Sunday, 7 September 2008

Arianna Huffington: Huffing and puffing and blowing the paper house down?

A colleague passed on a link to me to a Prospect Magazine feature on the highly influential Huffington Post news/views website.

Arianna Huffington set up the HuffPost as a liberal news site back in 2005 as a platform for politics and media, as well as a generous helping of entertainment. It unashamedly wears its politics on its sleeve and boasts itself as a 'news blogs video community'.

In his Prospect feature, Andrew Keen argues that the HuffPost has not only revolutionised news, it has also played a part in destroying it.

There's no doubting Huffington has played a part in revolutionising the blog. Since she started out, the blog has gone mainstream, moving from a soapbox for any wacko with a keyboard, to a recognised and widely respected medium for people's views.

But not only that - Arianna has found the multimedia Holy Grail. She's actually making money - and lots of it - through her 'online newspaper'.

Ward argues: "No wonder the conventional newspaper business is in crisis. Lightly staffed websites like HuffPost are siphoning off both readers and advertising."

He continues: "Most newspapers have websites, but the cost of paying journalists and editors to produce content doesn't support the traditional news industry any more.

"At the moment, HuffPost works because the luminaries on Huffington's network have access to the reliable information derived from professional news journalists and commentators. But as the traditional newspaper business withers, media is liable to degenerate into a surreal Ponzi scheme of digital illusions and delusions where empirical facts will be replaced by opinion and professional news gatherers by commentators-with-attitude. This represents a real threat to representative democracy. In a society where nobody can reliably know what is going on, it is hard to act as a good citizen or to vote in good conscience on the performance of our politicians.

"So how can we save journalism and keep democracy alive?"

Isn't democracy about giving the man on the street a voice? And what else is a blog, but just one big megaphone which can be heard around the world.

Ward's argument about the decline of 'journalists' leading to the decline of reliable content is misleading. Who is to say what a reporter writes is any more informed than what someone already in the know would write? Our sources are now public. And our public has access to them. We are at the moment nothing more than a conduit for what people want to say or get across. The web, blogs and the likes, allow them to say it themselves.

A reporter who relies on information from a source is as equally susceptible
to someone with an axe to grind and an opinion, than the reader of a blog. And while a professional reporter should always seek out counter arguments and opinions, well so can the blog reader.

As more and more people get their news from aggregators and RSS, the local axe-grinders can get their message out without the need for us, our newspapers, or our websites ... and they already do. Do a search for blogs in your area.

HuffPost is a case in point. It sells itself as a community - and that's exactly what it is. Networks of like minded, like-interest people getting their views and messages out there.

Newspapers now have to be in there and part of it. If local news is what a newspaper (print and online) is about, then it needs the experts to write its content. And these experts are the local people. Reporters from that community, who know the local issues, who have grown up within its streets and know the locals' concerns.

If I'm reading a story about economics, I want that story to be written by someone who knows about economics, who understands the story.

Incidentally, the colleague who passed the link on has been an avid newspaper reader every day, buying his favourite broadsheet. But he recently bought a laptop and now never buys the paper admitting: "I now read more news than ever!" Enough said.

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