Driving to Brentwood a week ago, I resolved not to lose focus. I would press Arianna Huffington about her website: Is the Huffington Post’s brand of mostly unpaid journalism depressing writers’ wages? Why the endless photo galleries of Hollywood sexpots? Most importantly, oh much-heralded It girl of the new journalism, isn’t it about time your website started turning a profit?
Arriving in front of Huffington’s expansive, gated home, I recalled the story of one man determined to challenge Huffington on a journalism panel about her triumphalist view of citizen journalism. He ended up so charmed he fantasized about sharing a cruise vacation with her.
Just out of the rain, I reached for a handshake and received a kiss on the cheek. I sat on an impossibly plush sofa. Arianna settled in beside me. I got out my pen and tape recorder; Arianna had a maid fetch me tea and a special cake. (“It’s Greek, delicious,” she said. Dee-leee-shoos.)
Down to business, I asked my hostess whether users lingered long once they arrived at the Huffington Post. But of course, Arianna said. As she offered a string of statistics as proof, a row of holiday candles dancing in her eyes, I felt my willpower tested.
The world will surely know, I thought, that the Huffington Post reached new heights of popularity in 2009. Maybe the public won’t particularly care that the go-go model for the future of media has remained slow-slow, just like the “old” media, when it comes to scratching advertising dollars from the Web.
When I suggested that there must be some pressure from investors, my hostess looked a little surprised. Even hurt. “Nobody is looking to cash out,” she said. “So there is absolutely no urgency in that sense.” Eric Hippeau, who arrived at mid-year as CEO from one of the site’s principal backers, SoftBank Capital, assured me it was only “a question of months” before the site would become profitable.
The Huffington Post put itself in a position for financial success in 2009. Despite not having the riveting 2008 election to write about, the left-leaning website managed to not just hold, but build, its audience.
Nielsen NetView estimated just under 9 million unique visitors to the site last month, 27% higher than in the same month of 2008. That’s three times the viewership for the Drudge Report and chasing industry leaders like nytimes.com, which had 16.6 million unique visitors last month.
The site avoided a post-election ratings swoon by adding eight new “sections,” including sports and technology. Earlier this month it launched a page focused on Los Angeles, its fourth local operation.
It also got an early start on an iPhone application, and a new partnership with Facebook allows users to track what friends are reading and talking about on the Huffington Post.
All that makes the website unique and high-flying.
But with a dogged determination to offer content free to readers, the Huffington Post has tethered itself to the same uncertain life source as newspapers and other supposedly stodgy competitors.
The website must compete in a topsy-turvy advertising market that virtually every media company has struggled to understand, much less master. Advertisers are recalculating every buy. It’s hard to know where -- in a world of endless channels and websites -- their money will come to rest.
“Everyone on the Internet is swimming in a sea of infinite advertising inventory,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst for Outsell Inc. “Huffington Post is not immune to what is afflicting the traditional news industry.”
And despite its big jump in popularity, ad experts said the Huffington Post still gets treated like the poor relation by some advertisers. That’s because the site combines serious political analysis with cheesecake photos of the stars. It breaks real news on healthcare reform and has little-knowns riffing on pop culture.
Some Web aficionados have described this as a “mullet strategy” -- sharp and well groomed content at the prominent front of a website, but with shaggy and uneven offerings tagged onto the back end.
Sober business execs might worry that their ads will end up beside some no-name’s political rant or facing a photo gallery displaying celebrity boob jobs.
HuffPost signaled that it intended to focus intently on its bottom line last summer with the hiring of Hippeau, who once ran the firm that publishes PC magazine. More recently, it named former Yahoo ad guru Greg Coleman as Huffington’s chief revenue officer.
The new bosses sell the site as the favored watering hole of highly educated, highly paid, highly engaged readers.
Coleman suggested in recent comments to Ad Age that he would embrace, rather than hide from, the mullet -- trying to sell ads within the comment sections at the end of articles and even in the midst of the site’s live Twitter feeds.
The notion of paid touts sullying free public discourse raised some murmurs of dissent in the blogosphere, which tends to an exaggerated view of its own purity. But HuffPost pledged that the ads would be clearly marked and would deceive no one. None have yet been sold.
The Huffington Post will be trying many things to meet Coleman’s goal of doubling revenue in one year and building it sixfold in three. The private company doesn’t provide figures, but three people who work in the field estimated that it would take in $12 million to $16 million this year.
That’s not a bad start for a site that still gets most of its content by aggregating the work of others and hosting some 3,000 volunteer bloggers.
Though the paid staff jumped markedly in the last year, from 49 to 89 full-time employees (11 of them devoted to producing original content) payroll is still a fraction of that paid by most big journalism outlets.
While somewhat buzzed after tea (sweetened, I was told, by some sort of special honey), I remembered to ask Arianna if she worried about the number of writers being left unemployed by the new “freebie” culture.
“Our site is not built around the freebie,” she said. “Our site is built around very hard-working editors and reporters who do all the curating and aggregating and original content. Then bloggers can write when they want, if they want.” The Huffington Post’s founder and editor in chief acknowledged that the question of how to fund journalism and pay a living wage “is still being worked out.”
She also embraced the “unapologetically high-brow and low-brow” content on her site, saying people could take in the latest salacious Lindsay Lohan photos or track the healthcare reform debate, which HuffPost has covered more thoroughly than many big news organizations.
Just this week, the site altered its home page to feature stories from its many sections, including Business, Tech, Style and Comedy. Arianna said she made the change to display the site’s breadth, not to downplay the racier elements.
The Huffington Post has been ranging off in so many directions -- forging into news about Los Angeles and forming an investigative unit -- that I’ll have to take a deeper look at the content sometime soon.
In the meantime, I could use a piece of that secret cake. But, I swear, I’m not dreaming about a cruise.