The launch featured an introductory blog by Huffington herself, along with blogs by, yes, Arthur Schlesinger, Larry David, and a much-maligned co-bylined post by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband, Brad Hall, on gay marriage. The knives were out: “I’m predicting it’ll be at least as successful as Arianna’s last campaign for governor, and you can quote me on that,” wrote Ned Rice in National Review Online. “The problem with blogs like The Huffington Post is that they divert our attention from real and serious journalism,” wrote Cal Thomas of Tribune Media Services, which had been carrying ariannaonline.com. But no one could rival the delighted venom of Nikki Finke in LA Weekly: “Judging from Monday’s horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many.” Finke went on to hit where it seemed likely to hurt most, suggesting that Arianna’s Hollywood friends wanted little to do with the venture.
In truth, there was little need to scrounge for copy; all sorts of people were willing to have a turn once they realized how easy it was to send along their musings. There was little in the way of editing, save for some cosmetic tending to prose, and the admonition, especially to the writers among them, to “be bloggier.”
By May 2006, Time had anointed Huffington one of the world’s 100 most influential people—along with Matt Drudge. Lerer had raised another $5 million and the site, depending on who was doing the counting, had between 760,000 and 1.3 million monthly unique visitors. Huffington announced the hiring of Melinda Henneberger, a former reporter for the The New York Times and Newsweek, in an effort to create original content generated by a salaried employee. Huffington seemed to be inviting everyone she encountered to blog, including the doctor who had tended to her broken foot. Money was coming in; in June, the JWT advertising agency bought all the site’s advertising space for a single week to promote such clients as JetBlue, Levi’s, and Ford, at a cost reportedly in the low six figures. Newsweek included Arianna on its cover for its story on women and power.
And yet there remained something unseemly about the whole enterprise, especially to journalists, a sense that in making its own rules Huffington Post had violated a few too many. Its newsgathering was done by others, even if the commentary was original. The bloggers were not paid—a fact that did not stop people from joining in—me included. I wrote 14 blog posts for Huffington Post for one reason only: I had a book coming out, and it was clear that if I wanted to reach potential buyers, Huffington Post provided an ever-widening platform. Many writers without marquee names were submitting pieces and not only seeing them posted, but sometimes surpassing the posts of the famous contributors.
Being able to see their names, or better still, their bylines—with tiny, pinky-nail photos—meant that these unpaid contributors had joined the phenomenon Huffington talked of and celebrated above all others: the Conversation. And in providing all these people with a forum, Huffington Post had succeeded in extending and strengthening the reach of its ever wider, and stickier, network.
That fall, HuffPost traffic surpassed that of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s website, though it still lagged behind that of the big players: CNN, Yahoo, the Times, and its self-appointed nemesis, Drudge. The site, which had started with fewer than 10 employees—most in New York, with Huffington and Roy Sekoff in Los Angeles—began to hire, slowly. Among the newcomers was a former student of Peretti’s, Paul Berry. Peretti was getting restless—he was planning to start his own laboratory, a company to be called BuzzFeed—and he needed someone who could transform the already impressive traffic numbers into the metrics worthy of the contagious phenomenon he had helped spawn.
By the time he arrived at Huffington Post in 2007, it was as if all of Paul Berry’s life experience had prepared him to become the site’s lord of traffic. He was 30 years old, recently married, and possessed an air of infectious enthusiasm. He spoke in a loud voice. He laughed often, and loudly. Peretti had seen possibilities in him as a graduate student at NYU’s ITP, and invited him to be part of the Contagious Media project at Eyebeam. By then, Berry had long abandoned his youthful dream of writing fiction—he studied Latin American literature as an undergrad—and had found work of moderate fulfillment as a coder and Web developer.