Arianna Huffington's business plan: start an online news site, fueled by blog reports from her celebrity and influential friends. And have them all work for free, in exchange for using her bully pulpit.
Nearly 2½ years and $10 million later, the experiment has nearly paid off. The Huffington Post is the fifth-most-linked-to blog on the Internet, according to measurement firm Technorati. Co-founder Ken Lerer says the Post will be profitable next year, when its audience could double, thanks to interest in the 2008 election.
The staff has grown from three to 43 full-time employees. And Huffington's list of bloggers has grown to 1,800 — including well-known names such as comedian/pundits Bill Maher and Harry Shearer, screenwriter/director Nora Ephron and actor Steven Webber.
"If you wake up and have something to say, great," says Huffington, herself an author, pundit, radio host (KCRW's Left, Right & Center) and former California gubernatorial candidate. "We're there for you to say it."
Maher says that when the site began, "The media world needed an anti-Drudge Report, a counterbalance with a liberal point of view. Now we have it."
Lerer, a former Time Warner executive who raised $10 million in start-up capital, mostly from venture firm SoftBank Capital, says the site was inspired by the role the Internet played in the 2004 elections. Now, he says, "You can build a brand in a year or two — just look at MySpace and Facebook. Years ago, something like this would take a decade at least."
An all-purpose read
While it's still a politics-driven, anti-war site, Huffington is trying to remake the Post into more of an all-purpose digital newspaper, with sections devoted to lifestyles, business, media and entertainment.
"We've discovered that even the most politically obsessed readers have other lives," says Huffington, 57, in an interview in her home office here.
Former CNN anchor Willow Bay has joined the staff as editor-at-large, overseeing the Living Now section, which includes articles on stress, sleep and motherhood.
But it is the Post's anti-Iraq war point of view that drives traffic and dominates the front page.
Not all bloggers come at it with a liberal point of view, Huffington says. She mentions conservative bloggers including Tony Blankley and David Frum, and says she would love to have more conservative voices — even former White House aide Karl Rove, with no restrictions on what he could say.
That freedom is one of the key reasons bloggers are taken to writing for her.
"It's great to be able to write something at 3 a.m. and see it go up live immediately," says Hilary Rosen, former president of the Recording Industry Association of America and frequent MSNBC political commentator. "I've never had one word changed."
Others do it for the exposure.
"There are people who return my calls now, because of the association with Huffington," says political blogger Michael Shaw, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., clinical psychologist. His BagNewsNotes blog landed a coveted spot on the list of links from the Huffington Post home page.
While the Post was originally marketed as a "celebrity" blog, most of the authors are under the radar, emerging voices like Shaw: college students, professors, politicians and ordinary folks who have lots to say.
Huffington has written 10 books, including the recent On Becoming Fearless … in Love, Work and Life. She operates as editor-in-chief of Huffington Post from her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, where she surfs websites such as Slate and The Times in London keeping up with the news.
She spends evenings trying to woo more writers to the stable.
"She meets a lot of people," says Ephron, a longtime friend. "She'll listen to them for three or four minutes, and then say, 'You should write a blog about that.' She just throws it right back at them — and then calls them the next day to find out if the blog is finished yet."
Most bloggers (you have to be invited in or ask to be invited via firstname.lastname@example.org) get a password that allows them access to the site. Some non-techies use other methods. Actor Alec Baldwin faxes his stuff in. Late historian Arthur Schlesinger used to call Huffington and dictate.
A point of view
The Post has taken off, says JupiterResearch analyst Barry Parr, because it has exploited the benefits of the Internet as a home for news with a point of view. "People are looking for places that pull together the best information into one place," he says. "This gives them a focused way to get it."
Traditional newspaper sites, he says, link to stories on their front pages by their reporters or wire services, but rarely to those of rival organizations.
Sites such as Huffington Post and Drudge Report don't care where it came from, just that it's interesting, he says. Traditional newspapers, if they are going to survive, need to follow Huffington's model, he says: "If they don't point them to interesting stories that are elsewhere, Arianna will."
Huffington is a major newspaper fan and doesn't think they're going away anytime soon.
"Not in my lifetime," she says. "Papers have to learn how to adapt, so that today's news, which is read online, doesn't feel stale the next morning. There's a very good future."
As the Huffington Post looks to its own future, co-founder Lerer says it has no plans to begin paying bloggers. Ever.
"That's not our financial model," he says. "We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company."