As the founder of Huffington Post foliages to spend more time with her pillow, its worth reflecting on how she helped rouse old media from a complacent slumber
For many journalists there is no greater irony than Arianna Huffington, the eponymous publisher of the Huffington Post, giving up her role in the company she founded 11 years ago to spend more time with a wellness start-up focused on telling us all to get more sleep. HuffPo built its success on being part of speeding up the 24 -hour news cycle, filling pages with unpaid contributions, and generally adding to an environment which fellow publishers observed not even slightly relaxing. Even with a special pillow.
When the Huffington Post launched on 9 May 2005, it caught the news industry in the middle of a giant collective snooze. Hard as it might be to imagine now, it was a year when mainstream new organisations had reason to believe there would be a future for advertising-funded news websites. The future seemed brighter than at any point in the past five years. Out of nowhere, it seemed, the Huffington Post emerged, bringing with it an approach which pushed digital practice far farther than most of the even forward-looking news organisations were prepared to go at the time.
At the Guardian we set up our opinion site Comment is Free in response to the obvious and immediate success of the Huffington Post in transgressing the mold for live commentary. We even had a picture of Arianna Huffington pinned to the wall to ask, only partially satirically, what would Arianna do?
Huffington opting to spend more time with her earplugs was not the only nostalgic farewell for New York media this week, as the staff of Gawker threw a party last night ahead of next Tuesdays auction which sets the publisher on the block following the well-publicised loss of a libel suit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan and financed by Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel.
Nick Denton, Gawkers British founder, is, like Huffington, a key figure in the transformation of modern American journalism. Gawker, founded in 2002, brought an alien sensibility to a New York publishing world that took itself very seriously.
There are plenty of those even working in the digital realm who saw both companies pushing the boundaries of publishing in undesirable directions , not least Thiel, whose personal vendetta against Gawker grew from the publication discussing his sexuality. Those critical of Gawker tend to be those most likely to be skewered by its journalism. For the Huffington Post, the critics tended to be those that were skewered by its business model.
The founding partners of the Huffington Post, which included Jonah Peretti and Ken Lerer( who also set up BuzzFeed) and, briefly, the deceased rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, knew that to reach adequate scale on the web they needed to publish far more, but for a fraction of the cost. As a result, Huffington Post became famous for being the platform which stimulated it OK not to pay novelists for their work. Conversely, it highlighted the fact that there were many more people willing to write for little or nothing for exposure of a global publisher than there were people who demanded payment.
To think of Gawker and Huffington Post as taking wrecking balls to a noble industry which would otherwise have( eventually) found a righteous track of prosperity and good practise through the digital swamp is completely wrong. Had Gawker or Huffington Post not come along when they did, then something else would have. And many arguably better things have emerged subsequently. Energy and investment needed to find its way into digital journalism in the mid-2 000 s and venerable organizations needed to be pushed further into understanding how to induce journalism work in a changed environment.
A more testing issue for journalism now is thinking how to sustain a market where the next Dentons or Huffingtons will come from. Thiel has all but shut Gawker, AOL has taken over the Huffington Post; every news business, new and old, is rethinking whether it can exist as a free service in a market where advertising has collapsed. Facebook and Snapchat have more attention from both readers and advertisers than publishers. We are being urged to pay for journalism, rather in the way we are being urged to stop using fossil fuel: the moral lawsuit is strong, but the solutions for how are sparse and economically unpromising.
At least Arianna Huffington need no longer lose sleep over such problems.
Read more: www.theguardian.com