More: Online, Arianna Huffington reigns supreme
"She has one of the most interesting, vibrant social networks of anyone," says Peretti. "At a kind of fundamental level, she's hyper-webby." Or as she puts it, "The Huffington Post is like life itself. Everything can be included."
Among news websites, the influence of the HuffPo -- as it is increasingly called -- exceeds its fast-growing but relatively small audience, because of the people it is written by and for. Given the fickleness of the web, it's certainly too soon to say whether it will succeed in its ambition to be the news organization of the future.
But it's no understatement to say that the site has confounded its critics. "I've seen a shift with how Arianna is treated," notes her actor friend Cusack. "When it first started and she went on talk shows, people dismissed her. Now she doesn't have to raise her voice and nobody interrupts her. You can see the shift because they understand the power of her now."
The company won't disclose figures, but one source estimates revenue could grow from about $4 million this year to as much as $7.5 million in 2008. Although Lerer has claimed it could be profitable by next year, the current thinking by the site's owners is that it will instead invest in growing the business.
The website's internal figures, as Huffington said, put unique visitors in September at around 3.6 million, a million more than a year ago, while monthly page views have tripled to around 90 million. While it is dwarfed by the giants of online news like Yahoo and nytimes.com, the research firm Compete says the Huffington Post has as big an audience as the Philadelphia Inquirer's website and nearly half the audience of the Drudge Report or Slate.
What has Huffington and her partners particularly excited is the homegrown community of readers: Comments posted beneath blogs and stories have ballooned to 250,000 a month. (As with most sites, independent ratings show considerably smaller audiences; Comscore and Nielsen/NetRatings put the Huffington Post's monthly visitors at 792,000 and 1.3 million respectively.)
As a business, the Huffington Post has a controversial element: Some pundits have criticized the site for not paying its blogging contributors, or at least have wondered if they will stick around if Huffington and her colleagues get rich on their work. The counterargument is that no contributor is forced or expected to produce. Rather, the idea is that posting with Huffington is easier and potentially more influential than setting up and maintaining one's own blog.
Of the three dozen Huffington bloggers I spoke with, none grumbled about not being paid. Instead, most bloggers post sporadically or rarely. And some, like NBC's Brian Williams, use the site as an added outlet for blogs they've written elsewhere.
Lauren Rich Fine, a longtime publishing analyst at Merrill Lynch (Charts) who now teaches communications at Kent State University, is one of the select 1,600 -- in a typical tale she met Huffington at a conference and was quickly invited to blog for the site's new business section. Once she posted a blog entry, she said she was impressed by how many people noticed it.
"I really loved her," Fine recalls. "She gave me her personal business card and said, 'The only thing you need to do is let us know when you're blogging, because you'd be a featured blogger.'"
To the uninitiated, her advice is, "First thought, best thought." In August, after a late-night dinner in lower Manhattan with TV host Charlie Rose to work on a series of video interviews with presidential candidates, she snagged a high heel on the street and broke her foot.
Rose sent her the next day to Dr. Rock Positano, a specialist who works with most of New York's professional sports teams. Huffington left the doctor's office with a cast and -- having learned that Positano has also penned columns about public-health issues in the New York Post -- a new blogger.
It's not as easy as it looks, she explained recently. While snacking on a goat-cheese omelette with a side of yogurt at a Manhattan hotel, she lamented that she had issued only one blogging invitation that day. She has learned not to force it. In the site's early days when the actor George Clooney accused her of fabricating a blog post for him -- she says it was a misunderstanding with one of his publicists.
"I was on Larry Ellison's boat when that happened," she recalls. "It was a real lesson for me because I had a kind of missionary zeal about getting people to blog."
At the same time, she does not promise that what is submitted will always run, a fact that has drawn the ire of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. He became a regular contributor last year, but claims Huffington's editors started vetting his posts and then refused to run a column he submitted recently because it conflicted with the site's hard-left editorial line on Israel.
Huffington denies that, explaining instead that her editors wanted the column reworked because of Dershowitz's attacks on Norman Finkelstein, a controversial political scientist with whom Dershowitz has feuded.
"We are not prepared, for a variety of reasons, to host bloggers' personal attacks on others ... whether or not they're true," editor Colin Sterling wrote in an e-mail to Dershowitz's assistant. "We'd be happy to look at a revised version that takes this into account."
Dershowitz e-mailed back: "The point can't be made without telling the truth about Finkelstein. I have read dozens of ad hominem attacks against right wingers on your blog. Methinks thou has a double standard! I will post it elswhere [sic] where a real marketplace of ideas exists."
In an e-mail to me, Huffington includes links to other posts about Israel on her site that she says give all sides. "This had absolutely nothing to do with his position on Israel," she wrote (suddenly sounding very unbloggy), "but rather our desire not to have the Huffington Post become a forum for unending personal battles and potentially libelous charges."