Four of HuffPost's staffers were on offer at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y February 5. This panel discussion is billed as giving the lowdown on "How they choose the stories that make the news" and "their insights into blogging, including what blogs they link to and why, what content gets blogs noticed, the best practices for community building and quick tips for making blogging more empowering, profitable and fun."
The MC is Editor Roy Sekoff, shown at left. With him are Senior News Editor Katharine Zaleski, Senior Blog Editor Colin Sterling and Columnist-Reporter Jason Linkins. If you've never clicked on the "About Us" button on HuffPost, here's the editorial staff lineup (the business side is another world). The four speakers are shown in bold:
Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief: Arianna Huffington
Chief Executive Officer: Betsy Morgan
Editor: Roy Sekoff
Political Editor: Thomas B. Edsall
Senior Editor: Willow Bay
Senior News Editor: Katharine Zaleski
Senior Blog Editor: Colin Sterling
National Editor: Nico Pitney; Senior Features Editor: Katherine Thomson
Senior Style Editor: Anya Strzemien; Media Editor: Danny Shea
Business/Green Editor: Dave Burdick; Living Editor: Verena von Pfetten;
World Editor: Hanna Ingber Win; Chicago Editor: Ben Goldberger;
Washington Editor at Large: Hilary Rosen; Night Editor: Marcus Baram
Associate News Editors: Nicholas Graham, Nicholas Sabloff
Associate Video Editor: Patrick Waldo
Associate Editor, Citizen Journalism: Matt Palevsky
Associate Blog Editors: David Flumenbaum, Katherine Goldstein, David Weiner, Whitney Snyder
Reporters: Ryan Grim, Jason Linkins, Sam Stein
Community Manager: Katie Saddlemire
Editor at Large: Nora Ephron
Roy has a challenge as MC. The crowd of about 100 has struggled in from a dark, icy-cold, windy night. Roy is well tanned, obviously just flown in from the LA sun and zephyrs. He's breezy himself and used to taking control of the house. However, I feel for him as his first couple of warmup jokes fall flat on the earnest New Yorkers, God's frozen people. My take: They resent he hasn't been suffering the bitter NYC weather. Think: Jovial American journalist covering the 900th day of the Siege of Leningrad.
Roy starts in about the blogger tone being "more personal than the typical news story, something you would write to a friend." If they could have text-messaged, it would have been: "Pls LA guy speed up."
Roy does step up the pace. We find out why he has a rep for very hard work on the nuts and bolts of the HuffPost operation. He's the Founding Editor, been with HuffPost since it opened in May 2005, same month, we find out, as Katharine Zaleski. Roy came to HuffPost via Film School and a job with Michael Moore, where he honed his skills as a champion of the progressive POV. He was hired by Arianna Huffington before HuffPost opened. He speaks a lot about Arianna, how she gets the word out during her travels, how she serves as a sounding board, how she listens because she is interested in everything. Roy has a huge job serving as the cable-bridge between Arianna and her e-empire.
The panel is mightily impressed by the rapid growth of Twitter. Users send Tweets that must be no longer than 140 characters. Great time-saver for the reader. Except that maybe the number of Tweets will just rise. I do a Google search and find Twitter users exceed 200,000 per day, firing out 3 million Tweets - a mind-blowing average of 15 Tweets per Twit. It's like the invention of the machine gun. No one is safe any more.
Another Google search tells us global blogposts were 1.6 million in 2006, but have grown so fast that in 2008 Japan alone has that many. MySpace page views are 1.5 billion per day. Facebook is growing by 600,000 users per day. Stunning.
Katharine Zaleski is News Editor and the most decorative of the four panelists. She is in the eye of the storm in HuffPost's NYC operations where the news is edited. She notes that almost all readers used to get to the site via the "front door" - the home page (www.huffingtonpost.com) - but now 60 percent of readers get to HuffPost via links direct to a story from a search or Digg or a blogpost.
She says the nature of news coverage has been transformed by the Internet. Old model: News reporter looks for a scoop or a new angle, files story, goes to bed. People would get the news in the morning. Television shortened the lag. All-news radio shortened it some more. New model: Delays in reporting important news are down to minutes. The amount of related content that can be offered soon becomes gigantic. Katharine says her job is "to latch onto a breaking story and then stay with it" through the day or night. She works through the night when important stories are breaking. When news surfaced about Eliot Spitzer having meetings with a female in Washington, HuffPost for a while "owned" the story of the collateral damage to Ashley Alexander Dupre, by having more new information on Ashley's music and career than anyone else.
Katharine waves off reports of antagonism between the main stream media and the blogsites. The two are complementary. A good major story on HuffPost, she says, is inclusive, with lots of links to the msm. Sure, HuffPost
depends on the newspapers. The papers also benefit by their content being promoted on the blogs. The great newspapers are using the Internet, adding online news sites with comment boxes, frequent updates and blogs. Same with television,
though she opines that CNN is just 10 percent dependent on the story, with 90 percent of the value in the production.
Clark Hoyt, in today's New York Times, raises the question whether the pressures of "real time" competition introduced by the Internet are eroding journalistic standards. He acknowledges that the Old Model of journalism, which gives reporters and editors a day to sort through the news and sources, still requires last-minute decisions as deadlines bear down. But he reviews the reporting in the Times of Caroline Kennedy's candidacy for appointment to the U.S. Senate and concludes that the reporting and editing mistakes were made in the online Times, where (let's get to the heart of his complaint) standards are lower.
At question time, the audience is fully engaged. Katharine's mother Caroline, sitting near HuffPost blogger Blake Fleetwood, asks a question anonymously. Katharine mercilessly outs her Mom. But Mom is unflappable. You can see where Katharine gets her poise.
Jason Linkins is the third panelist. He writes "Eat the Press", and was rated one of the five funniest bloggers by Comedy Central. He says HuffPost has 3,000 bloggers. When the final numbers were in on election night, the TV commentators were saying goodbye to one another and their audiences. That's one concept, says Jason, that would never occur to a blogsite. The stories keep rolling in - Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff, who knows what next? He says that the job of bloggers is to "kneecap people who screw up."
So far as "tone" goes, Jason says he got there by trial and error. He started out to be a marine biologist and swam his way into the new medium.
Colin Sterling, Senior Blog Editor, is the final speaker. He is introduced as Harry Potter and you can judge the likeness for yourself. He says he tries to make HuffPost authoritative by including links, and more Google-able by adding enough tags. Colin's most embarrassing moment, he says in answer to a question from the warmed-up audience, was when he posted a skeptical view of global warming. He's a graduate of UCLA and was, like Roy, working for Arianna before HuffPost was created.
By the end of the evening, the crowd is happy. Frankly, they didn't get everything promised in the promotion, but who cares? They got what they paid for, $27 worth of information on the new HuffPost phenomenon, and some entertainment as a bonus. If they need more information, they can buy the $15 book on sale in the lobby, The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. Now I'd dearly like to go to a panel featuring the business side of HuffPost, i.e., the rest of the masthead that keeps the brand afloat and valued last year in the $40-$200 million range.