Monday, May 15, 2006
NYTimes' David Carr profiles Huffington Post and terms it a success -- perhaps at Bush expense
By David Carr
The New York Times
Published: May 15, 2006
WHEN it began a year ago, The Huffington Post seemed like a remarkably bad idea. The brainchild of Arianna Huffington, the blog was intended to be a liberal counterpoint to The Drudge Report, featuring an elite list of Hollywood bloggers Gwyneth Paltrow, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, among others who would share their innermost leanings. A year later, The Huffington Post has succeeded by failing. The promised missives from stars never much materialized, but the site is booming, fueled by rapid-fire news postings and more than 700 bloggers, most of whom you have never heard of.
The Huffington Post had more than 1.3 million unique visitors last month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, and more than 2 million in February. The site now has deals with Yahoo and AOL, is close to a deal with a video company, and has been approached by Barry Diller to help build a separate satiric news and entertainment site.
After investing about $2 million, a fraction of the $50 million it would take to create a magazine, The Huffington Post has become a well-known, oft-cited news media brand in the blink of an eye. It seems that Ms. Huffington, who has taken to social climbing with the finesse of a ballerina and the ferocity of a fullback, has found finally found her métier. Nick Denton, founder and publisher of Gawker Media, calls her "the only establishment figure to make the transition to the Web."
After a zigzag career that included tours as an author, socialite, political wife, conservative maven, gubernatorial candidate and television commentator, the glamorous Greek ex-pat known for inspired political fan-dancing has found traction in a media space better known for rants from people who rarely leave their basements. "I am an obsessive, and the Internet rewards obsession," she said, adding in passing that there is still no Greek word for blog. "We should come up with a better name for it, but I guess that ship has sailed." And so it has, taking Ms. Huffington right along with it. Last Monday night, she was honored by Time magazine along with Matt Drudge, still the unchallenged king of the blogosphere as one of America's 100 most influential people.
AT the party at the Time Warner Center, Ms. Huffington, who has railed against the war in Iraq, finally had the chance to face off against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. When she finally had her moment, she asked the secretary of state, "Who designed your dress?" Rena Lange, was the secretary's reply. "And who designed yours?"
"Kira Craft. She's a young designer in Los Angeles."
Ms. Huffington's readers, who have grown accustomed to a steady diet of red-meat attacks on the administration, were
livid. "I tend to agree with your positions, but this is important. You give up your power as a journalist when you're 'afraid' to ask questions just because you're at a social function," wrote one poster on the site. "Why, as a journalist, would you want to socialize with those in power?" Her readers fail to understand that her air-kissed mastery of social conventions is how she arrived in the first place. Ms. Huffington, whom I have watched work the room effortlessly at both political conventions and Oscar parties, is a celebrity who occasionally functions as a journalist, someone who throws rocks from deep inside the glass house. "I don't think she is giving voice to people who didn't have one," said Mr. Drudge, her foil on the right. "She is crashing the gates of her own home in Brentwood as far as I can tell. It's not like she is disenfranchised."
But a Brentwood address alone does not push a Web site above the clutter. Ms. Huffington smartly partnered with Ken Lerer, a former AOL executive who was convinced that the site could blend straight news and blogging. The duo hired Jonah Peretti, a viral marketing hotdog who has helped the site's visibility. Beyond the bag of Web tricks, Ms. Huffington has introduced the sparkle of celebrity to the frat-house world of blogging. In at least one case, she overdelivered, manufacturing a post by George Clooney (which he quickly disavowed) out of public comments he'd previously made. "I tried too hard to speed up his journey to blogging," she blithely explained.
She may have stumbled with Mr. Clooney, but she has sped a lot of other journeys. The Huffington Post came along at a time when the liberal penchant for polite discourse was being buried by the unalloyed opinions of conservatives, who used talk radio and the Web to tilt the playing field in their favor. Ms. Huffington put the same kind of megaphone on the left at a time when the old hallmarks of civility and fairness were no longer prized, and in this new world, a bit passé.
After just a year, The Huffington Post has worked one end of the political spectrum to put itself right in the middle of things. JWT, the advertising agency, has placed ads for several clients on the site and has invited Ms. Huffington to speak at a huge ad summit in Cannes, France. "Clients have begun to realize that you can't just play it safe," said Bob Jeffrey, the chief executive and chairman of JWT Worldwide. "They have to be willing to look at things that have a point of view." And part of the reason that her site is doing so well may be simply that the current administration is not.
"There are a lot of things that are doing well because of the failing of the Bush administration, and while our country might not be one of them, The Huffington Post certainly is," said Al Franken, the Air America radio host and occasional Huffington Post contributor. "Arianna has always tried a lot of stuff and some of it didn't stick to the wall. This just happened to come along at a very good time."
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