Today's date:
Summer 2009

Tipping Point for the New Media

Arianna Huffington is editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, the leading political blog in the United States. She spoke with NPQ in April.

NPQ | In the past few months, American newspapers that have endured a century or more are starting to drop like flies. Yet Huffington Post, just four years old on May 5, had 8.9 million unique visitors in February, right up there with the BBC and The Washington Post.

As a result, the old media have declared open war on search engines and aggregators. The chief of the Associated Press has announced a campaign to "protect content" and the editor of The Wall Street Journal has castigated news aggregators as " the intestines of the Internet."

Have we reached a tipping point where the new media have vanquished the old media?

Huffington | We are certainly at a turning point leading to the tipping point—an exciting prospect in my view.

There needs to be a distinction between saving journalism and saving newspapers. The idea that you can go back to a pre-Internet world where you can create walled gardens around content and charge for admission is simply futile. Those who try that are going to fail.

Today we live in the linked economy, not a walled-off content economy. The challenge is to find different ways to monetize links among media through advertising or micropayment or whatever, not subscription for exclusive content. In this environment, good journalism will survive, and even flourish.

There will be more bottom-up citizen journalism, which is great.

Some old media are adapting. One good example of how the "old media"—in this case TV—is monetizing links is through the embeddable player.

When I go around colleges on speaking tours and ask who saw Tina Fey's mimic of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live almost everyone raises their hands. When I ask if they saw it on TV, only a few hands go up.

Most everyone saw it on an Internet site from the download made available by SNL, accompanied by their ads. So they monetized their content no matter what platform it appeared on.

What we are going through is a process of "disruptive innovation" in the media. Those who were splendid managers of the old platforms can't seem to find a steady footing in the new one.

NPQ | Of course, for you it is all innovation since you started from scratch. For newspapers, with their huge legacy costs of newsprint, distribution and large staffs, it is mostly disruption.

How should newspapers relate to the new world of linked content?

Huffington | When we link, we follow the "fair use" ground rules, quoting no more than two paragraphs from another medium and then linking to the original story on the original site. That generates an amazing amount of traffic to the original site. It is not a one-way street. Half of our traffic at HuffPost comes from links and searches. The question for newspapers is how they monetize those links.

The answer of the mainstream media can't be to huff and puff to try to blow down Google and other news aggregators. If they got what they wished for, it would be a one-way ticket to oblivion because they would lose huge chunks of traffic driven to their sites.

The better answer, as Google CEO Erich Schmidt has said, is to try to figure out what the consumer wants instead of trying to salvage your old platform at all costs. You could end up with content, but no consumers.

NPQ | Even Google, though, is finding ad revenue alone insufficient. On YouTube, which they own, they are considering charging fees or micropayments for higher quality content, which is expensive to produce.

What other ways besides ads can you monetize online journalism?

Huffington | That is the equivalent of us finding a way to finance original reporting. As an example of non-profit/profit cooperation, we have raised money from various philanthropic foundations and the American News Project to produce investigative reports that will be made available to every news outlet at the same time, whether The New York Times or Huffington Post. So, the reporting is financed through non-profit contributions; we, or anyone else who uses the content, will profit from links back to our site. We will monetize the content by the traffic it attracts to our site.

NPQ | Obviously you don't buy the argument that you are sucking the lifeblood out of professional journalism?

Huffington | That is like complaining about a car going faster than a horse. Throughout history, new technologies have disrupted old ways. You can't wish away the Internet and the linked economy it has created.

NPQ | The Huffington Post has become so popular because of the way you organize, or curate, the news you aggregate, presenting it in an edgy, urgent way. It is far less staid than mainstream newspapers, and, of course, is perpetually refreshed as news develops. It is never behind events, but is nearly real time as they unfold. Is this the secret to attracting readers?

Huffington | That and more. Curating involves not only choosing which story you are going to put up, but which part of the story you are going to make the headline. For example, Goldman Sachs announced its profit statement recently. The story in The New York Times read like a press release from Goldman Sachs, hailing their positive turn. You had to go down to paragraph 12 in the article to read that Goldman Sachs was not including in the new calendar year of its report the billion dollars losses of December! Shouldn't that be paragraph one?

