How The Huffington Post Ate the Internet

Shapiro_interiorMichael Shapiro in Columbia Journalism Review:

Of the many and conflicting stories about how The Huffington Post came to be—how it boasts 68 sections, three international editions (with more to come), 1.2 billion monthly page views and 54 million comments in the past year alone, how it came to surpass the traffic of virtually all the nation’s established news organizations and amass content so voluminous that a visit to the website feels like a trip to a mall where the exits are impossible to locate—the earliest and arguably most telling begins with a lunch in March 2003 at which the idea of an online newspaper filled with celebrity bloggers and virally disseminated aggregated content did not come up.

The invitation for the lunch came from Kenneth Lerer. He was 51 and casting about for something new, having recently left his position as executive vice president for communications at AOL. Lerer was a private man who was nonetheless comfortable in the presence of powerful people with whom he had earned a reputation for honing images in disrepair, most famously for the disgraced and subsequently rehabilitated junk bond trader Michael Milken. Lerer had made a good deal of money and a good many friends after having first made a name for himself in the quixotic 1974 New York senate campaign of Ramsey Clark (for which he was hired by the chairman of this magazine, Victor Navasky, who later recruited him for CJR’s Board of Overseers, which has no say in content). Lerer was splitting his time between New York and skiing at his vacation home in Utah when he came across a new book by a young sociologist, Duncan Watts. The book was called Six Degrees. Lerer was so taken by it that he took Watts to lunch.

He brought the book with him and Watts would recall that the copy was dog-eared, the flatteringly telltale sign of a purposeful read. Lerer had a plan and he wanted Watts to help him. He had set himself an ambitious target. He wanted to take on the National Rifle Association.

He told Watts: “I know the answer to this is somewhere in these pages.”