It would be very easy to root against the liberal cleavage emporium, occasionally news-breaking, mostly news-aggregating behemoth The Huffington Post, whose most popular articles currently include “PHOTOS: Jennifer Love Hewitt In A Bikini” and something called “WATCH: The Wrong Way To Install A Ceiling Fan,” but a new Vanity Fair feature, which details The Social Network-style lawsuit claiming founders Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer stole the idea for the site, just doesn’t bring enough heat to trigger schadenfreude. (But that’s not to say we enjoy internet minutiae as much as the next blog!) In fact, a sort-of dull article, baseless lawsuit and shallow content aside, there’s still reason to think poorly of HuffPo.
The article, which hopes for Sorkin-levels of drama, and the lawsuit, which aims for Eduardo Saverin-levels of cash (or at least half the press of the Winklevoss brothers’ complaint) both fall short.
The story of political consultants Peter Daou and James Boyce, the plaintiffs, goes
something like this:
The next morning, December 4, Huffington, Lerer, Daou, and Boyce met for breakfast at Huffington’s house and “confirmed in detail,” according to the complaint, “Peter’s and James’ concrete ideas and plans for the proposed website. They agreed that the website should highlight Huffington’s personality more effectively than her then-existing website at ‘ariannaonline.com.'” They spoke about getting “scoops” and “exclusives” from their contacts in the media and the Democratic Party and recommended that “luminaries and public figures should be invited to blog on the planned liberal website.” They spoke about hiring viral-marketing specialist Jonah Peretti. Huffington mentioned hiring Breitbart, then at the Drudge Report, to help, too. (Daou and Boyce recall thinking it strange at the time that Huffington would suggest hiring a conservative blogger.)
Which, okay, that sounds a lot like The Huffington Post. But it also sounds like every site of the era on the internet, trading on “scoops” and “exclusives,” both tired buzzwords for online journalism even back in 2004. As for featuring Huffington’s personality, she was already a practiced media presence (and check out the covers for her books); no one could have thought she would shy away from being the face of her own endeavor.
As the Vanity Fair article goes on, the claims get shakier:
But to say it was a “blueprint” for the site is an exaggeration. A third of the proposal recounts the successes of the Kerry campaign in using the Internet and the corresponding success of the Republicans with the Drudge Report. Much of the rest merely describes ideas about the Internet that were much in circulation at the time: for instance, news delivered by aggregating stories from Web sites–a clear take on the Drudge Report, but a practice that was seen in the earliest days of the Internet with such Web sites as NewsNow. Several pages were devoted to “a ring of sites that … will become gathering places online”–an idea that seems not to have been incorporated in the Huffington Post. The idea of celebrity bloggers was hardly original, and although a few people Daou and Boyce suggested, such as Alan Dershowitz and Kristen Breitweiser, did make it onto the site, most of the early bloggers, such as Walter Cronkite, Tina Brown, Mike Nichols, Jon Corzine, Ellen Degeneres, David Mamet, and John Cusack, appear nowhere in their proposal.
Both plaintiffs even blogged for the site, Boyce as late as October 7, 2010. Oops! (The complaint was filed on November 15.) One insider responds: “If they really thought they had created the Huffington Post, when the Huffington Post was launched, they would not have said anything? They would not have sent a single letter but kept blogging on the Huffington Post?” Which sounds suspiciously similar to a refrain we now know well: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It’s like that.
Basically, Huffington seems safe sitting on her millions. Check the numbers:
The Huffington Post has 26 million unique visitors a month, according to the research firm ComScore, and is one of the top 10 current-events and global-news sites in the United States. In October 2008–not exactly a robust time for the market–The New York Times reported estimates that valued the Huffington Post at $200 million. (These days, the unconfirmed value is closer to $350 million, based on expected 2011 revenue of $60 million.)
But those figures are exactly why it’s okay to still be peeved at the Post, even if you’re not Team Daou/Boyce. Remember: this is a site that doesn’t pay its writers. It powers through, and accumulates ungodly amounts of traffic, on the backs of amateurs (admittedly volunteers) with only 50-some paid employees. Have you seen the site lately? Its content is endless. And the lucky few are starting to earn profits on all of that free labor.
To make matters worse, if to dive a bit into insider’s waters, much of the information on The Huffington Post — namely the so-called aggregation — is “repackaged” in a way that rids the information from its initial ties to a primary source (a journalist, maybe) and makes HuffPo the one-stop shop for all internet information, original idea owners be damned. In other words, even when the work isn’t done by their unpaid writers, The Huffington Post makes it like look like it was. They are notoriously stingy participants in the link economy.