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So What Do You Do, Arianna Huffington?

Huff Po's leading lady talks about expanding locally, the political climate, and why she doesn't know what her site's worth

By Noah Davis - May 28, 2008
Three years ago when Greek-born writer Arianna Huffington launched The Huffington Post, an online news aggregation and blogging platform she termed an "Internet newspaper," critics scoffed. Wired opined that the skeleton staff and a pool of unpaid bloggers drawn from Huffington's famous friends would attract as much attention as her failed run for California governor. LA Weekly's Nikki Finke went so far as to call it a combination of Ishtar, Heaven's Gate, and Gigli.

It's Huffington, however, who's having the last laugh. Thanks to unprecedented interest in the 2008 election, Huff Po recently passed its conservative cousin, The Drudge Report, in terms of unique visitors. The site is rumored to be worth $200 million. In the ultimate irony, Finke's even one of its more than 1,000 bloggers. Over some shared lox, mediabistro.com caught up with Huffington in the site's SoHo loft space to discuss the astonishing success, its plans for the future, and her new book, Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe.


Name: Arianna Huffington
Position: Editor-in-chief
Publication: The Huffington Post
Education: Masters of Economics; University of Cambridge, England
Hometown: Athens, Greece
First job: Writer (published first book The Female Woman at 23)
Previous three jobs: Writer, Writer, Writer
Birthdate: July 15, 1950
Marital status: Divorced
Favorite TV show(s): Olbermann, Charlie Rose, Colbert
Last book read: The Future of The Internet And How To Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain
Most interesting media stories right now: Katie maybe leaving CBS, Rather suing CBS; Who will buy Yahoo!?
First section of your Sunday paper: "Paper? I start online... After I surf the web for a long while, I pick up my paper and check out the front page (and often marvel how far behind the newscycle has fallen)."
Guilty pleasure(s): Cheese; "Having 2 Blackberrys with me at all times"


Did you ever think The Huffington Post would be this successful? It launched less than three years ago and it's just this shocking elevation [of the site's cultural importance].
When you love something like that, you really have no idea what it's gonna be in three years. You had something new. This combination of three things: an aggregation of news with an attitude, which is our attitude; opinion, and now we have close to 2,000 bloggers; and community. So since that was something new, a hybrid, it was hard to predict too, you had to kind of jump and take the risk. You go back, you read many reviews. Nikki Finke called us the equivalent of Ishtar, Heaven's Gate, and Gigli all rolled into one. Now she's a blogger and it's all great. So, I tell my teenage daughters that we should never be stopped by bad reviews. So, it's really exciting to see where we're gonna go. I mean that is the most exciting that that we do not know. We keep evolving. We're launching new verticals, you know, green, sports, books, and we're launching the archive. It's more of a feat...it doesn't stop.

Now, I think the HuffPost is a very good example of the mullet strategy. Was that a decision you made at the beginning, or did it sort of evolve into that? Did you ever think you'd have a thousand bloggers when you first launched? Was that sort of a long-term goal?
Yeah, that was always part of the plan, because we launched with 500. So we launched with a lot of bloggers. We always saw Huff Po as a platform for interesting voices. Some of whom may have been too busy in their own worlds to be writing full-time or writing op-eds for The New York Times because that requires taking a certain amount of time out of your life and being editors and being edited. So if somebody wants the gratification of thinking something about the news of the day, or getting ahead of the story, as we had with Rob Lowe, he wanted to get ahead of an editor's story; in the case of Barack Obama, having your say at the beginning of the Reverend Wright controversy, before he went on TV, he blogged here. Both, you know, the platform for getting ahead of the story and the fact that you can have your thoughts about the news of the day out of the casual bloodstream almost instantly.

