There’s precious little good news from America’s current affairs media these days. Barely a week passes without another announcement of savage staff cuts, bankruptcies or even closures at newsrooms across the US. But last week champagne corks were popping. The Huffington Post, the New York-based liberal blog, announced it was setting up a US$1.75 million fund to help fill the gap left by the decimation of US investigative teams.
The initiative, said the site’s founder, Arianna Huffington, was an attempt to preserve good journalism in America. “For too long,” she said, “we’ve had too many autopsies and not enough biopsies. The HuffFund is our attempt to change this.”
The aim is to dig away at weighty subjects, starting with the economic crisis. The fund will provide for up to 10 staff, supplemented by freelancers, many of them old media stalwarts sacked from failing news institutions.
The fact that the rescue mission is being launched under the flag of the HuffPo — a blog best known for its vibrant commentary rather than news — underlines the blurring effect of the Internet revolution. Blogs are inheriting the investigative work of newspapers; newspapers are blogging.
The fund also signals the Web site’s ambition to move to a more central position in the media landscape — it began to call itself an “Internet newspaper” last year. April 2009 may well be seen as the moment the Huffington Post came of age.
The HuffPo’s rise has been impressive. Less than four years old and with fewer than 60 staff (including seven news reporters), it is now a competitor to the New York Times, 158 years old and with more than 1,000 journalists. According to the ratings Web site Comscore, in February the HuffPo drew more than a third of the Times’s traffic: 7.3 million unique users to 18.4 million.
Given the HuffPo’s ambition and position, some have started to question its methods, which they see as more in keeping with a startup company undergoing breathtaking growth than a beacon of journalistic hope and excellence.
It is a paradox that although the Huffington Post is household currency in liberal America, the company remains relatively little known. The focus is almost always on Arianna Huffington herself and her colorful life story — born in Greece, educated in England; married to and divorced from an oil millionaire; a right-winger turned left-wing scourge of Bush and champion of Obama.
Yet a steady trickle of information has started to flow from people with experience of the site who raise concerns that standards are not keeping up with the exponential increase in the Web site’s size and clout. In the past 18 months several experienced journalists have left core positions. The former managing editor, Elinor Shields, who came from the BBC, has not yet been replaced and she left in 2007 (though HuffPo is poised to appoint someone); the blog editor, Frank Wilkinson, now edits the US version of the Week (British weekly digest of UK and foreign media); Michelle Kung is now at the Wall Street Journal. The two journalists, including Amanda Michel, behind the groundbreaking and successful experiment in citizen journalism, OffTheBus, also left earlier this year. The project was designed to finish after the election but the departures were still surprising.
Some could argue this is a natural phenomenon in such a fast-moving world. And the HuffPo has made some good signings recently, notably the Washington reporter Ryan Grim, who was at the respected political Web site Politico. But key positions remain filled by people who came to the site with limited journalistic experience. Matthew Palevsky, for instance, has been brought in to run a new citizen journalism venture in Michel’s absence — pending the appointment of a new editor. He graduated from university last year. He also happens to be Huffington’s godson.