Arianna Huffington, of The Huffington Post, has always done things her way. Now she’s challenging the age-old approach to news. That’s good news for good news.
Stories like that of a Greek bookworm who becomes one of the world’s most important media voices. How her mother sold everything she owned to give her daughter a chance to get into Cambridge University, where she was elected the first foreign and third female president of the Cambridge Union Society, the 200-year-old debating society of the school. She followed Rupert Jackson, now a member of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, in the post.
That’s how the story of Arianna Huffington, then Arianna Stasinopoulou, begins.
She had gotten it into her head that she wanted to study at Cambridge when she saw a photo of the university in a magazine. She calls it the perfect example of the power of visualization. Then her mother helped her make her dream come true.
“From the heirloom carpet … to her last pair of gold earrings, [my mother] sold everything along the way to pay for the schools and the private lessons that prepared me for the Cambridge entrance exams and my sister for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,” she wrote in her 2007 book On Becoming Fearless…In Love, Work, and Life.
During her entrance exams, Arianna, then 16, and her mother rented an apartment in London, and when the telegram arrived – this is 1969 – with the news that she had been accepted, they tried to decipher it: “Awarded. Girton. Exhibition.” Awarded sounded like good news, and Girton referred to the university’s residential college for women, but what did “Exhibition” mean? They called her tutor, who told them that Arianna had gotten a partial scholarship to study economics.
She could call almost anyone, and they would answer
And now, 39 years later, she’s done it all. She’s published 14 books, five of which have made international bestseller lists, she’s run for governor of California as an independent, she’s been a vocal debater in the United States and Europe, and she’s talked about the importance of healthy living (“I now start every morning with 20 to 30 minutes of meditation”) and sleep (“After many years of burning the candle at both ends, I now get seven to eight hours of sleep a night”). She can call almost anyone who’s anyone in the world and they will answer immediately, and she’s made her ex-husband’s last name a part of a worldwide phenomenon in The Huffington Post, a site that started as a blog platform 10 years ago, was acquired by AOL in 2011 for $315 million, and now has 13 international editions.
Some analysts have estimated The Huffington Post’s current value at $1 billion. But as in any story, even Huffington’s story has both rain and shine, both uphill and downhill.
At Cambridge, her Greek accent was so thick people were laughing at her openly. After she had published The Female Woman, in which she attacked the women’s liberation movement, the manuscript for her second book, After Reason, about political leadership, was rejected 36 times before she found a publisher.
Her bestselling biography of the singer Maria Callas was accused of plagiarism. (The case was settled out of court, and the original biographer was awarded compensation in the low five figures).
She ran for governor of California in 2003 in a race that Arnold Schwarzenegger won, but she withdrew from the race a week before election, too late to get her name off the ballot, and received 0.55 percent of the vote.
But no matter how many times the world has tried to knock her down, just as many times she’s gotten back up again.
The difference between success and failure is perseverance, Huffington says.
She’s used to changing the rules to make the world a better place as she sees it. At The Huffington Post, that has meant going from being a blog platform to creating a real newsroom that does real reporting, to the point that in 2012 the site won its first Pulitzer Prize for senior military correspondent David Wood’s coverage on the lives of severely wounded war veterans and their families.
Maybe it’s because Huffington knows her yin and yang, and the different shades of gray in her own life story, that she’s now out to change the way media reports news. She wants to see more good news, because it’s simply good journalism, she says.
“[At The Huffington Post], we have so many examples of widely shared ‘What’s Working’ stories.”
In 2012, The Huffington Post launched a “Good News” section on its site, with inspiring stories of people doing amazing things.
In early 2015 she expanded on the idea in a 2,000-word blog post on the site’s new theme, “What’s Working,” a “global HuffPost editorial initiative to double down on our coverage of people coming up with solutions to the very real challenges we face.”
“We launched HuffPost ‘Good News’ in 2012 as a standalone vertical dedicated to putting a much-needed spotlight on what’s inspiring and positive,” she told Scandinavian Traveler.
“Building on the success of ‘Good News,’ we launched ‘What’s Working,’ an editorial initiative that spans all of our sections and all of our international editions with the goal of reimagining journalism. It’s a difference in scale.”
The operative word in the “What’s Working” mission statement is “solutions.” Instead of highlighting only problems, or photos of cute kittens, The Huffington Post wants to “shine a light on the stories of creativity, innovation, ingenuity and compassion the media too often overlooks.”
And if Huffington thinks that has to change, well, it just has to change.
“There’s an old saying in the news business,” she says, “one that’s guided editorial thinking for decades: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Stories of violence, tragedy, dysfunction, and corruption get top billing, driven by the assumption that these are the stories the public will be most drawn to watch or read.