A lot has made the news last month that you passed the Drudge Report in terms of unique visitors. It's interesting to me that people compare the two so closely. It seems like you're both this news aggregation site, but the HuffPo is so much more than that. What do you make of that comparison between the two?
I think really that we are very different animals, as Drudge himself will tell you. We have two other elements, you know we have the blogs, which are a huge part of what we are doing, we have the community, and actually the third other element is that we have many verticals. What we are calling ourselves is an internet newspaper because even though we started as a political platform, we now have half our traffic coming from non-political verticals. So increasingly, we're not just speaking to the choir, we're not just speaking to progressives, we have people coming because they want to read Ron Reynolds, or Jamie Lee Curtis, or see the latest entertainment news, or read our living section, which I'm very passionate about. It is really an outgrowth of my last book, On Becoming Fearless, which is really how can we lead centered, rich lives, so we have the balanced life, the inner life, all life is part of what the living section is. Plus we have fashion, sex, books; all that is there.

"I really have not looked at all at the value of the site."

You picked an almost perfect time to have this focus on politics. With the 2008 election it seems, at least to me, that people are more involved with this election. And now you're sort of expanding out of politics. Was that an intentional plan because you're worried that the interest in politics is going to wane after the election?
No, I think it's more that we always wanted, as soon as we started getting the resources we needed, both through venture capital and through advertising. We always had the goal of expanding, because we always wanted to become an Internet newspaper. So it meant expanding in terms of topics, although we did also create a dedicated politics vertical, so for those who are addicted like I am, you can go straight to the politics vertical. You know look at the homepage and then go to the politics vertical where you have the latest updates on everything.

A month ago, there was the figure of $200 million thrown around for the value of the site. What do you think of that number?
I really have not looked at all at the value of the site. Because the site is a work in progress, you know, we keep adding features, we keep changing and at the moment I have my hands full with the site and the new book and my oldest daughter is going to college.

If someone came to you today and said, "I'll give you $200 million for the site," what would you say?
I don't really know. You know we have a board, I have a business partner, we have a CEO, we're a business, it's not just my decision. We now have an established business and I think it's small team but we would all get together and look at what would that mean for the site, what would that mean for our ability to keep expanding. At the moment, you know, everything we have raised and everything make in terms of advertising is being put back in the site. So, if we had more money available then we would grow faster. So that would be what would make us decide what we will do.

At this point, is it a profitable business?
It was always profitable. You know there are months when we are profitable, and there are months where we break even and there are months where we're not in the red. We have a great advertising team in place now. You know we had a great month last month. We're at that place where a lot depends on what advertising brings in each month.

"We'll be bringing more venture capital."

Are there any targets in the future where every month is going to be profitable?
Oh yeah, definitely.

When would you like that to be? Obviously as soon as possible.
Yeah. The trend is definitely great. The Huffington Post as a brand is great for advertising. It's increased dramatically. We have a lot of advertising from Hollywood, movies here, cars, Starbucks, so it's pretty much now a general platform for advertising.

Let's talk a little bit about the book. How do you manage to find time to write this 450-page book. Where does that come from?
You know, the book has been based on a lot of what I have been thinking and writing about politics and the media and there are really two sections of the book. One is a look at what has happened to the media and how have they enabled the hijacking of America by the right which is the theme of the book, that both our democracy and our debate have been hijacked. And actually if you watch the NBC debate you'd see how stunning it is that you would have the main network that basically absorbed all the messaging and the framing of Karl Rove and the right in terms of what became the talking points like equating patriotism with wearing a lapel pin, talking about former acquaintances from the weather underground. These are all ludicrous points that are not what the American people care about. Sure there maybe someone who cares but there are also people who care about Monica Lewinski and who care about things that seem not to belong to the center of the political debate.

The first chapters are about the self-loathing of the liberal media, the so-called liberal media that makes them hire Bill Kristol to be a columnist for The New York Times after his distorted reality for years around the war in Iraq and other issues. And now we hear that CNN hires Tony Snow who's been a PR flack for the White House to be a political commentator. So that's what I'm basically exploring, the way the right has used the media. The way the media has allowed themselves to be used, so that the right could prevail. Because they have [been] prevailing, in terms of foreign policy, in terms of deregulation. You look at the complete bankruptcy of the right at the moment, and yet the media is still absorbing the messages.

