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BOB GARFIELD: When AOL spent 315 million dollars to acquire The Huffington Post a month ago, the deal raised many questions. The first one was, 315 – what? Then came lots of speculation about who won and who lost. But what interested On the Media was what the deal meant to the future of journalism and what now to make of this thing, this phenomenal thing, The Huffington Post. The only way to begin, I'm sorry to say, is with everything about The HuffPo that makes traditional journalists want to puke — be patient, it isn't a short list — beginning with HuffPo is kind of yellow, not cowardly yellow, sensationalist yellow. As I write this piece, the blaring lead headline is, I kid you not, “Time is Running Out.” Approaching meteor? No, just a procedural deadline for federal financial reform rules, in three months. Last week they scared the bejeebers out of me with “Texas is Burning Border to Border.” The wildfires there did claim a million acres, but at least 99.4 percent of Texas was unconsumed by flames. And the rest of the layout is pretty bombastic, as well.
TIM RUTTEN: It is a visual presentation that I think might charitably be described as a combination of an old-fashioned afternoon tabloid and a ransom note.
BOB GARFIELD: Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten. As a longtime detractor, Rutten is one-stop shopping for HuffPo’s shortcomings. Item two, aggregation. A large percentage of content on The Huffington Post summarizes and links to material from other publications, providing HuffPo, for free, what others have paid dearly to produce.
TIM RUTTEN: Aggregation is the elevation of kleptocracy to a business model. You’re simply stealing things that other businesses, other media organizations have paid to gather.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, HuffPo redirects traffic to the source, but those readers usually make a U-turn right back to HuffPo for more of the Web highlights HuffPo then sells advertising against. Putting aside whether this digital age fair use is really fair, Rutten says:
TIM RUTTEN: People who buy into this notion that information wants to be free, that free information is somehow in the DNA of the Web, whatever that means, people who buy into that notion are simply committing themselves to a suicide pact. If that notion prevails in a decade, there won't be any serious journalism to aggregate.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, seriousness. Much of HuffPo’s traffic is generated thanks to the right rail, filled what they call “click candy”—as I write this, the world’s ten creepiest abandoned cities, Liz Taylor’s last husband speaks out and the amazing painkilling properties of olive oil. Indeed, the entirety of The Huffington Post is edited with preferences of the reader very much top of mind. Favoring subjects already trending high in online interest is called “search engine optimization.” Another term might be “auto-pandering.”
TIM RUTTEN: This notion of tailored news is really a form of informational narcissism.
BOB GARFIELD: Once again, Tim Rutten.
TIM RUTTEN: It allows you to narrow down the scope of your news consumption to those things you already know or believe you know. And what it doesn't do is let you see the story that you never imagine you'd be interested in and that somehow broadens your perspective, enriches your life, makes you a better citizen, gives you something to think about that afternoon.
BOB GARFIELD: None of these is a trifling concern, nor are the remaining controversial HuffPo quirks, its building of a 315-million-dollar asset through the labors of unpaid bloggers and its pronounced liberal slant, raising questions of journalistic credibility. But let's also consider some other untrifling facts. For one, AOL just paid a third of a billion dollars to shape all of its content in the image of HuffPo Founder-in-Chief Arianna Huffington. Why? Because her website draws 38 million unique visitors a month, visitors who don't seem too put off by hyperbolic headlines. AOL expects HuffPo itself to generate 100 million dollars in revenue next year and 30 percent operating margins. Those are the kinds of numbers newspapers used to generate before they were propelled into a death spiral by the very digital revolution being exploited by websites like HuffPo. Meanwhile, the institution evolves. Arianna has been on a hiring binge, bringing in talented reporters and editors from The New York Times, Newsweek, Rutten’s own L.A. Times and elsewhere. The newsroom is now at 200 employees, on its way, says Founding Editor Roy Sekoff, to doubling. And while they will never blanket the field with staff reporters, they will report the news that matters, the HuffPo way, through live blogs and tweets, cameraphone video and other tools that turn eyewitnesses into citizen journalists. Roy Sekoff.
ROY SEKOFF: You know, there’s many ways to bear witness. I'm not saying that having seasoned reporters on the ground is not an extraordinarily effective way, and that’s great and I welcome it and we'll link to it. But I think that there is “Bearing Witness 2.0.” There’s other ways of getting stories and finding the truth behind stories.
BOB GARFIELD: Not to mention the Web 2.0 way of not letting the published story be the end of the story. Other news organizations grudgingly host audience comments. HuffPo assiduously cultivates the commenter community with social media mechanisms for following and becoming a fan of others in the HuffPo-sphere. A column about potential GOP presidential aspirant Rick Santorum Thursday evening generated more than a thousand comments in three-and-a-half hours.
JEFF JARVIS: Shouldn't news organizations learn a business lesson from that?
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York.
JEFF JARVIS: - How to engage an audience and how to create and engage in a conversation that enables people other than just journalists to talk. If people are spending more time on Huffington Post, what’s Huffington doing right that they’re doing wrong?
BOB GARFIELD: Jarvis gets steamed when mainstream journalists sneer at HuffPo, such as when The New York Times’ David Carr, upon the release of four Times journalists from armed captors in Libya, mused in a tweet about Arianna trying to, quote, [LAUGHS] “aggregate” them back to safety.
JEFF JARVIS: I don't think that line works anymore when we look at what Andy Carvin at NPR retweets from Libya and Egypt and Tunisia, where the witnesses to these major stories are also putting themselves in harm’s way and losing their lives. You know, virtue is not a business model.
BOB GARFIELD: At least these days not a profitable one. Maybe that’s the source of so much journalistic resentment, along the lines of icemen gloomily witnessing the advent of refrigeration. HuffPo’s Roy Sekoff isn't unsympathetic but that doesn't stop him from sticking his glass into the crushed ice dispenser of his Viking.
ROY SEKOFF: Now, call me a destroyer, but I still would like to get my ice that way, as opposed to having the guy haul it up four flights of stairs on his shoulder.
BOB GARFIELD: Me, I'm not sure what to make of the HuffPo phenomenon. I guess I'm hoping that it becomes the best of both worlds, a robust newsgathering organization that also exploits the knowledge and labors of a hyperconnected community.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] So, yeah, I'm hoping for the best but also prepared to heed the lead headline that a few hours later replaced “Time is Running Out.” It was about potential flooding in the Deep South. In giant capital letters it screamed, “Bracing for the Worst.”