The Huffington Post Success Story
“Ari Emanuel called me last night with an idea for a blog,” Arianna Huffington said last week as she sipped an iced coffee in the New York offices of The Huffington Post last week.
In several ways, it was a classic Huffington statement, combining Hollywood celebrity (Mr. Emanuel, the famous movie agent), national politics (his idea was an essay on how Hillary Rodham Clinton learned, in his words, “how to manipulate words to cover up her lies”), with an imperfect grasp of new media terminology (she meant “post,” not “blog”). And of course, Ms. Huffington herself was at the center of the whole episode.
When Ms. Huffington, the 57-year-old author and former conservative pundit, announced her plans for The Huffington Post three years ago, many critics dismissed the idea as a digital dinner party for her new liberal friends. But it has grown in ways that few, except perhaps Ms. Huffington herself, expected.
In February, The Huffington Post drew 3.7 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen Online, for the first time beating out The Drudge Report, the conservative tip sheet with which The Post is often compared. On Technorati, a blog search tool, The Huffington Post is the second-most-linked-to blog, behind only the technology site TechCrunch. As Roy Sekoff, the site’s editor, said, “We’ve always wanted to be part of the national conversation.”
When Barack Obama made his first public remarks about his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., he did so in a post on the site. “It was immediately picked up everywhere,” Ms. Huffington recalled. “It helps to be bookmarked by the mainstream media.”
And The HuffPost, as it’s known, has come to symbolize a certain combination of entrepreneur and online commentator, creating a brand and a business around Ms. Huffington. But she and her co-founder, Kenneth Lerer, have broader aspirations. In the last 12 months, they have introduced new content areas devoted to subjects like entertainment and business, and they have three more — international news, sports and books — coming soon.
Ms. Huffington herself now spends less time on blog posts condemning the Bush administration (although there’s still plenty of that) and more time reimagining The Huffington Post as what she calls an “Internet newspaper.” In October, the site hired a new chief executive, Betsy Morgan, from CBS Interactive, and this summer the site will take an ambitious step by introducing its version of a metropolitan section: local versions for major cities.
Whether readers will follow the site into new areas, however, is an open — and expensive — question. The plan will put The Huffington Post into competition with existing newspapers and, arguably, with companies like Yahoo, AOL and CNN.com.
“Success on the Web is defined by spotting niches and serving them well,” said Micah L. Sifry, the editor of the blog TechPresident.com. “Will people go to The Huffington Post for great sports blogging? They’re certainly not going to go see what Arianna says about opening day,” he added.
The sheer audacity of the plan should not surprise anyone who has followed Ms. Huffington’s career. A native of Greece, she has been the president of the Cambridge University debating society; an author of books about feminism, Picasso and government waste; a panelist on radio and television shows; and a candidate in the 2003 California gubernatorial election.
“She’s had at least nine lives,” said Michael Kinsley, a co-founder of Slate and a columnist for The Washington Post. “Someone will turn it into an opera. Probably her.”
She usually works in Los Angeles by the fireplace of her mansion in the affluent Brentwood neighborhood (the site’s West Coast staff of six also works out of her home). Last week, she was in New York, meeting with staff members, sitting for an interview with the ABC newsmagazine “20/20” and speaking about online politics at New York University.
When she introduced The Huffington Post in May 2005, she combined her posts with those of celebrities. Ms. Huffington prefers to say it has “as many interesting voices as possible.”
But blogs often fade away as their creators tire of them, and many of the boldface names Ms. Huffington signed up and publicized in 2005 did not follow through. The retired anchorman Walter Cronkite and the former Bush speechwriter David Frum have each written three posts since the site started. The actress Diane Keaton and the lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr. have each written only two. Others, like former Senator Gary Hart, the screenwriter and producer Nora Ephron and the television host Bill Maher, continue to contribute regularly.
Those who do contribute are met with varying degrees of fame online; many of the posts receive less than 10,000 views. But, especially when the posts are linked on the front page, the site provides a megaphone and gives authors some prominence. “We’ve been very successful in selling people’s books,” Ms. Huffington remarked.
Ms. Huffington, whose title is editor in chief, said she did not have a particular traffic goal in mind but sought to “not just speak to the choir” of progressive political addicts.
When Ms. Morgan, the site’s chief executive, arrived last fall, she immediately drew attention to metrics by requesting daily traffic statistics, weekly revenue estimates and monthly goals for both figures.
The topical focuses seem to be helping. The site had 1.8 million unique visitors in December, 2.9 million in January and 3.7 million in February, according to Nielsen Online. (The Post’s internal numbers are much larger; many online publishers contend the Nielsen figures are underestimates.)
Staff members also credit much of the growth to moves that have made the site’s commentary more prominent on search engines like Google and Yahoo. More than half of traffic now comes from nonpolitical pages.
“At first, we were very narrow,” said Mr. Lerer, the co-founder. Comparing the expansion to the widening of a highway, he said the political front page was first complemented by media coverage, then by sections for living and entertainment. Mr. Lerer said he looked at the sections of a printed newspaper as a model. This year the site quietly changed its slogan to “the Internet newspaper.”
The venture was profitable in some of its early months, executives say, but most of the revenue has been reinvested to hire editors, reporters and advertising representatives. Mr. Lerer estimated that it would raise $6 million to $10 million this year, twice the amount of last year. Advertisers have included Starbucks, the Discovery Channel and Volkswagen, Mr. Lerer said.
The expansion of content areas and the hiring of a chief executive have prompted speculation that Ms. Huffington could sell the Web site after the election. In an interview, she shied away from the possibility, saying “it’s not something that we’ve discussed.”
According to one person who was briefed on discussions but was not permitted to speak for attribution, the company has at least looked at the value of the site if it were put up for sale, and a figure around $200 million was used. That would put the price at more than $50 for each visitor, a high valuation. Using the site’s internal figures, 14 million unique visitors for the most recent month, the price would be closer to $15 for each user.
In the meantime, The Post is suffering some growing pains. A number of people have ungracefully departed in the past year, a situation Mr. Lerer attributed to the difficulty in transforming “old media” employees.
The site has other challenges. Despite its number of visitors, it still has a high “bounce rate,” referring to users who visit one page and then leave the site. Drudge still records seven times the monthly page views of The Huffington Post, meaning that readers are frequently refreshing for the latest headlines.
Ms. Huffington and her colleagues reject the comparisons, saying The Post seeks to be a community, not merely a collection of links. As new topical subsites come online, especially the one for local news, the site will increasingly try to act as an Internet curator with a distinct attitude, mixing blog posts, original news and links to other sources.
“Look at Yahoo or Google or CNN. Take away the branding and just look at the headlines, and they’re very similar,” said Mr. Sekoff. “But if you take away the branding of The Huffington Post and the signage, you’d probably still recognize us.”
[Via - NYTimes.Com]