Web Pirate? Prophet? Maybe Both. Arianna Huffington Deserves Credit For The Media Empire She Built

By Michael A. Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great article on Arianna Huffington who is stepping down from The Huffington Post. Huffington is now focused on a new company called “Thrive Global”, which secured its first round of venture capital this week.

The Dallas Morning News

Arianna Huffington is stepping down as editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, a post which included oversight of all content on AOL. She deserves a round of applause and I am happy to give it to her.

I wasn’t so friendly back when she launched her site 11 years ago. Many journalists disliked it intensely when debuted — or rather, we disliked its premise.

After all, its founding idea was that it could make money by posting hundreds, or even thousands, of stories on its site.

Publishing standards? There were little or none. The more headlines, the more traffic.

To publish all those headlines, the site would rely on two sources for its news. First, it announced that anyone in the world, more or less, was free to write for its site. No experience, no expertise required. The catch? No one would be paid.

That proved to be a tremendously democratizing — and sometimes exploitive — force in publishing, with all the good and bad that comes with that.

The other source of those traffic-turning headlines? The work of other journalists, taken from their own publishers’ sites and summarized under a new headline. Huffington Post neither asked permission nor paid for the privilege. What they gave in return was a link back to the original story, should readers care to click.

For many local publishers, that link never sent enough traffic back to mean anything, and instead the new site cannibalized the publishers’ revenue.

Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Harvard’s now-defunct Citizen Media Law Project, where I was then a contributor. The piece has long since vanished, but the headline: Huffington Post: Web Prophet or Pirate?

I was more or less in the pirate category. After all, for many readers, a quick summary of the story was all they wanted. What gave Huffington Post the right to fill that consumer need with content they didn’t create, rather than the creators of the story? Some courts agreed, others didn’t.

Eventually, though, those concerns faded. Every publisher began embracing aggregation as part of the business model as they began to see the huge audiences HuffPost and imitators attracted — often by the use of sophisticated data science, now an industry norm. And to its credit, Huffington Post began relying more on its own content, both from the legion of free bloggers it cultivated, and increasingly through top-notch journalists of its own.

In 2012, the site won a Pulitzer Prize, which the Guardian lauded as a turning point in modern media history. Its coverage of Washington, though hardly as broad or as deep as mainstream mainstays like The New York Times or Washington Post is smart, detailed and determined. Its investigative and long-form work — organized under the heading Highline — is serious, and accomplished by a large and serious staff of paid professionals.

But as big as her online publishing footprint became, Huffington herself was always more than the Huff Post. I first got to know her work in college, when assigned an absorbing, difficult and ferociously researched and feminist biography of Pablo Picasso. It was bracing, and changed my way of viewing not just Picasso but all artists.

I spoke to Huffington back in June, when she was pushing her new book, The Sleep Revolution. My favorite response was to a question I asked about how many times she had completely switched gears in her career, and found success in something entirely new. She had, after all, began as an academic, then a biographer, spent time in the role of a politician’s spouse, and ended up something of a public intellectual — all before emerging as one of the most enduring and successful web entrepreneurs in a media industry overrun with them.

When I look back at my life, I see that I have always remained open to new directions. … As you can see, a lot of the changes in my life happened without being planned by me. I think that’s important for all of us…. we often thing we can plan our lives and that everything happens because we make it happen. But I see it as a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.

Thursday’s news prompted speculation that she was leaving as a result of Verizon’s $4.4 billion purchase of AOL, Inc. last year. (AOL had previously bought Huffington Post for more than $300 million.) She signed a contract last summer that appeared to keep her there till 2019. But she said Thursday that her she can’t continue and also launch a new company she’s been seeking funding for. Called Thrive Global, it secured its first round of venture capital this week.

Here is what she said in June when I asked her about her future.

“I absolutely love The Huffington Post and we are now 11 years old. We keep growing and changing, and we are launching in Mexico, which will be our 16th country. But the other thing I believe in is what I am doing with the Sleep Revolution. I believe we need a cultural shift in terms of how we see sleep. It’s about ending the collective delusion that sleep is optional and that if we are going to succeed we need to sacrifice sleep.

So I have a sort of missionary zeal about getting that message out… People, as they get older, have bigger problems getting to sleep and they don’t know how many natural alternatives and how many ways there are available to help us sleep and connect with a different part of our selves.”

Start-ups fail faster than spilled milk sours, but betting against Huffington has to count as a long shot. I wish her well.

Pirate? Prophet? Maybe a little of both. But she carved a unique place out in the digital transformation of the media, joining the party fairly early and sticking around longer than most.

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