Arianna Huffington – interviewed by Evan Smith

Wrote this in May and saved it as a draft. Timing’s good for publication: I’ve been thinking a lot about the Huffington Post as a model for network journalism that combines the work of professionals with contributions from a broader set of bloggers. In this interview, Huffington showed that she was savvy about the contemporary Internet and the future of journalism.

May 4, 2010 – As part of the Texas Monthly Talks series, Evan Smith interviewed Arianna Huffington, in town to speak at a benefit for the Texas Freedom Network. Huffington’s flight arrived late, so the talk was abbreviated. Much of the discussion was about the current state of journalism and Huffington Post’s (HuffPo’s) success as new media hybrid journalism – a combination of user-generated and professional content.

Huffington led with the observation that people want contgent, but they also want engagement – they want “to be part of the story of our time.” That’s the essence of participatory journalism. She said that self-experssion has become the new entertainment. Evan: “It all counts.”

Huffington Post has been successful, has a readership apporaching that of the New York Times, and leaving other major online publishing venues in the dust. She says part of the secret of HuffPo’s success is that “we’re not just talking to people who agree with us.”

HuffPo has a thriving community and “human moderators” that maintain the civility of the conversations – “we don’t want it to be the Glenn Beck Show.” When Rick Perry shot the coyote and it was reported at HuffPo, there was an immediate surge of interst – 1,000 comments within a day. In addition to moderators, the Post’s readers police the site – they wouldn’t be able to manage the conversations without help from the community.

Evan: “What happened to journalism?” Why is for-profit legacy journalism failing? Have they lost sight of their mission, or is it that new media approaches are more compelling. “Are they down, or are you up?”

Huffington responds that they just didn’t get it. When HuffPo launched, legacy media were still skeptical of new approaches (participatory media/social media), but now they’re moving online, moving toward a hybrid model. Pay walls haven’t worked – worked for Wall Street Journal initially, but their subscriptions are down. In this context, she mentioned that traditional tenets of journalism should prevail – meaning that fundamental journalistic ethics and standards will necessarily be maintained in new media. [I’ve been thinking about this, and want to be involved in training news bloggers and citizen journalists. Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report and I have been instigating a conference for this purpose.]

Digital natives consume all their news online. We can’t go back to old ways of doing journalism – can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The Internet has a culture of free content that can be monetized [she didn’t specify how, but I suspect she was thinking of advertising and some other mix of revenues associated with brand].

You have to be prepared to take your content to the readers, rather than expecting them to come to you. [This is a 101 new media concept, but always worth repeating.] Evan notes that this implies a “disintermediation of content from the source.” Arianna: “ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”

HuffPo includes content contributed by unpaid bloggers, paying only editors and reporters. Is Huffington building an empire on the backs of unpaid contributors? Not at all – bloggers are leveraging HuffPo’s visibility, finding and building audiences, getting book deals, etc.

HuffPo aggregates content from other sites, too – is this leveraging others’ content? Huffington notes that they strictly follow fair use guidelines and have never been sued for infringement. Aggregation and curation of content are essential parts of an Internet information service. Curation means identify what’s important and elevate it, give it visibility. Put flesh and blood on data.

Evan: “Obama – how is it going?” Huffington says she is very glad he was elected, that he inherited a huge crisis. One problem: he’s surrounded himself with Clintonites like Larry Summers, and did everything humanly possible to save Wall Street, but nothing to save Main Street. Huffington is writing a book on the decline of the middle class, and is very concerned that there is no effort to reverse the decline, which has been going on for thirty years. So Obama’s administration should be doing dramatic things to save the middle class – though he may have done a lot already, he’s not necessarily taking the right approach, making bold moves that he should be making to support those in the middle. Some say he saved the economy, but he didn’t – he just saved Wall Street. We still have 25 million people out of work, and escalating foreclosures.

It also bothers her that no strings were attached to the salvation of Wall Street.

Otherwise, Obama is an extaordinary communicator and has improved U.S. standing in the world community – those are real pluses. “I will definitely vote for him again. What’s the alternative?” The “loyal opposition” is not talking today’s issues seriously. They treat governing like it was a debating club.

The administration’s attempts to be bipartisan are wasted effort, she says. She compares it to guys hitting non Ellen Degeneres “and not being told you’re not going to get anywhere.”