“I don’t think we’re hardwired to pay more attention to bad news and threats, but traditionally the media have operated on that assumption,” she says. “And that’s lousy journalism. There’s a tremendous hunger for stories of how people are responding to challenges, how they’re coming together, even in the midst of violence and poverty and loss.”
And yet, every day the headlines, both online and in print, scream of disasters and political and economic chaos everywhere in the world. Surely the different representatives of media know what people want – or rather what sells. Not so, says Huffington.
“Reporting on solutions isn’t just good journalism, it’s smart business,” she says. Jonah Berger, a Wharton Business School professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, dug deep in 2013 with his colleague Katherine Milkman into the New York Times’ list of the most emailed stories over the course of six months. “What they found was that people were far more likely to share stories that stirred positive feelings,” Huffington says. “It’s not that bad news clicks and positive news doesn’t.”
But obviously the media is focused on disasters more than good news. In her “What’s Working” mission statement, Huffington wrote, “In the 1990s murder coverage increased more than 500 percent – even as homicide rates dropped more than 40 percent, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.”
Is it competition for clicks, then, that drives the bad news to the top of the page? Or if Huffington is right, shouldn’t good news get at least as many clicks?
“[At The Huffington Post], we have so many examples of widely shared ‘What’s Working’ stories, from the dramatic decline of gang violence in Los Angeles and cigarette smoking in America to the growing movement of meditation programs in schools and the ways Muslims and Jews around the world are working together in the name of peace and understanding,” she says.
She quotes Chris Moody, Twitter’s Vice President of Data Strategy, who sees “countless proof points on Twitter that positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform than negative content.”
In late July, some of the stories on The Huffington Post’s “What’s Working” section included “Being An Athlete Isn’t Just About Playing Sports, And It Shouldn’t Be” on the importance of sports stars as community role models, and “Nigeria Marks 1 Year With No New Polio Cases.”
Often, though, pieces of good news, even big ones like the Nigerian polio situation, get brushed aside. It’s all fine and dandy to go to the nice part of the site and read about the old lady who collects eyeglasses for the poor in developing countries, but many readers then go back to the Pulitzer Prize-winning part of the site where the “real news” is.
“We tend to associate good news with the ‘hero’ segment at the end of the local broadcast, or the feel-good profile buried in the Lifestyle section, because that’s how many news organizations have treated good news for so long,” she says. “But like The Huffington Post, more and more news organizations are making good news and solutions journalism a part of everything they’re doing, not just a cute afterthought. The days of positive news being considered unserious are on their way out.”
That doesn’t mean one-sided reporting. On the contrary, she says.
“Restoring a sense of proportion to news by accurately reflecting the world’s realities is most definitely not about reporting through rose-colored glasses,” she says.
The Huffington Post is no longer alone in the good news business. For example, the Washington Post Post issues a Sunday newsletter called “The Optimist” with inspiring stories of “success, ambition and pluck.”
“There’s been a noticeable increase in the amount of solutions journalism being published even since we launched ‘What’s Working,’ ” Huffington says. “We created a daily ‘What’s Working Honor Roll’ in our media section, spotlighting all the great solutions-oriented reporting other outlets are doing around the world.”
“I don’t think we’re hardwired to pay more attention to bad news and threat.”
In the spring of 2015, The Huffington Post partnered with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles and got journalism students to work on “What’s Working” stories that were posted on Huffington Post’s platforms.
“We want our students to change the world with their journalism, but also to change the world of journalism,” says Willow Bay, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism and a senior editor at The Huffington Post.
“What’s Working” seems to be working for The Huffington Postt, as the response from readers has been good, Huffington says. Actually, more than that.
“It’s been phenomenal, and not just in the US,” she says. “ ‘What’s Working’ is central to what we’re doing in each of our 13 international editions. People are actually thanking us for this coverage in the comments sections.”
In the end, it all comes back to the readers, individuals, who also have to work for their good stories.
“Seek out new and different perspectives and be a part of the conversation,” Huffington says. “The days of the media gods sitting up on Mount Olympus have ended. We’re living in a time when we have the tools to join a vibrant global conversation and connect with each other and with the world in ways we couldn’t even have imagined just a few years ago.
“I’m extremely optimistic about the future of journalism. The media has gone from a grade of F to, let’s say, a C-plus, and there’s been a huge improvement in a short period of time, but there’s still tremendous room for improvement. More and more media organizations see that their audiences are hungering for something more than ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ ”
Maybe it’s time for a new slogan: If it’s about good deeds, it leads?
This story originally appeared in the September issue of Scandinavian Traveler