Huffington’s exit marks changing of digital guard

epa04790388 Co-founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, speaks at the NOAH founders conference in the Tempodrom in Berlin, Germany, 09 June 2015. The NOAH Conference, taking place on 09-10 June, provides a platform for leaders of the digital economy to meet and interact. The target audience spans from entrepreneurs, investors, corporate executives, networkers to leading industry journalists. EPA/GREGOR FISCHER©EPA

Arianna Huffington’s departure this week from the Huffington Post, the news site she founded more than a decade ago, signals a changing of the guard in digital media.

In the last six months, Jim VandeHei of Politico has left the company he co-founded, while Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, has taken a step towards the exit, filing for bankruptcy protection and putting the media group he started up for sale. That move following a barrage of lawsuits funded by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire. A new Gawker owner could be announced as early as this week.

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Ms Huffington is leaving to focus on Thrive Global, her “wellbeing and productivity” start-up, having recently completed a fundraising round with backing from, among others, Kenneth Lerer, a Huffington Post co-founder, and digital entrepreneur Sean Parker. Her departure was not a surprise: she had taken on a broader editorial role when she sold the company to AOL five years ago in a $ 315m sale that netted her an estimated $ 21m.

Under AOL’s ownership she oversaw international expansion. But speculation was rife that she would depart once AOL was itself acquired by Verizon in 2015.

Ms Hufington leaves an indelible mark on the media landscape. The Huffington Post was one of the first web sites to offer a mix of aggregated content and original journalism to online audiences — for free. Traditional newspaper owners may have hated it but readers did not: the site attracts more than 90m visitors a month.

Its ascent over the past decade coincided with the accelerated decline of the print publishing industry. Newspaper owners initially aped Huffington Post’s free, ad-supported online model, hoping to turn clicks into ad dollars, but with limited success — most large circulation dailies would eventually introduce paywalls.

The Huffington Post, though, has persisted with its free-access model and its blend of original reporting, aggregated content and blogs. The company employs professional journalists around the world and in 2012 won its first Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious award, for its reporting on war veterans and their families.

But it also continues to aggregate much of its content and publish submissions from bloggers without payment. It has been consistently criticised for this, most notably last year when Stephen Hull, its editor-in-chief, was interviewed on BBC Radio Four. “When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.” The comments sparked an outcry.

Ms Huffington, though, has weathered these storms. Erudite, outspoken and passionate about the internet’s power to reach and interact with audiences, she once urged delegates at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival to practise what she termed “polyga-media”. News sites could not ignore the possibility of an interactive, two-way conversation with their readers, she suggested. “Imagine a relationship where only one person did all the talking,” she once said. “How long do you think that would last?”

Born Arianna Stassinopoulos, she studied economics at Cambridge. A former conservative, she ran a failed campaign for California governor as an independent candidate in 2003. She then tacked left, endorsing John Kerry for US president and became a frequent critic of George W Bush.

The Huffington Post launched in 2005 with backing from several liberal supporters, including the comedian Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld, and David Geffen, the film and music billionaire. The team that launched the site included people who would go on to become some of the most influential figures in digital media. Andrew Breitbart, the late rightwing commentator and founder of Breitbart.com, interned for Ms Huffington and worked on the site, as did Jonah Peretti, who would go on to launch BuzzFeed.

But Ms Huffington is leaving the fast paced world of digital media behind. “I’m filled with excitement at the prospect of devoting the rest of my life to accelerating the culture shift away from merely surviving and succeeding to thriving,” she said this week. She will watch from afar to see if the Huffington Post can thrive without her.

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