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From AJR,   March & april 2011  issue

"Too Amazing To Turn Down"   

Why high-profile journalists are leaving prestigious news outlets like the New York Times to join The Huffington Post. Posted: Tue, April 5, 2011


By Jeffrey Benzing
Jeffrey Benzing (jbenzing@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

What do you get when you take a handful of the country's most experienced, pedigreed journalists and give them free rein to hand-pick their staffs and cover dream beats, obsessively, without concerns over space?

Well, according to some, The Huffington Post.

HuffPo has been better known during its rapid rise to prominence for its aggressive aggregation of other outlets' stories and its extensive lineup of blog posts than for its original reporting. But veteran journalists like John Montorio, now in his third week as the site's culture and entertainment editor, and National Editor Tim O'Brien say the evolving Web powerhouse will make converts.

"Just nailing it day after day after day," O'Brien says of the newsroom's ambition. "We want to be present across all of the issues of the day and build up a reporting staff that allows us to do that in an original and compelling way."

O'Brien, who had been Sunday business editor of the New York Times since 2006 until he made his move in December, saw a chance to build something from the ground up at The Huffington Post. As did Montorio, who was ousted from his managing editor post at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after seven years at the paper. And so did Howard Fineman, editorial director of The Huffington Post Media Group, formerly of Newsweek and a prominent presence on MSNBC. And Business Editor Peter Goodman, who came from the New York Times in September as one of founder Arianna Huffington's first big gets.

Huffington, who launched the site in 2005 and now oversees all of AOL's media properties following that company's $315 million acquisition of The Huffington Post in March, says the heightened emphasis on original reporting doesn't mean abandoning the past. Huffington says the site had 148 journalists on payroll prior to the merger and is in the process of hiring dozens more, even as aggregation and blogging remain key parts of the site's operation.

"I really want to have everything. I don't want us to move away from curation, aggregation or blogging," she says. "I want what we're doing to be additive, not subtracting."

Adding original content was a goal from the outset, Huffington says. So when the site became profitable last year, she took a dinner meeting with Peter Goodman -- who says he was satisfied at the Times writing in-depth news features -- as a chance to give him what he saw as an offer he couldn't refuse.

Total freedom, as Goodman describes it. A chance to dig deep into the economic issues facing Americans left powerless by economic recession.

After he decided to join up, Goodman says "it was almost hard to get out of bed for a week. I thought, my God, this woman has described something that is too amazing to turn down, and yet I'm at this job where I'm doing serious, high-impact work at the greatest brand in American journalism."

Goodman speaks highly of the Times (and of its executive editor, Bill Keller, who is not, as can be seen in a recent New York Times Magazine column, a big fan of Goodman's new employer). But there were limitations. For instance, when a front-page story on predatory for-profit colleges generated hundreds of e-mails, Goodman wanted to do another story on the topic -- but the paper had no place for it.

"My editors said, and I'm not criticizing them, 'Well, we already hit the subject,'" Goodman says. "Arianna's whole thing is, "This is the Web, let's hit it again and again. If we've got another one, let's hit it again.'"

So now Goodman has assigned a reporter to that beat full-time and has deployed his staff of about a dozen, some established journalists, some eager new recruits, to cover economics and business issues across the country, all with the idea of pursuing a story as long as it takes to tell it thoroughly.

What Goodman sees is a chance to cover major topics not as single, big-issue projects, but as an extended narrative that gives voice to the people most affected. "If you're going to get them to go through the painful process of them opening their life up to you, you don't want to go, 'Well you're an anecdote that didn't fit,'" Goodman says. "Once that happens enough, that starts to mess with your reporting."

John Montorio, whose first day at The Huffington Post was March 18, says that he's found his dream job. "I think the experience I've had in my career has prepared me for this, and it's like a real second act," says Montorio, whose résumé also includes 15 years at the New York Times.

After spending about three years editing and writing for Entrepreneur Media and House Beautiful, Montorio says his new role at The Huffington Post is like a move home.

"I had really just flown into New York with a carry-on filled with underwear and socks and a couple shirts and a suit jacket," Montorio says of his move from Los Angeles. "By my second day, I felt like I'd been here a couple years."

Montorio said he wants to cover culture and entertainment -- whether it's Broadway or the publishing scene -- with the same tenacity that Goodman has in mind for the business beat. He'll have help from Maura Egan, another hire from the New York Times, in his mission to blend ambitious journalism with creative use of technology and social media.

"I think what we produce here in the next year or so will be another sea change in American journalism," Montorio says.

And that's the mood shared by many of his colleagues. But if there's plenty of sunshine within The Huffington Post, there are those outside who continue to see dark clouds.

Keller, for one, has accused the site of profiting from the news content of others while lacking a serious focus of its own. On March 10, he wrote that Huffington "has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come."

Huffington -- who doesn't accept the left-wing label -- makes no apologies, defending aggregation as a worthwhile service.

When the media properties of AOL came under the umbrella of the newly-formed Huffington Post Media Group, the fate of thousands of freelance writers working for AOL was called into question. The organization is hiring furiously, though mostly writers with formal journalism backgrounds and training -- something many of those freelancers don't have. And even as some properties are being integrated, it is clear this week that many of those freelancers are being let go.

"I don't think that we could achieve what we wanted with hundreds of freelancers," Huffington says. "I think we need to have dedicated full-time people on board."

Some AOL properties like Politics Daily have been shut down, leading to layoffs of about 200 editorial and technology employees, coinciding closely with new hiring at The Huffington Post. But AOL's Patch.com, which focuses on hyperlocal community news, not only survived the merger but continues to expand into new markets.

The legion of bloggers at The Huffington Post will remain unpaid, something that has drawn widespread criticism from the get-go, most recently from the Newspaper Guild, which has asked members not to contribute free content.

Free blog content and news stories from other organizations fueled the rise of The Huffington Post as a major media player. The balance might change, but none of that is going away -- and neither are critics.

"[S]ome of the great aggregators, Huffington among them, seem to be experiencing a back-to-the-future epiphany," Keller wrote. "They seem to have realized that if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate."

Still, the merger with AOL has drastically boosted the site's ability to invest in news -- everything is bigger and faster, according to O'Brien, who oversees all the newsroom hires. The goal, a lofty one, is nothing less than a transformation of American journalism.

"At the end of the day, we're not going to prove the merits of this thing by coming up with a pithy press release," Goodman says. "We're either going to come up with really great journalism where people see our value, or we're not."