On Tuesday (9/14) I had a chance to attend a talk by Arianna Huffington at the Kennedy School. She was there to talk about her new book (of which she gave away copies!), but she also talked about trends in online journalism, which she is helping to drive.
Here are some highlights of her talk:
When she was starting HuffPo from scratch in 2005, she knew that a key issue would be to earn trust. One key step in that direction was adopting a policy of “human moderation of comments.” That way, new users could find a particular kind of environment, free of trolls, flaming and other kinds of junk.
Another key step: we “went after great voices” — starting with the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who invited her to the Century Club for an initial lunch. In going after other “great voices,” she said she makes special arrangements. For one thing, HuffPo offers what she calls “concierge service” for contributors like Schlesinger who are not very computer savvy. Those contributors use the concierge service by calling a special telephone number, where HuffPo staffers take dictation, then convert the material into files that can be posted. She said that’s how Larry David submits his posts. (This brought me back to my days at AP and the Washington Post, where everybody had to know how to both dictate and take dictation. I didn’t know anyone was still doing it.)
Now, there are 10,000 bloggers at HuffPo.
From the beginning, the idea was to present news online, 24/7.
Now, there are 30 reporters and editors, including an investigative unit (out of a total staff of 190). There are also 45 million unique visitors a month, she said, and 3.5 million comments a month.
“My dream was to combine the best of the old traditional journalism (accuracy, credibility, etc.) with the best of the new (immediacy, transparency, engagement).”
In terms of revenues, HuffPo is “100 percent ad-based.” She said it is “now profitable.”
Arianna was asked about fact-checking. One thing she wants to do is fact-check public statements. As an example, she said that if Sen. Grassley mentions “death panels,” there should be some kind of bubble that appears citing the relevant portion of the bill. (I’m pretty sure she was talking about TV at this point, but she sort of lost me here.)
As for fact-checking at HuffPO, she said: “We are doing our part. We have an ombudsman who works all night.” The ombud reviews the site and sends memos to her and the managing editor. Sometimes, these notes involve “minor things” like transgressions of AP Style rules. Sometimes the ombud raises major factual issues.
“It’s incredibly important, especially when there is so much out there that is wrong.”
“The Internet is a two-edged sword. It’s easier to spread errors, but it’s also faster to correct things.”
Q. How did you go from blogging by yourself to running a huge site?
A. Arianna gave generous credit to her early partners. She cited her co-founder, Kenneth Lerer, who came from AOL. “The two of us raised half of the money each, just over one million dollars. Literally, I raised it from friends. Larry and Laurie David were first. When they divorced, they split it.”
Later, there were two more rounds of financing — one by a bank, one by Oak Ventures (a Silicon Valley venture capital firm).
She was also asked about Andrew Brietbart? (founder of Big Government and other conservative sites).
“He used to work for me. He also worked primarily for Drudge. I asked Andrew to help us work out the news part of Huffington Post. Yes, he was part of (it).”
“Ideologically, he was always the same.”
“What he believes is different from what I believe.” Her major point was that he was hired for technical assistance and he rendered it. The rest was outside the scope of his duties for her.
Q. You and Nick Denton are writing the new rules of online news. One rule is unpaid writers. How can we have quality without pay?
A. At Huffington Post we have 190 fulltime staff, plus dozens of moderators (paid but part time) paid interns, unpaid sumer iterns. We are hiring right now. Our goal is to keep hiring. We particularly like to hire young people right out of college. We just hired former arts editor of Yale Daily News. If you know anybody who wants a job, we are hiring… Especially people right out of college – that’s a fantastic demographic for us.”
Q. How long will the New York Times survive in print?
A. Indefinitely. Something in our dna loves newspapers. I subscribe to several newspapers. I don’t have time to read them all, but I like having them around.”
“From the day we launched I said the future is hybrid.”