/ 6 April 2009

Huffington Post comes of age, but how will it mature?

In four years it has gone from upstart to online powerhouse — and now it wants to branch out into news. Is the Huffington Post ready to replace the ailing US newspaper industry?

There’s precious little good news from America’s current affairs media these days. Barely a week passes without another announcement of savage staff cuts, bankruptcies or even closures at newsrooms across the US. But last week champagne corks were popping. The Huffington Post, the New York-based liberal blog, announced it was setting up a $1,75-million fund to help fill the gap left by the decimation of US investigative teams.

The initiative, said the site’s founder, Arianna Huffington, was an attempt to preserve good journalism in America. “For too long,” she said, “we’ve had too many autopsies and not enough biopsies. The HuffFund is our attempt to change this.”

The aim is to dig away at weighty subjects, starting with the economic crisis. The fund will provide for up to 10 staff, supplemented by freelancers, many of them old media stalwarts sacked from failing news institutions.

The fact that the rescue mission is being launched under the flag of the HuffPo — a blog best known for its vibrant commentary rather than news — underlines the blurring effect of the internet revolution. Blogs are inheriting the investigative work of newspapers; newspapers are blogging.

The fund also signals the website’s ambition to move to a more central position in the media landscape — it began to call itself an “internet newspaper” last year. April 2009 may well be seen as the moment the Huffington Post came of age.

The HuffPo‘s rise has been impressive. Less than four years old and with fewer than 60 staff (including seven news reporters), it is now a competitor to the New York Times, 158 years old and with more than 1 000 journalists. According to the ratings website Comscore, in February the HuffPo drew more than a third of the Times‘s traffic: 7,3-million unique users to 18,4-million.

Given the HuffPo‘s ambition and position, some have started to question its methods, which they see as more in keeping with a startup company undergoing breathtaking growth than a beacon of journalistic hope and excellence.

It is a paradox that although the Huffington Post is household currency in liberal America, the company remains relatively little known. The focus is almost always on Arianna Huffington herself and her colourful life story — born in Greece, educated in England; married to and divorced from an oil millionaire; a rightwinger turned leftwing scourge of Bush and champion of Obama.

Yet a steady trickle of information has started to flow from people with experience of the site who raise concerns that standards are not keeping up with the exponential increase in the website’s size and clout. In the past 18 months several experienced journalists have left core positions. The former managing editor, Elinor Shields, who came from the BBC, has not yet been replaced and she left in 2007 (though HuffPo is poised to appoint someone); the blog editor, Frank Wilkinson, now edits the US version of the Week; Michelle Kung is now at the Wall Street Journal. The two journalists, including Amanda Michel, behind the groundbreaking and successful experiment in citizen journalism, OffTheBus, also left earlier this year. The project was designed to finish after the election but the departures were still surprising.

Some could argue this is a natural phenomenon in such a fast-moving world. And the HuffPo has made some good signings recently, notably the Washington reporter Ryan Grim, who was at the respected political website Politico. But key positions remain filled by people who came to the site with limited journalistic experience. Matthew Palevsky, for instance, has been brought in to run a new citizen journalism venture in Michel’s absence — pending the appointment of a new editor. He graduated from university last year. He also happens to be Huffington’s godson.

Marc Cooper, who worked with Michel on OffTheBus, left the website in January and now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, where he also runs an online journal. He has been on both sides of the old/new media divide, having worked as a magazine writer and editor. Before he quit, he approached the founders about extending citizen journalism throughout the website.

He says they were resistant to the idea of having experienced journalists leading the project, which he felt was a requirement to maintain editorial standards. “I found there was an unbreachable gap between the scope of the HuffPo as a very big and powerful website, and its disproportionately undeveloped editorial processes.”

Cooper stressed that he wants the website to succeed and was proud of his involvement with it. Yet he believes its processes are sometimes immature. “I don’t see enough news judgement, or emphasis on the quality of reporting.”

Arianna Huffington accepts that growth presents new challenges. “We have put systems in place to make sure our reporters are properly edited, that there is constant communication between them and editors and as we are growing and expanding we are going to do more of that,” she said.

Other former employees interviewed by the Guardian would not go on the record, pointing out that every staff member has to sign a contract forbidding talk of internal matters. But several felt that as the site grows, it needs to invest in more original journalism. Huffington this week told Mediabistro that almost a third of the site’s content “comes from original reporting”. But most of the news content — as opposed to its commentary — involves aggregation in the form of links to other news providers.

During last year’s election campaign, reporters were encouraged by Huffington to stay at their desks rather than go out into the field. They were told desk-based journalism, often spent listening to the candidates’ conference calls, would be more productive. Others regretted the lack of any face-to-face communication between reporters and editors — there are no regular daily news conferences and only one fixed weekly conference call between Huffington and the politics team, although there is regular digital dialogue.

A final area of concern was the way stories are placed on the front page. The co-founder Kenneth Lerer frequently determines which stories lead the blog, and even writes headlines.

As chairperson of a company that was not long ago valued at up to $200-million, aren’t his interventions in some way comparable to Rupert Murdoch’s interference in the front pages of his newspapers and thus potentially discomforting the blog’s liberal readers?

None of this would matter were the HuffPo not the powerhouse it has become. While the New York Times is in a life-or-death struggle to pay its debts, the HuffPo in December attracted another $25-million in venture capital.

Criticising the concerns of those interviewed for this article would miss the point. As traditional news institutions crumble, the US news media are increasingly looking to the website to show the way forward, to find a model that combines open access and community interaction with a real commitment to serious and original journalism. Last week the Huffington Post came of age. How will it mature? – guardian.co.uk