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Huffington beats odds as blogger

Her Huffington Post site becomes one of the leading blogosphere destinations despite her glamorous socialite image.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published May 10, 2006


It was not supposed to work this way.

In a medium started by guys typing at computers in their bedrooms, she was a glamorous socialite with an A-list address book of investors and endless media coverage.

Critics swore Arianna Huffington's dream - a collection of blogs from the likes of Warren Beatty and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. - would die a quick death in a space where grass roots support and hipster cachet was everything.

But exactly one year after establishing her Huffington Post Web site, the 55-year-old author and pundit has become a major voice in the blogosphere, defying critics while building a destination in cyberspace whose growth mirrors the maturation of blogging itself.

"The people I admire have always been willing to pursue their vision, even if others ridicule them,'' said Huffington, who recently joined Matt Drudge as the two bloggers included on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people. "The most important conversation going on right now has been online, and it's only going to get more and more important.''

While most of the millions of blogs in cyberspace are simply online diaries, some have emerged as profitable businesses, attracting thousands of viewers each day and thousands of dollars in ad revenue. Henry Copeland, founder of the online advertising broker Blogads, estimated so-called "A-list" blogs - he mentioned political sites such as the Daily Kos and TalkingPointsMemo - can earn up to $50,000 in revenue a month, with elite bloggers "making more than ... I earn" in profit.

According to Technorati, a Web site that ranks the importance of 38-million blogs by the amount of times other sites link to them, the Huffington Post was ranked seventh Tuesday with 34,000 links, behind sites such as the technology-focused Boing Boing and PostSecret, a site featuring secrets people have mailed in anonymously on postcards.

Now averaging about 2-million unique visitors per month by comparison, NYTimes.com, the New York Times' site, reported 29-million unique visitors worldwide in March, the Huffington Post saw its profile rise in part from Huffington's own spicy, left-leaning criticism. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Meet the Press host Tim Russert and Washington Post reporting legend Bob Woodward have all felt the sting of her columns.

"Personality is king here. ... You tap into these incredibly loyal audiences who make the site part of their identity," Copeland said. "(Huffington Post) has developed a character; people talk about it. It's not really the celebrities. ... It's the community and her."

Glenn Reynolds, creator of another popular political blog, the conservative-leaning Instapundit, agreed.

"They have a community of like-thinking people that they bring together to discuss the issues,'' he said. "People who think the mainstream media are lapdogs for President Bush can have a happy home at the Huffington Post. ''

Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, hit the blogosphere A-list the old-fashioned way, starting back in 2001 when few people were reading or writing them, and slowly developed a following.

But according to some experts, his one-man show is a rarity among blogs with high traffic. Instead, popular blog operations these days are more of a group effort, allowing constant updates and a consistency required by the frenetic pace of the modern, 24-hour news cycle.

The Huffington Post has a staff of 12 people, with news and advertising operations based in New York and blogging operations based in Huffington's Los Angeles home. Funded by investors including Huffington's partner, former AOL Time Warner executive Ken Lerer, the site's lineup of 700 bloggers has moved beyond the traditional image of a sole proprietor creating highly individualistic content.

"The days of the manic individual voice as the top edge of the blogosphere is gone,'' said Clay Shirky, a New York University instructor who specializes in the social aspects of the Internet. "This is a group voice in a professional culture. (Huffington Post) violated several of the assumed (procedures) for launching and running a Web log. They did it in a way that was, frankly, quite commercial and it succeeded.''

Other companies have developed blog collectives, including Pajamas Media (referring to a well-known insult about bloggers being guys typing opinions in their PJs) and Gawker Media, home to gossip sites such as Defamer and Wonkette.

But Huffington, whose legendary schmoozing prompted one writer to call her the "Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers," has paired celebrity sizzle with her site, tapping well-known liberals such as Al Franken, Alec Baldwin and Rob Reiner for her sprawling Internet-based cocktail party. (Full disclosure: Entries from this writer's blog have been featured a handful of times on the site.)

"I basically participate because Arianna keeps bugging me to participate,'' said Franken, a friend who reported on the 1996 elections with Huffington from a bed, delivering political commentary for Comedy Central. "It creates a place for liberals to gather and takes some of the oxygen from conservative sites like the Drudge Report.''

But Huffington's site drew skepticism from the moment her plans surfaced. In particular, LA Weekly columnist Nikki Finke wrote a May 12 column that compared the site's debut to the combined equivalent of Hollywood's biggest movie bombs: Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate.

So why does the Huffington Post seem to be working now?

"They changed the model,'' noted Finke, saying that Huffington originally told her the blog would focus largely on the opinions of celebrities and moguls such as David Geffen and Warren Beatty. (Huffington said the site has always tried to feature a mix of voices.)

"(It has become) an asset to the Internet dialogue," Finke added. "Today I can go on the site and see stories in one place that I can't find on mainstream news sites.''

Of course, Huffington has made her mistakes, most famously her admission that a post attributed to George Clooney was assembled from quotes in other news stories with his publicist's consent.

"Where I went wrong was in trying to speed up the process by which George Clooney would come to blogging,'' said Huffington.

Blogads founder Copeland said influence is possible because of the audience such blogs attract.

"It's ... basically the 400,000 most committed info-junkies out there,'' he said. "Your average political blog reader is in his mid-40s, reading...two hours each work day. It's the fulcrum audience ... the audience who really moves things.''

As she prepares for publication of her 11th book, On Becoming Fearless: Advice for Women, Huffington is also talking up the site's growth, including an expansion of comic Harry Shearer's press criticism area, Eat the Press, and daily e-mail update.

"I was 52 when I fell in love with the Internet. ... Now we've been married long term and every day I'm excited by the possibilities,'' she said, her trademark Greek accent flavoring her words. "People think they have to write an op-ed (column) in the New York Times to change things, but it can also start online.''

-- Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/

[Last modified May 10, 2006, 06:02:21]


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