Arianna Huffington Interview: SOTB 2009
Richard Jalichandra: How did you discover blogging?
Arianna Huffington: For me it was the excitement of seeing the conversation moving online. I wanted to be a part of that so we started Arianna Online. The key thing was the interactivity. It was the discussion around the ideas that I was writing about. That was what really appealed to me.
I launched that with Andrew Breitbart and the thing that was exciting was to see the response from the people and the discussion around the ideas - so much so that my mother, who was living with me at that time, started an advice column on Arianna Online called Ask Ya-Ya ("Ya-Ya" is Greek for "grandmother").
She's never been on a computer, so she would sit at the kitchen table and answer the questions long hand on yellow pads, and we would type them and put them on Arianna Online.
So that was really the first impulse to do something online. The other was when I saw what Josh Marshall and other bloggers did with Trent Lott; that was a moment of another kind of awakening, when Lott basically had to resign because of the work of bloggers. They stayed on the story and kept adding information about Trent Lott's past and previous statements and propagating tips from the community, and he had to resign. That was an amazing moment because it showed what could be done: not just reporting the original story but developing the story.
Traditional investigative journalism is you collect it for months and months and triple check it...
RJ: So if there is any mistake you post nothing...
AH: Yes exactly, but the online way is that it unfolds and everybody knows what you are doing so anybody with any piece of information can send it to you, and that is the "wisdom of the crowd."
Anyway it is very exciting moment for me - I thought about it and wrote about it like I write about everything that excites me. So after the [California gubernatorial] election in 2003 [to recall governor Gray Davis - she was among a large field of candidates including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the race], we had a meeting here of various people, including Kenneth Lerer and Jonah Peretti, who were looking at what was done by the media during the election and what we could do to basically reinvigorate journalism, focusing on what was happening online and what was not happening but should be happening.
RJ: So in those early conversations you were thinking a journalism opportunity was potentially a media opportunity and business opportunity?
AH: Well definitely a media opportunity, yes, which includes everything, including journalism, citizen journalism, and news aggregation with our own attitude, which in the end is what happened.
And the third element from day one was community: from the beginning I wanted to make sure that the community was going to engaged in a vibrant, spirited, but civil conversation. Immediately this got us into the problem of trolls hiding behind the anonymity. Since the technology did not exist to really prevent that through filtering, we had human comment moderation 24/7 from the beginning.
RJ: When you started with it , it was '05 about, correct?
AH: May '05.
RJ: You literally started on just a blogging platform...
AH: Yes, we started on Movable Type. Meena and Ben Trott [creators of Movable Type] came here for dinner and they spent the night. We had a great connection, so we started with them and we launched with me sending out an email to all the interesting people I knew — some known and some not — and ending up with 500 people with passwords so they could post when they wanted.
RJ: Ahh, That's amazing!
AH: We knew that we could keep the blog populated since people could write whenever they wanted. I was writing everyday at that time — now I write three times a week — and so there was fresh content on the blog all the time.
It was always about people with interesting ideas, people you would like to sit next to at dinner: they could be actors, business people, painters, poets, anything. We didn't really go for professional journalists.
RJ: With professional editors?
AH: Oh yes, the original team was Kenny and me and Jonah and Roy [Sekoff].
Roy was founding editor and he has been the editor in chief from the beginning, and Kenny is now the chairman of our board. So that was the team of four that started it, and also I had a research assistant here called Colin Sterling, who as it happened at the time wanted to move to New York. So he moved to New York and became the blog editor and he is still the blog editor which has been fantastic.
RJ: Did you get any funding or were you self-funded?
AH: The way of fund is which we agreed that we would give or raise half the money individually. I raised from my part from people like Larry David. We each contributed about about $100,000 and that was how we started the Huffington Post.
Since then we have had two rounds of financing in 2006 and 2008, totaling about $20 million.
RJ: So when the first round of funding came in, and you obviously felt this could really be big and needed more capital?
What happened is that we wanted to expand, and from the beginning Kenny and I never just wanted to talk to people who agreed with us, that was never our intention. We wanted to talk to everybody, so that meant that two things: one, we didn’t want to just provide politics. We started launching the other verticals, because if we just provide politics, it will restrict the universe that you are speaking to. Each one of us, however politically obsessed, is interested in other things and we wanted to cater to all the interests of our readers.
RJ: And now you guys are the Big Dog.
AH: 27 million uniques last month. We have had a great increase, and in September we had the biggest increase, and we are now at 30% over what we were at the height of the election!
RJ: Ahh, it is amazing! So that’s exactly my next question: When did you know that this could actually be huge?
AH: You know, I am a superstitious Greek person. I don’t think — I really honestly do not think — in those styles. I feel very blessed, doing something I love to do. Kenny didn't go into this to make money — he had made his money — and I was making money through my books and my speaking. We are now running a company and we want it to be profitable, but that was not the motivation, nor is the primary motivation now. We don't want to cash out - we want to keep expanding it. We have so many ideas of what we want to be doing - we see it very much as a work in progress.