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Arianna Huffington (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Arianna Huffington (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

the lunch

Arianna Huffington: Linking together a bigger empire Add to ...

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.”

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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.

It’s part of Ms. Huffington’s carefully cultivated aura of warmth. She wastes no time attempting to establish intimacy: Not content to be interviewed, she fires off a string of personal questions, including what my relationship with my mother is like, how well I sleep at night and whether I want children.

The routine often works. Ms. Huffington’s social connections are staggering. In conversation, Ms. Huffington does not just drop names – she drops bon mots. It was her U.S. editor-at-large, famed writer Nora Ephron, who she says had the idea to launch a HuffPo Divorce section. “Marriage comes and goes, but divorce lasts forever,” she quotes with a throaty laugh.

The gift of gab is arguably what her success has been based on. When she moved from Greece to attend Cambridge University, her entry to society life was through participation in the Cambridge Union debate society. Her speaking flair earned her television appearances, which is how she met the journalist Bernard Levin, with whom she began a long relationship and who would help her publish her first books.

And when she left the U.K. to pry herself away from Mr. Levin (“I got to be 30, and I really wanted to have children. He wanted to have cats,” she quips) she rebuilt it all from the ground up, making famous friends; marrying a Texas oil scion and Republican congressman; eventually shifting political allegiances and launching her own failed political campaign; and starting a blog that would become part of an Internet economy that turned the media on its head.

Now taking the Huffington Post into its next phase of expansion, Ms. Huffington is as serene and chatty as ever. When asked about the future of journalism, she talks about the need for more “passion” and earnestly quotes Black Eyed Peas rapper will.i.am on the state of the news industry. She is effusive about her ability to raise discussions around her latest obsession, sleep deprivation. “We’ll have to show you our nap rooms,” she says (To find “Napquest 1 and 2” – hang a right at the foosball table.) But Ms. Huffington herself admits she does not manage to get as much sleep as she preaches, consumed as she is by her work and by taking herself and her site around the world.

“It’s really exciting, this international expansion, especially at a time when we’re seeing clearly how interconnected the world is,” she says, pausing slightly. “In good ways and bad.”

______________________

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON

PERSONAL

Born July 15, 1950 and raised in Athens, Greece.

Attended Cambridge University, received an MA in Economics in 1971.

Lives in the Chelsea neighbourhood in New York, and keeps a home in Brentwood in L.A.

FAMILY

Was married for 11 years to Michael Huffington, former Republican congressman and heir to a Texas oil fortune from his father’s company, Huffco. He revealed he was bisexual after they divorced

Two daughters, Isabella and Christina, both of whom are undergraduates studying at Yale University

Her sister Agapi lives with her, spending most of the time at the L.A. home; her mother Elli also lived with her until her death in 2000. “We’re a very tribal family,” she says.

SPIRITUALITY

Visited India at the age of 17 to study comparative religion.

She has been associated with new age guru John-Roger, but says she regards her quest for spirituality not as new age, but as part of something “eternal.”

She meditates every day.

THE PACE OF HER WORK

She has written 13 books, including biographies of Maria Callas and Picasso, and a self-help manual dedicated to her daughters, On Becoming Fearless.

She carries four mobile devices on every major wireless carrier in the U.S.; mostly BlackBerrys. She once wrote that she is “seduced by the charms of the little Canadian wireless device.” Occasionally the fourth in her arsenal is an iPhone.

Three years ago, she fainted from exhaustion, hitting her head on her desk, breaking her cheekbone and receiving three stitches in her right eye.

ON AGGREGATION ON THE WEB

“Even if I had an unlimited budget, I would be aggregating. Because our promise to our readers is that we’re going to bring you the best of the Web around the world. … I don’t think anybody can claim that they produce the best of everything, that they’re the only site that produces good journalism. So if you’re going to actually be a starter site, that brings the world to your readers, you need to aggregate.”

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