Paywalls, aggregation and the ‘third metric’: Memeburn interviews Arianna Huffington

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Arianna Sitting

If you know anything about online publishing, chances are you know about The Huffington Post. The online news aggregator and blog, after all, overtook the New York Times in terms of unique visits in mid 2011 and in 2012 it became the first commercially run US digital media enterprise to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Memeburn recently got the chance to sit down with the site’s eponymous founder Arianna Huffington. The daughter of a Greek journalist and management consultant, Huffington has been in the public eye since the early 1990s when her then husband the Michael Huffington made an unsuccessful bid for the US senate. She later became a popular conservative commentator in the mid-1990s, before adopting liberal political beliefs in the late 1990s. Indeed, The Huffington Post came about, at least in part, because Huffington wanted a platform that could provide a counter to news aggregators such as the Drudge Report.

Since launching, the platform has faced serious (and not so serious) criticism for its heavy use of aggregation. Huffington told Memeburn however that the whole aggregation debate has been conducted “by people who don’t seem to understand aggregation”.

To her, it’s simple: “once you follow the guidelines, it’s completely win-win”.

It’s not all about aggregation at HuffPo though — the company does have a dedicated team of journalists and editors, something Huffington told Memeburn she wanted from the beginning of the site’s existence. That hardly makes it unique among newsrooms, although the existence of a couple of nap rooms might.

The nap rooms are the product of Huffington’s “third metric” philosophy, which posits that we need ways of measuring success that don’t equate success with burnout, sleep deprivation, and driving ourselves into the ground. Paradoxically, given technology’s role in producing this kind of burnout (24 hour email access and the expectation of constant connectivity, for instance), she said that technology is incredibly useful in the quest to “help us disconnect from technology”.

Memeburn: How healthy do you think the state of online reporting is currently?

Arianna Huffington: I think it’s very healthy, because I know there are people who look at the sort of “Golden Age” of journalism. But if you think of it, traditional journalism missed a lot of important things. I mean like in the lead up to the Iraq War: they bought into the WMD myth. They missed the financial collapse, the imminence of the financial collapse et cetra. So I think when you have a lot more voices online, a lot more people who are often able to bring the information to the public, it can actually enhance journalism because instead of having a few sources you can millions of sources.

And of course there’s always the question of credibility and fact checking and accountability and these are issues that become more relevant when you have a lot of citizen journalists, but also you see how quickly current mistakes are corrected.

MB: Last year HuffPo won a Pulitzer, the first online-only daily to do so. How did the site’s evolution allow that to happen? 

AH: From the beginning, if you go back to 2005 when I was speaking about what my vision for The Huffington Post was, it was always a combination of the best of traditional journalism and the best of online media. And as soon as we could afford it, we wanted to hire journalists who could do real investigative reporting, but do it differently. Like if you look at the 10 part series on the lives of returning vets that won the Pulitzer, it included video sent by vets, it included content requests, the community sent us their stories, it was very interactive.

And now, with the constant evolution of The Huffington Post, we’re doing more and more infographics, we are including the reader: we launched HuffPost live which is a video offering that puts the viewer right at the center and engagement has always been at the heart of what The HuffPost does.

MB: A lot of online news sites, especially in the tech space, are shifting toward more long-form, commentary pieces. Is that a sign of maturation in online journalism?

AH: Well, I think at the same time, we’re seeing a lot of even traditional media that have died (and they are doomed) moving to including aggregation. And the model of The Huffington Post has from the beginning been that we promise our readers the best of what is on the web, whether we’ve produced it, aggregate or our bloggers write it. That means that if you write something good and we can link to it, that is great for our readers — they know where to find it — and it’s great for you because it gives you traffic.

MB: That issue of aggregation and reblogging online is one that won’t go away. Why do you think that is? 

I think it [the debate] is really conducted by people who don’t seem to understand aggregation, because if you are taking somebody’s content and don’t link back to them or take most of it and then link to it, that’s obviously not aggregation correctly done and following the rules of engagement and the legal guidelines.

I mean we constantly train our editors as to what the guidelines are and once you follow the guidelines, it’s completely win-win.

MB: What changes do you think apps are making to way online news is reported?

AH: I think there are some amazing apps, you know they’re so creative and so, just magical almost. At the same time, the mobile web is gaining a lot of traction. I know for The Huffington Post, we want to be on every platform and we want to have great apps and state-of the art apps that we’re constantly updating and improving. I think one of the key things about the web is that you have to be in a constant state of disrupting yourself. You know, you can never be in a space, where you say this is Memeburn or this is The Huffington Post and let’s put a bow and maintain it. That’s death. So you have to constantly be looking at what is next and coming up with what is next.

MB: Are there any technologies that you think could jeopardise the web as an online reporting tool?

AH: Well theoretically, absolutely, anything can happen. But I think technologies are, on the whole, enhancing online reporting because of the use of social media to make everybody a reporter. Either because you happen to be on the scene of what is happening or you happen to have an idea that you can flag and it’s very powerful.

MB: Over the years, you haven’t been a massive advocate of paywalls. Do you think there’ll ever be a viable space for digital subscriptions?

AH: Well not for us. You know, I think that paywalls work for established media, for somebody who has a readership that’s used to paying. They have to sacrifice a lot of new readers. I mean I think we were able to overtake the New York Times more recently because they inserted paywalls and so a lot of people like your generation left because they’re not used to paying for news. You know a lot of the paywalls that are used by traditional media are very permeable, you know they let you have a lot of freebies before you have to pay.

For us, our innovation happens in terms of advertising. Like we’ve introduced native advertising, another sponsored section around often the causes of a particular brand. So I think there is a lot to be done in the area of digital advertising and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

MB: Over the past few years, you’ve spoken a lot about the ‘third metric’ — a mode of business driven by women. Do you think technology could aid that revolution, especially in emerging market countries? 

AH: You know, actually I’m fascinated by bringing the third metric to emerging markets. Because I think leaders in emerging markets like you, in your generation, can avoid many of the mistakes that we made in more developed countries, the mistakes of equating burnout with success and praising people for working round the clock. And then the price we pay is horrendous. It’s horrendous in terms of healthcare costs: the connection between stress burnout and diabetes, heart disease, even Alzheimer’s is very clear. And it’s also horrendous in terms of decision-making, because we see many prominent leaders making terrible decisions, clearly not able to tap into their own wisdom.

At the same time we see technology being used, paradoxically, to help us disconnect from technology — like Apple’s “Do Not Disturb” feature and like The Huffington Post’s GPS for the Soul app.

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