Huffington Post goes nuclear

Is mix of serious news, hyper headlines, celeb sightings sustainable?

Like a lot of people, perhaps especially during the run-up to the election and Hurricane Sandy, I find myself checking the Huffington Post several times a day. It rewards me with frequent updates, wide-ranging posts and aggregation, and plenty of attention-grabbing headlines.

The site is understandably proud of its inroads and milestones. They include international expansion, the validation that comes with a Pulitzer Prize, launching a live video component, and high-profile partnerships like the one with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. According to Huff Post publisher Janet Balis, the business now boasts a staff of 500 reporters and editors posting some new piece of content every minute, and recently passed the gee-whiz-sounding threshold of 200 million comments.

In some ways, such Web-originated properties appear better positioned to face the digital world by evolving to meet its demands. By contrast, old-media players like print or broadcasting practically have to reinvent themselves.

Look closer, though, and Huffington Post — with its tendency to overreach, much like conservative counterweight the Drudge Report — raises nagging questions about what the future holds, both in terms of qualitative coverage and how it’s going to be a viable business model.

Yes, those aforementioned headlines inspire page views, but are often hyperbolic if not downright misleading. As Jon Stewart has noted, what HuffPo characterizes as “flipping out,” a “rip” or a “slam” frequently feels like a mild rant or fairly genteel barb.

Its Pulitzer notwithstanding, editorially speaking, the site’s tone is at least as heavily weighted toward “Eyewitness News” as the New York Times. Beyond the political content, Huffington Post teems with the salacious and the silly, via headlines like “PHOTOS: Kim Kardashian’s Dress Is About to Fall Off,” “Celebs We Wouldn’t Mind Being Stuck With During a Hurricane” and “10 Incredible Facts About Porn.”

On the plus side, many no doubt have Huffington Post to thank for their familiarity with the term “sideboob,” a fashion trend that might have otherwise eluded us.

The Huffington Post is certainly influential. The site generates an enormous amount of traffic and, as Balis says, can stir and move the online conversation.

Less clear, alas, is what we are to conclude from how heavily the site relies upon the kind of click-through tonnage something like the promise of “NSFW” pictures like sideboob engenders.

Huffington Post doesn’t disclose its financial information, so it’s hard to ascertain precisely how all that volume is converted into revenue. Balis maintains HuffPo is well-positioned for advertiser needs, able to offer buyers “custom-branded content platforms” and real-time analytics, demonstrating how ads are connecting with their target.

Still, one needn’t be a cranky old coot to worry about premiere websites exhibiting a mentality seemingly built around crying wolf, or whether they distinguish between those seeking sophisticated political coverage and gawkers craving yet another glimpse of Kardashian exposed.

Viewed that way, Huffington Post’s success or failure represents something of a double-edged sword. At its best, such websites can help point the way toward the tablet-oriented environment to come. Yet it feels as if the HuffPo has grown looser with accuracy in its focus on garnering those coveted clicks.

Asked about readers who constantly check the site for updates, especially throughout the presidential campaign, Balis spoke of an audience that’s “very addicted, and comes back throughout the day.”

There’s certainly a lot there to consume. Its nutritional value — and how clearly it labels the ingredients — is another matter.

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