In terms of the directly political part, I write about how the right has been so disconnected from facts and reality when it came to Iraq, to science and global warming, to the need for regulation. The media have allowed this to happen because they are obsessed with every story having two sides even though there are many stories, many issues that don't have two sides. I don't think we need to be debating whether global warming is real or not, but we are. We should not be debating if the war in Iraq is winnable, it's not. And yet we keep debating.

How do you divide your time? I'm sure there are no typical days for you but in sort of a normal week how much time is spent dealing with Huffington Post stuff and how much time is spent writing? How do you break it up?
You know I'm very blessed because I love what I'm doing. I don't think there's a real division between my work and my life. So I get out of bed, I'm eager to go and I deal with whatever's most urgent. Two times a week I do full posts and then I do a Sunday rundown on Sunday at the minimum, and then I do quite a bit of speaking, and I have two teenage daughters, one who's going to college next year and the other's 16. There are crises that have to be addressed, but it's been a great year of growth and we have a wonderful team, including in Washington, I have a team of reporters.

How big is the staff?
50

Are there plans to grow it and is there some sort of a target?
Well it's basically the more money we raise, or the more money we make from advertising, we'll be adding to the team.

Are you looking for more venture capital or is it pretty much at this point advertising?
At some point, yes, we'll be bringing more venture capital.

Is that a short-term thing, is that six months down the road or a year?
It could happen faster, it depends how fast we decide we want to grow. If we want to add more verticals faster, you know, we're launching local. We're launching in Chicago. If we decide to add more cities then we will raise more capital faster.

Why did you pick Chicago?
We picked Chicago because we didn't want to pick New York and LA 'cause it seemed too big, and both my partner and I have a lot of good friends in Chicago. It would be basically the same principle as The Huffington Post, it would just be based on local news and local blogs and people could go to The Huffington Post proper for their national news.

Is there a team based in Chicago?
You know, we don't really need a team. It's just one person who will be aggregating blogs and news, and then as we learned at Huffington Post, everybody will be feeding the new baby. And then we have 23/6, which is our comedy site that's in partnership with Barry Diller, which has done some great things.

What media do you consume on a regular basis?
I have all my bookmarks, from Andrew Simon and Crooks and Liars to The New York Times, and of course you guys. I think I try to catch a bit of everything.

Do you read any print publications?
I do. I actually still love reading newspapers, that's why I've always said that I don't think newspapers are gonna die, I think they just need to adapt. So absolutely, I subscribe to The New York Times, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal at home, and all the magazines, and my teenage daughters bring every fashion magazine to the house. So yes, absolutely.

Where do you see the site in a couple of years? It's been three years since it's launched, where do you see it in three more years?
You know what's great about the Internet, why it's such an exciting space, so much is happening that we are not at the moment even fully conscious of where it's gonna take us. Let's take an example of Off The Bus, which Jay Rosen from NYU and I launched I think about a year ago, and little do we know that a year later Off The Bus would have 1,800 contributors and that one of them would break a story from an Obama fundraiser, where he would make the remarks that would become a campaign changer, or another Off The Bus contributor would get Clinton audio of her slamming MoveOn and Democratic activists. When we launched Off The Bus with high hopes for it but we didn't know of course exactly where it would go, who knows where it would be three years from now, let alone Huff Post.

Are there any sites out there that you look at think, "Oh, I wish we would have done that," or, "I wish we had done that first?"
No, I think there are sites like Josh Marshall, whom I love on Talking Points Memo that they have done the reporting in a way that I would like us to do more of, like wisdom of the crowd reporting. Bringing together the attorney general story by having different members of the community reporting, and they're connecting the dots. So I think that's great and we want to be doing more of that.

You don't pay the bloggers now, obviously, except for a couple.
We don't pay the bloggers at all, we only pay the editors.

Right but like Rachel Sklar, she's on staff. Is there any plan to ever pay them?
Not to pay the bloggers. I think we pay them in other ways. First of all, they only blog if they want to. There's no expectation. We provide a platform, attention, technical support, community, and moderation. It becomes like an addition platform. We get bloggers who get book deals, or record deals.


Noah Davis is mediabistro.com's associate editor and co-editor of FishbowlNY.com.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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