An intriguing aspiration, not only for Huffington Post but for every enterprise, existing or still being imagined, that sees in the story of HuffPost’s rise a series of replicable steps that assure success. This sort of thinking troubles Duncan Watts. In the end, some things just happen. There is a confluence of events that could not be envisioned, that came together in precisely the right way and at the right time and which, in hindsight, could not have been predicted. “I know that they didn’t know they were going to succeed,” Watts says of the HuffPost founders. It was not just their complementary skills and temperaments. It was also the moment—the blogging phenomenon, the bitterness of the left after 2004, the coming of Web 2.0 and the excitement of the 2008 election, the rise of the Bored at Work Network, the evolving ease of technology—all of it, all at once. The rhythmic clapping in the sixth inning that, as Watts would put it, cannot necessarily be replicated in the seventh.

“The larger point of this is that we think deterministically,” he says. “If you think about the major religions, they’re deterministic—creator, plan, faith, destiny, causality. Journalists are prone to this. They tell stories. And stories are confining. There is a tendency to kind of tell a story that makes it seem as if everything had to happen the way it did.”

The Huffington Post was supposed to be the left’s answer to Drudge. At least that is how the story was framed. HuffPost borrowed from Drudge. And from the bloggers. And from Blackpeopleloveus.com and the Contagious Media Lab and Stop the NRA and Ariannaonline. Then it set about doing what comes so naturally in the digital world, and which the legacy journalistic world still struggles to master: It iterated. It did not try to eliminate the possibility of failure. It did something different. It embraced it.

* The original version of this piece reported that AOL’s Daily Finance was shut down, along with Politics Daily, after AOL and Huffington Post merged. But Daily Finance was not shuttered, and we regret the error.

 

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Michael Shapiro is a contributing editor to CJR and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.