NPQ | Why is it that the professionally trained journalists of The New York Times would cast a story that way while the unprofessional journalists of Huffington Post wouldn't?

Huffington | It is the result of a problem that has been facing American mainstream journalism for a long time. And it has mainly to do with access. They want to get their calls returned by the big guys at Goldman Sachs. So they develop a relationship in which the journalists themselves become insiders. Too often, consequently, they do little else than rewrite the press releases they are handed.

This has cost America a lot. Mainstream journalists of The New York Times and elsewhere were complicit insiders both in the lead-up to the Iraq war and in the lead-up to the financial meltdown.

Those who are covering Goldman Sachs or the White House should not be in bed with them. It is not that anything illegal or improper is going on. They are not getting bribes or junkets. The problem is internal censorship. In order to keep their treasured access, they edit themselves. That is why it is so pernicious.

The poster boy for this malaise is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who ironically earned his fame breaking the Watergate story decades ago. Now, he is the dumb blond of American journalism. His two books on George Bush were just so much apologia. He was so impressed he was let into the inner room, that he could be a fly on the wall in Cabinet meetings, that he left his journalistic instincts at the door. He couldn't see the real story because he was too close.

Huffington Post is about truth seeking, not insidership. Beyond the news, Huffington Post is also about commentary and community. We have over 100 regular bloggers, with fresh and original content that could never fit, no less be selected to appear, on the constrained op-ed pages of newspapers. In terms of community, we have 1 million comments a month from visitors who repeatedly come back to the site to add their own two cents.

NPQ | Do you worry that sites such as HuffPost are helping create an information culture in which the media are divided up into political nations? In such a culture, people will only find the information they are looking for, according to their own predispositions and prejudices. If they are liberal, they will go to HuffPost; if they are conservative, they will go to the Drudge Report. Or, on radio, they will go to Rush Limbaugh.

Huffington | I feel strongly that we need to return to the mission of journalism, which is truth seeking, not presenting facts from the perspective of the left or the right. That is an old way of thinking. Of course, at HuffPost, we are transparently left-liberal in our opinions. But we tell it like it is. Our job is not to be cheerleaders.

We never shrink from criticizing Obama. Every day we question the wisdom of his bank bailout plans. And remember, HuffPost almost sunk Obama's presidential campaign when one of our citizen reporters cited his remarks that when the white working class turned bitter because of their economic condition, they turned to God and guns.

When conservatives write for us, as they often do, they get premium treatment. So, if blogosphere journalism sticks to the facts, whatever their political beliefs, this needn't be a danger.

NPQ | Is there a difference between Europe, Asia, Latin America and the US in terms of the linked media economy? By definition, the variety of languages creates content walls.

Huffington | You are right, the linked economy is language-based, though videos transcend language. But I do think the linked economy will be prevalent within each language market. It will just be smaller and less global in those places where the language does not travel so easily as it does in the big languages such as English, Mandarin or Spanish.

Remember that the videos, along with twitters, of the terror attacks in Mumbai or the plane landing on the Hudson River in New York swept the world immediately even before many of the major news organization could get a handle on them. Those are examples of the global scope of the linked economy.

NPQ | Five or 10 years down the road, what will the media landscape look like?

Huffington | I am always stunned at how quickly the landscape has evolved. In the 2004 presidential election in the US, for example, YouTube didn't even exist! In this recent election, it was a dominant factor in Obama's popularity and victory. Who could possibly have predicted that only five years ago?

So, I wouldn't even venture to imagine what the landscape will look like five years from now. Let's just say it will evolve quickly and in unpredictable ways—but along lines that deepen the linked economy. It won't go the way of walled gardens and subscriptions.

NPQ | The dark side of the linked economy is that, while it can create near-perfect markets by matching producer and consumer, it may also be creating the monster of a privatized Big Brother. Because they record every search, Google may know more about you than your best friend. Do you worry about the intrusion of the linked economy in private life?

Huffington | This is something we need to be very aware of. Google has developed something called "the anonymizer" which can remove your search record. This kind of safeguard is very important. Teenagers, my daughters, for example, need to be aware that when they put something up on Facebook, it can be made available to the whole world, for all eternity. When I first had this conversation with my daughters, they were shocked to learn the limits to their privacy in the linked economy. There does need to be a wariness about it all.