Arianna Huffington does not want to come to the table. There’s a perfectly serviceable one in her New York office, but she gestures instead to a couple of cushy yellow armchairs in the corner, suggesting – in a voice that Saturday Night Live comedian Seth Meyers once compared to the purr of a Bond girl – that we get “more comfortable.”
This is how you end up eating lunch off of an ottoman. It is not comfortable.
But while plates wobble and glasses lean precariously, Ms. Huffington is perfectly calm. She gracefully picks at broccoli florets and tender bites of skate, not a single morsel gone astray.
But then, Arianna Huffington is accustomed to balancing acts – and she’s embarking on her biggest one yet. Coming up on the first anniversary of AOL Inc.’s $315-million (U.S.) deal to buy the Huffington Post, she is juggling the fortunes of her parent company with a pet project to turn her namesake publication into a global brand.
On Monday, she will be in Paris for the launch of the first foreign-language edition, Le Huffington Post. The second Canadian edition is also on its way, with a French-language site launching on Feb. 8. In mid-March, an edition for Spain is coming, followed by Italy. She is in negotiations to bring HuffPo to Germany, Brazil and Turkey. “I feel that once we get the first dozen, then the rest will be easier,” she says, leaving no doubt about the scale of her ambitions.
This is what the merger with AOL has brought her, besides the reported $18-million it put in her own pocket: the fuel to expand. The Huffington Post has grown to 35 million unique visitors per month from 25 million at the time of the merger. The site has launched more than 25 new sections in the past year. She has poached reporters and editors from other news organizations, including a well-known Wall Street Journal writer this week. And Ms. Huffington is spending even more of her time on airplanes, negotiating deals in new markets. The speed of growth of the Huffington brand comes thanks to the kind of budget that her growing engine of “link bait,” political news and big-name columnists did not generate on its own.
But Ms. Huffington is no longer just responsible for the growth of HuffPo. AOL is shifting its strategy away from its waning business selling subscriptions for Internet access, and is betting on content, and the advertising revenues that come with it. That move was behind the acquisition of both HuffPo and of tech news website TechCrunch last year, which also bought the company Huffington’s star power at the helm of its media group.
HuffPo’s next big push comes on Feb. 2, when it will host an event in New York to announce the launch of a streaming online video network.
Investing in video has become a priority for other mainstream media outlets as well. But in many ways, Ms. Huffington stands opposed to other media organizations. While some news sites are finding ways to charge readers for access to content online and on mobile devices, HuffPo stubbornly remains free, drawing ad revenues that follow readers to the trademark Huffington celebrity blogs, punchy headlines and précis of articles written by other publications. The business model has raised hackles across the industry: leading up to the Quebec launch, for example, public figures such as politician Amir Khadir have drawn fire for agreeing to write for free, for a website that does not pay its bloggers and, critics say, does little to cultivate local talent. (The entire Canadian operation counts 14 full-time staff, four of whom will run the Quebec startup, plus six full-time AOL Canada employees.)
On the other hand, Ms. Huffington argues that the links in those short summaries to the original articles help stoke traffic for other news sites. And while HuffPo still considers high-profile exposure the only pay bloggers require, it has also hired roughly 200 reporters in the past year.
“I think that’s an old criticism … It’s only made by people who don’t understand the Web, and that the linked economy is here to stay,” she says. “… When it comes to our journalism, there is definitely a convergence. We hire more and more original reporters, traditional media do more and more online. So there’s kind of a hybrid future emerging.”
Managing that future has certainly kept Ms. Huffington busy. In a schedule packed with meetings, it is 3 p.m. before we sit down to lunch, which allows her to fall back into her favourite stock character: the pushy but loving Greek mother. “You must eat,” she urges, while hesitating to tuck into her own meal – she is more attracted to the lemons she picks out of her water one by one, gnawing them down to the rind. She invokes her late mother Elli’s fondness of food constantly.