Home Arianna Huffington’s 7-Year Quest For Pulitzer-Worthy Journalism

Arianna Huffington’s 7-Year Quest For Pulitzer-Worthy Journalism

A seven-year-old blog turned heads among media-watchers yesterday by winning a Pulitzer Prize. The Huffington Post wasn’t the first online-only news operation to win the coveted award, but this is nonetheless being viewed as milestone in the history of journalism.

It is a significant moment, but anybody who is genuinely shocked about the Huffington Post’s win obviously hasn’t been paying much attention to the organization’s strategy over the last few years.

After launching in 2005, the site became known – often controversially – for its heavy reliance on unpaid bloggers, aggregation of news from other sites and supplementing its political coverage with fluffy, often celebrity-focused news. It didn’t take long for it to garner serious traffic, especially for left-leaning political news junkies. The site continued to grow dramatically as it was acquired by AOL last year for $315 million.

Courting Reporters and Investing in Journalism

Alongside its short-form blogging, news aggregation and celebrity slideshows, The Huffington Post has been investing in serious journalism for a few years now, an effort that appears to be paying off.

In 2009, the company launched the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a $1.75 million effort designed to support investigative journalism on economic issues at a time when the economy was in deep recession and newspapers were not exactly booming either.

By the time the AOL merger began to be executed last year, HuffPost had already nabbed seasoned journalists from places like Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, often coaxing them with promises of greater editorial freedom and fewer of the kinds of constraints inherent in print media.

One of the site’s more recent hires was David Wood, a veteran reporter with years of experience covering conflicts around the world. It was Wood’s 10-part series about injured veterans that grabbed the attention of the Pulitzer committee and helped HuffPost make journalism history.

This shift toward original, in-depth and investigative reporting was reportedly something Huffington had in her sights since day one. As anybody who watches the news industry knows, the best journalism is often the most expensive to produce. Including investigative reporting in the initial operations of a news startup in 2005 was probably not as economically sustainable as unpaid blogging and slideshows.

Over time, however, the site has been able to grow traffic substantially enough to forge a viable business model and actually turn a profit. Today, it’s able to support the kind of journalism that’s capable of winning Pulitzers.

The road toward this growth hasn’t been without its bumps. Early on, Huffington herself was forced to apologize to readers after it was revealed that a blog post allegedly written by George Clooney was actually a conglomeration of statements the actor had made in various interviews with other outlets. Since the beginning, the site’s practice of using unpaid labor to produce content has been highly controversial. So has its use of aggregation, which drew harsh criticism last year from Bill Keller, who serving as the executive editor of The New York Times at the time.

It’s clear now that the site’s low overhead early on helped it grow into a force to be reckoned with in the news industry, for better or worse.

The site’s latest accomplishment was aided not just by financial viability, but also the model that HuffPost employs. Since the site lacks many of the limitations of print publications – including print space as well as cultural issues – they’re often better-equipped to let reporters drill down on stories with laser focus, often for many months at a time. This is the editorial freedom that Huffington promises veteran journalists when courting them.

Former New York Times reporter Peter Goodman was one of those reporters. As the American Journalism Review covered a year ago:

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.'”

The Huffington Post will, of course, still have its critics, in many cases rightly so. But this news – along with recent wins by Politico and ProPublica – is symbolic of a larger shift in journalism overall, even if it’s one that’s been underway for a few years.

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