We have more people fretting about the internet than people who are championing it. Could you discuss the benefits it’s brought to journalism? For instance, do you think it’s helped to dismantle the white-male monopoly on media? That it’s created a way for marginalized voices to be heard, made things more democratic?
When we are still at such an early stage of online media and journalism — and when the universe of platforms where people read, watch, and share the news is expanding exponentially — a certain amount of fretting is to be expected. But in another, bigger-picture sense, we’re way beyond the point of wondering whether the internet and quality journalism can coexist. They can and they do. In so many ways, we’re living in a golden age of journalism, with no shortage of great journalism being done and no shortage of people hungering for it. So you have to be a champion of all the new possibilities, and I’m not only squarely in that camp, I feel I am in great company. In the early days of the Huffington Post, we heard plenty of pining for a mythical media past when everything was somehow better. But in many key ways it wasn’t better — and this is much more widely understood today than when we founded HuffPost 11 years ago. The 20th-century model, with the media gods sitting up on Mount Olympus, has expired. We’ve shifted from presentation to participation. People are tired of being talked at; they want to be talked with.
The internet has democratized media in unprecedented ways. It’s dramatically lowered the barrier to participation, and as a result it’s allowed a host of new voices into the global conversation. There are an incredible number of successful journalists and media stars who started out blogging, posting videos on YouTube, or tweeting. Just a few years ago, these voices would have gone unheard. It’s hard to imagine the Black Lives Matter movement without the power of the internet to both bear witness to the consequences of an unequal justice systems (usually in the form of videos) and to empower people to combine their voices and demand change. So it’s not just about giving new voices the power to go around the old-media gatekeepers, but increasing the total power of the media to do its job as the Fourth Estate and hold government accountable.
For those of us in the media, one of our most important roles is to serve as unforgiving media critics — that is, critics of ourselves. And HuffPost has relentlessly done that when it comes to our coverage of Donald Trump — first by covering him in our entertainment section as a buffoon. After he proposed banning an entire religion from entering a country founded on religious freedom, we decided to add an editor’s note at the bottom of every piece about him, which reads: “Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.” All of which is backed up by corresponding links. This note was part of our commitment to do our part to not let what Trump represents become a normal part of acceptable political discourse, and to not do what others in the media have done and treat him as a normal candidate.
Any other ways the web has changed journalism?
The mainstream media suffers from ADD — they cover a story and then they abandon it. The web has shifted us to OCD — we cover stories obsessively until there is an impact, until something happens. At HuffPost we did this with the foreclosure crisis. Our coverage was constant because the crisis was ongoing. We’re doing it now with our coverage of Trump’s campaign, including challenging the media to do more of this.
I think one of the downsides is that with so much more material being produced, it’s a challenge to maintain the same level of quality. Do you agree?
There are different ways to define quality, but we define it by adding value to people’s lives. If you define quality only as 10,000-word investigative reports, sure, you’re going to be disappointed — but again, there was never a media world in which things were this way. The challenge is to grow in a way that allows you to stay true to your DNA, so you’re not diluting your essence but nurturing it. And we’ve been able to do that. A lot of it comes down to hiring the right people, but what’s been most helpful in our expansion — and we’re soon to be in 16 countries — is that there’s an audience for what we’re doing.
We’re also very dedicated to focusing on solutions journalism, not just following the “If it bleeds, it leads” model. Of course we cover dysfunction, crisis, tragedies and disasters, but we also cover the creative ways people are meeting those challenges. One of our three editorial pillars — in addition to news/politics and wellness — is a global initiative called “What’s Working,” to put a spotlight on ideas and solutions that are having an impact in various communities around the world. HuffPost Good News is now the number-one Facebook page sitewide, aside from HuffPost’s main Facebook account. And a visitor to a Good News piece is twice as likely to share or comment versus an average HuffPost article. In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, we raised $141,000 with Good News stories like this.
What do you think about the concerns that news is becoming more polarized and audiences are increasingly selecting the news sources that reflect their own biases?
At HuffPost, we try to push against that — our platform is open to all points of view. But we’re also deeply committed to the idea that the left-right paradigm is obsolete. The problems we’re facing, and the solutions we need, transcend this simple right vs. left division. And so we cover the news with that in mind, making it clear that the truth is not always to be found in the middle. Global warming is a fact. Evolution is a fact. And Barack Obama was born in the United States.