I confess: The Huffington Post brings out the Andy Rooney in me. The site obviously supports some good journalism, it’s just as obviously used skillful aggregation to build a tremendous audience, and as a professional media observer you’d be derelict by not paying attention to it. But I’ve never really understood why so many people would choose it as their first place for news, rather than as a supplement. All those bright colors, and the photos everywhere! And never knowing where a link will go before I click on it! And why is it always shouting at me? If I stay on the site too long, I get a headache.
So on the occasion of HuffPost’s fifth birthday I called my brother, a twenty-three-year-old middle school social studies teacher who visits the site daily—besides his Google News feed, it’s his only regular destination for non-sports news—to ask what draws him to it. That conversation just made me feel older. I’d be likely, after all, to describe HuffPost by way of comparison to The New York Times, or to the great old papers of the pre-objectivity era: it bills itself, after all, as “the Internet newspaper.” His analogy? “It’s like the news version of Deadspin.”
Actually, not exactly, he clarified: Deadspin remains more of a blog in look and feel, while HuffPost has transmogrified into a primary news source. But both eschew the design conventions of more establishment media sites, like the newswire layout at ESPN.com or CNN.com. And there are other similarities. “They both obsess over news stories that don’t quite matter so much, and they don’t apologize for that at all,” he said. And “they make the media out to be a news event in itself.”
Well, yes, but that didn’t necessarily sound like a selling point. It wasn’t, he said over e-mail, when I asked him to elaborate: “By focusing on the more trivial aspects of politics, HuffPost is taking away from the more important issues.” Then, he added, “certainly this criticism can be said for the major news outlets as well.”
This was starting to make sense. Sure, HuffPost has its flaws as a news source. But it doesn’t hide them and doesn’t agonize over them, and its no-apologies approach is a rebuke to the self-seriousness of other news outlets, which have their own shortcomings but can’t acknowledge them—in part because they’re bearing the cumbersome weight of all that “newsy bushwa” that’s meant to signal their old-fashioned credibility. If the journalistic enterprise is always going to run aground on limitations, readers might as well go to the place that makes sport of the limitations—and that even devotes a “Big News” page to Jon Stewart, the patron saint of such an approach. (Making the media out to be a news event in itself, indeed.)
So I understand better, or at least I think I do. Still, the Andy Rooney in me thinks that, in the long run, a meta-media diet is going to start feeling a little thin. And I wonder: Where does someone who comes of age reading HuffPost end up? If the stuff that bugs my brother about the site starts to gnaw a little more, will he turn instead to Google or Yahoo!, or even (perish the thought) to a grand old name like the NYT or the BBC? Or, as HuffPost gets older and becomes the establishment, as its ambitions get bigger and it inevitably starts taking itself more seriously, will space emerge for an unapologetic, insouciant newcomer to skewer the site’s pretensions and make off with a share of its audience?
Or maybe I’m just a cranky old man, and Arianna has him hooked for good. Give it another five years, and we’ll have an idea.
(Disclosure: As a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I unsuccessfully applied for numerous internships. One of them was at The Huffington Post.)Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.