amount for each article they click on? The Huffington Post is strictly an advertiser supported model and that's what I testified in front of Congress. We believe that the future is the linked economy as opposed to a holding-your-content-behind-walls economy. Consumer habits have changed so much and people are so used to getting their news and opinion for free on-line, so unless you are offering something very specialized in terms of financial information, for example, people are willing to pay for very specialized things. To try to change consumer habits or to expect people to pay for basic news and opinion is not a model we believe is sustainable. We believe in the future. It's really like trying to move back to the past and that never works. But News Corporation's Rupert Murdoch, whose sites include the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox News, says he would put all of his content behind a pay wall. Which would be good news for The Huffington Post. The point is that right now, especially with what is happening on-line in terms of citizen journalism as well as the move toward not-for-profit delivery of investigative journalists, these are two very interesting phenomena that are affecting the cost structure of journalism. We need to talk about saving journalism, improving journalism, saving newspapers. I actually personally believe newspapers will survive, print will survive because there is something within our DNA that really wants to get a newspaper and read it, and I read dozens of newspapers even though my life is on-line. I just love that and I don't think that's going to change in the foreseeable future. However, the most expensive part in terms of content of a newspaper is investigative journalism, and we at The Huffington Post have an investigative fund that is funded by foundations as well as by us. ProPublica is another model in the US that is doing great work and it is entirely supported by contributions. Additionally, citizen journalists are breaking stories, providing content and delivering news. For example, during coverage of the Iranian uprising, or to the campaign we launched called Bearing Witness 2.0, where our readers from around the country send us stories about the human cost of the economic crisis. And also, in reference to advertising. I am very, very encouraged about all the ways that advertising is finally and slowly, much more slowly than anybody on-line wanted, moving on-line, and the creative things they are doing, and in fact contrary to what was thought of in terms of the effectiveness of on-line advertising. It will be a lot more effective and it will be clear how effective it is. As they used to say about print advertising, 50 percent is wasted but you just don't know which 50 percent. Well, on-line you know because you can actually get the numbers of click-through rates and all that. But it's beyond just banner advertising and all these things now. There are really interesting campaigns being launched, and we have a lot of them on The Huffington Post that are much more interactive and I think we have just barely begun. It's amazing how slowly the advertising companies have moved, considering that they are supposed to be the creative people. What will media landscape look like in five years? I see kind of a hybrid reality in five years where it will be much more seamless, where more and more traditional media will be doing work on-line, like The Jerusalem Post is doing, like The New York Times and The Washington Post are doing. On the other hand, sites like The Huffington Post will be doing much more traditional journalism. Having reporters and making sure everything is fact-checked, accurate and fair. I see this convergence which I think is very exciting, but also that is just part of what we have been doing. There will be much more community built around news so that we have kind of a digital water cooler around the news of the moment and we have people commenting on it and sending it to their friends, discussing it and also developing it. News stories are developed by the readers in a way that I think is potentially very exciting. What do you think about Twitter? Is it really such a great tool to communicate or does it contribute to shallowness, considering one only has 140 characters to express himself? No. Because first of all I think that Twitter is one of the many ways in which we are staying connected to each other and to news. And the thing that got me converted to Twitter - I was a late adopter - was a piece that Jay Rosen wrote about mind-mapping as opposed to life-mapping. I didn't want to Twitter "I am having a vanilla ice cream on the corner of 42nd Street" because I thought, who cares? I mean I barely care. But then when I read Jay Rosen's piece about mind-mapping and sharing the things that excite me, the things I learned, the things I read, the people I meet, and then that article changed it for me and it's the people I follow for the same reason. Some of them are journalists who actually break stories on Twitter, like George Stephanopoulos. I remember he was the first one to write that the president was going to give a joint address to Congress on his health-care proposal - not a huge story but because we are following him we had it first. Believe it or not we had it before the ABC Web site had it, but that is because we are small and agile and we move fast. But there are a lot of journalists who are increasingly just quickly breaking news developments on Twitter in a way that is very, very easy to act on - real time. Also you know there are other people I follow like Cory Booker, who is the mayor of Newark who tweets about great lines. I felt like if I put together all of his tweets I would have a commencement speech. There are others who just send links to great articles they have read, which is also what I do that I want to share with people who are following me. Critics of The Huffington Post argue that your content is too diverse and inconsistent. I mean, looking at it today, you have a blog by French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, alongside a photo gallery of lingerie football and another one titled "Bare Back at the Emmys: Who Has the Hottest Rear View." Actually that is deliberate editorial policy. We believe in mixing highbrow and lowbrow. We believe that people in their lives mix highbrow and lowbrow. The highbrow may be more consistent, but The Huffington Post has a mixture of obviously all of the serious news of the day and great commentary by great thinkers as well as new people we discover and promote throughout the blog. But we also have fun and run stories about entertainment and pop culture because we want to be a one-stop shop. But you don't have to click on the stories you don't want to click on. You can click on what you like and then you can browse through different verticals depending on where your interest is. And that's part of our goal; we are launching books next week and sports, a giving section that you can actually come to The Huffington Post and spend your life there. What is your opinion of the highly successful conservative link aggregator The Drudge Report? I know Matt [Drudge]. Andrew Breitbart, who now works for him, helped us set up The Huffington Post. He used to work for me and he is a friend. He helped set up the news site. So I think that you know he has a clear point of view and you know that going in. Also that point of view permeates the stories he picks and the stories he flashes, and at the same time he has a real gift for headline writing. I think he knows how to write headlines that are not sort of commodity news and I think he is a pioneer. Turning to politics now, how significant is the fact that there are growing signs of disappointment toward Obama coming from the liberal Left in America? What do you think of Obama so far? At The Huffington Post we really avoid looking at American politics with the prism of Right and Left because we believe it is very obsolete and it obscures more than it reveals. The opposition that Obama is facing is coming from many people, including many of us at The Huffington Post, who feel he has not been living up to some of the promises he made. It's not about the expectations but the promises. If you look at health care for example, he was the one who talked about a public option being part of the insurance exchange in order to limit costs and have really effective health-care reform. He was the one who talked about negotiating with the drug industry to reduce costs, and in fact there is an agreement that they try to hide that the White House made where there was going to be no negotiations with Farmer, the group that represents the drug industry in exchange for a contribution they were going to be making. If you take other issues like Guantanamo, detainees' treatment, though there is vast improvement since the Bush years, it hasn't lived up to what he had promised. So it's really a question of looking at his leadership and what can be achieved if he really would exercise his leadership rather than holding back, which is what he has done in many areas. How far do you think Obama voters would allow him to go with regard to Iran, assuming Obama is willing to move forward on sanctions and perhaps even military action? I wouldn't see it as what the American Left would allow or not allow him to do. I would see it in what is in the best interest of the US and what is in the best interest of our security. That is the only thing that should be motivating an American president. That was not what was happening when he came to Iraq for example. Invading Iraq and staying there was certainly not in the best security interest of the US. Escalating the war in Afghanistan was certainly not in the best security interest of the US. Similarly, the decision the US has to make regarding Iran needs to be made in terms of the best security interest of the US and clearly right now, serious sanctions are what is on the table and that, of course, makes sense when you look at the way [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is behaving, the absurd statements he is making, and of course the internal opposition within the country is very significant and growing. Do you think Americans as a whole care about foreign policy, especially with the financial crisis in the background? You are absolutely right. The financial crisis has so affected people's lives that it's dominated our headlines, and foreign policy only tends to dominate our headlines when the security of the United States is directly affected. So that's really where there is more of an education process that needs to happen.


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