Huffington, Post Modern

WASHINGTON The Huffington Post, which launched in May 2005, now draws 3.5 million unique readers a month. This past May, founder Arianna Huffington strengthened the site’s political coverage with enterprising reporting and added media, business, entertainment and “living now” channels.

Her Web site has teamed with Yahoo and Slate to sponsor two presidential debates to be conducted online starting in September.

Candidates will participate from different locations using a real-time connection to the Internet. Here, Huffington, 56, talks about the elections, being fearless and the power of blogging.

Q: Do you consider yourself a brand, like Oprah or Martha Stewart?
A: I consider the Huffington Post a brand. A brand is something others may consider you, but I still consider myself a human being.

When you launched your Web site, what surprised you most about the process?
One was how quickly we became a part of peoples’ daily news-gathering experience. In the past, it would have taken 20 years to build a brand and now it can take a year. The other is how many people who could be writing for a lot of other outlets have become addicted to blogging on the Huffington Post. And that is because of the immediacy you get from posting. … It enters the cultural blog stream in real time and it gets picked up. At the beginning, the unpleasant surprise was the critics. Before we were three-hours-old we had the naysayers. … It taught me once again how important it is to stay with your vision.

What was the single most important thing you did to make this Web site successful?
There are two. One is Ken Lerer [former Time Warner evp who is Huffington’s business partner]. Ken is someone who deeply understands marketing, building a brand and news. The second thing is my whole life up to launching the Huffington Post. We are a 24/7 news-gathering operation [with] opinion and analysis, and that has been a product of all the people I have gotten to know through my life. My latest thing is getting people in L.A. to go on hikes and it is all about exchanging ideas. All of that passion gets expressed online.

In your opinion, how is the news media changing?
The news media is changing in very profound ways. While you and I are alive, there will always be print and online. The print publications that manage to survive will be the ones that also have creative content online. We tend to look at things as either or, but it is not. It will be both.

Clearly, you believe in citizen journalism. Do you see any downsides to this growing trend?
I don’t see a downside if the very important journalism tenets are adhered to: accuracy and fact checking. At the Huffington Post, we tell our bloggers if there is any mistake, they have 24 hours to correct it or their password will be removed. It is not correct to say you can’t be accurate if you are a blogger. And God knows there have been many major inaccuracies perpetrated by the mainstream media, especially in the lead-up to the war.

How big of an influence do you think things like YouTube and viral marketing will have on the presidential election?
I think it will have a very big influence. We already saw YouTube having an influence on the 2006 elections with the “macaca” comment ending [former Virginia] Sen. George Allen’s career. We are putting together the first online presidential debate. We are seeing candidates announcing online. All campaigns have online operations. Not all campaigns know how to do it. There is authenticity and transparency that are required to be really successful online.

You have been called “an intellectual lap dancer,” “a Zsa Zsa Gabor manque,” “manipulative,” “interested in power and money” and “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus.” Why do you think you draw such polarizing comments?
Well, there is no question that being a woman tends to draw more polarizing comments. Marlo Thomas said it best: For a man to be called ruthless, you have to be Joe McCarthy; for a woman to be called ruthless, you have to put somebody on hold. One of the reasons I wrote my book Fearless [On Becoming Fearless … In Love, Work and Life] is because I have two teenage daughters and they have become like shrinking violets in their teens and have internalized their fears. There is this expectation that women are supposed to be nice and accommodating, so there is a greater reluctance to speak out. And often there is a greater likelihood that people will try to chop our necks off if we try to stick them out.

What is the smartest business decision you ever made?
Not listening to my critics, especially those who said it was ridiculous for me to jump into the blogosphere, which was seen as a young person’s game.

And what was the dumbest?
Thinking, “Why would I buy stock in a company called Google?”

What is your personal motto?
Ships in the harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships were made for.

Name three words that describe yourself.
Mother. Writer. Optimist.

Who had the greatest influence on your career?
My mother because she taught me from a very early age to take risks and not be afraid that if I took risks, I would pay. That is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children because so often what stops us from going after what we want and succeeding is the fear that we are going to fail.

You’re the author of 11 books. What work are you the most proud of?
I love my work on the Huffington Post and my latest book [On Becoming Fearless]. They sum up my two greatest passions-politics and constantly working to lead a life that is more fearless and more centered. Our living section will cover everything but politics, from alternative healthcare, sexuality, relationships, giving back-all those parts that make life worth living. However passionate and obsessed we are about politics, there are other aspects of life. And we wanted to address those other needs and interests.

What is your greatest fear?
Right now my greatest fear is around my children. Any parent would identify with the fact that our culture makes it more difficult for us to be parents. Random drugs, sexuality, the media. I am working on that because very often I feel that we fear our own shadows. As Montaigne put it: “There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.” When I talk about fear, I don’t mean the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear. Going ahead and doing what you want, even though you are afraid.

You have had some very public embarrassing moments, like the time you knocked over several press microphones to join a photo-op with Arnold Schwarzenegger when you ran for governor of California in 2003. You also formed a group to protest gas-guzzling SUVs when you once drove an SUV yourself. Do you believe in the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity?
No, I don’t. But I believe in correcting the record. I specifically gave up my SUV in 2001 and wrote about it. And the creation of the Detroit Project [by Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars, a nonprofit group dedicated to decreasing America’s reliance on foreign oil and co-founded by Huffington] was prompted by my recognition that driving SUVs after 9/11 when we needed to decrease our energy dependence did not make sense. On the Arnold thing, I was going to register as a candidate on the same day he did. I knocked over one microphone and I wasn’t trying to get in his photo-op. Misrepresentations persist, but you go on. You don’t allow those misrepresentations to affect what you believe or what you are doing.

Why did you decide you no longer wanted to switch from being a conservative Republican to a Democrat?
That is an evolution in my own thinking. When I was a Republican, I looked to the private sector to solve our social problems. Then I realized we really need the raw power of government appropriation to address the major social problems we are facing in healthcare, homelessness and drug addiction. In order to be true to myself, I spoke out and wrote about this shift in my own thinking. Obviously there were friends that I lost, but the alternative would have been to not be true to how my own thinking was evolving.

Who has influenced you most creatively?
Among the most influential was Bernard Levin, the brilliant British writer who, along with being the first great love of my life, was also an amazing editor and creative inspiration.