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Arianna Huffington makes waves on the Web

Once known for her bombastic political commentaries and flamboyant lifestyle, Arianna Huffington is making waves with a Web site that attracts eyeballs, advertising and media attention.
/ Source: CNBC

Three years ago, a woman known mostly for bombastic political commentaries and a flamboyant lifestyle entered a realm about which she knew almost nothing.

Today, Arianna Huffington has the media world buzzing. She jokingly refers to herself as a "cyber slut." Others call her Citizen Huff.

Her site — — has blossomed from a handful of staff to 50 and an audience of nearly 15 million visitors a month. Her Internet newspaper is attracting eyeballs and advertising that might otherwise gravitate to traditional media outlets. The site is also helping to set the media’s agenda.

When Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, touted her favorite "family recipes" — revealed that they'd been lifted from the Food Network. In a private meeting, Sen. Barack Obama complained that small-town voters turned to God and guns because they were "bitter" — a story that first appeared on

Stories reported by ordinary citizens, many recruited by Huffington herself, make up so-called "off the bus" features. It’s a format she started with New York University Prof. Jay Rosen.

“We wanted to go out and empower people to report on what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears,” said Rosen. "And we knew some of those people would have access professional journalists didn't have."

For the 57-year-old Huffington, it's been a dazzling, dizzying ride. Born into a middle-class Greek family, she won a scholarship to Cambridge University in England and became the first foreign-born female to head its famed debating society. Later she married — and divorced —Michael Huffington, a multimillionaire Texas oilman.

Today, Huffington’s world is packed with the glitz and glam of the red carpet, jousting with literary lions in lecture halls and breathless, kiss-kiss luncheons with fashionistas, whisked to and fro, never quickly enough.

She has been called just about everything — from influential, on Time Magazine's list of the World's Top 100, to "the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers."

Now the one-time queen of conservatism, turned liberal firebrand, is making waves again.

“It's an incredible time to be alive and to be operating in this new media space and to be basically inventing things as we go along, every day," she told her audience at a recent lecture at The New School in Manhattan.

She’s been roiling the mainstream media with what, for her, once seemed unimaginable. Three years ago, Huffington barely knew what a blog was. Friends warned her: Don't go there.

“I saw the potential,” she said in an interview with CNBC. “I'd always been fascinated by how do you break through the static to change minds?”

The so-called Bittergate flap over Obama’s remarks didn't just dominate political coverage because it wounded Obama's campaign. It also got Huffington a tongue-lashing from Obama sympathizers like former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat.

“How many people were talking about an off-the-record comment he made at a fundraiser in San Francisco until it appeared in the Huffington Post?” said Kerrey. “Nobody was talking about it."

Which of course is precisely what intended.

“Political news should reflect more of the population,” said Rosen. “And come from more places. That's what we're trying to do."

Huffington's management style is gently hands-on, whether running a staff meeting from her luxurious California home or from the company's headquarters in New York, housed atop a trendy grocery store.

“My management style is: You're in a green light until there is a red light," she said

Huffington counsels employees; sometimes, she issues directives. Sometimes, she even lowers the boom. When she’s had to fire someone, she says she tried to keep it “pleasant.”

“I don't believe in unpleasant firings," she said.

Arianna Huffington doesn't just promote — and recruit, relentlessly. She plows through hundreds of emails from readers. She also taps into her remarkable network of the famous and well-connected.

In California, broadcaster Willow Bay is a senior editor.

“It’s an Internet business, and you are in some ways leaping off a cliff into the great unknown,” said Bay. "However, if I am going to leap off a cliff with anyone, it's Arianna."

Her supporters aren't just friends but venture capitalists. Though some, like Softbank Capital managing partner Eric Hippeau, did have reservations.

“It's easy to understand why people could be skeptical,” he said. ”You know, a bunch of her friends, celebrities in Hollywood, going and trying to understand the Internet and being bloggers — it sounds like a strange idea."

Still, Hippeau's firm, Softbank Capital, ponied up almost $7 million to help her Web site get started.

“The way the Huffington Post is put together is the right way to go for the future,” he said. “We fully expect to build a very, very major property.”

Though it hasn't turned a profit, yet, Huffington said it will "sometime soon."

She won’t reveal her own compensation.

“I mean, it will be great if it was really profitable and we also made money, but that is definitely not the primary goal,” she said. “The primary goal is to make a difference in the conversation in this country."

A peerless promoter, Huffington made a 1996 appearance on the Comedy Channel in which she climbed into bed and sparred with comedian Al Franken.

Franken: "You get the first question."
Huffington: "But you wrote it."
Franken: "Go ahead."
Huffington: "Why is Bob Dole so far behind?"

Seven years later — by now a liberal — she mounted a short-lived campaign to be governor of California. In a debate with the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, she complained that about the way he treated women.

"I have a perfect part for you,” he replied. “In Terminator Four."

Once dubbed “the Madonna of political reinvention," Huffington says she spurned conservatism 12 years ago when she realized she'd been naive.

“I really believed the private sector would step up to the plate and be able to address a lot of the social problems we're facing, and then I saw first-hand that this wasn't happening,” she said. “It was really a change based on fact and new evidence. And I'm a great believer in changing your mind when you're presented with new evidence."

Of course, after her tire-screeching, 180-degree flip-flops, former soldiers-in-arms piled on, calling her everything from an “attention-seeking Diva," to the “most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus."

As for criticism, anyone who uses three, count 'em, three, Blackberries is probably too busy to notice. And failure is simply not an obstacle, says the author whose second book was rejected by 36 publishers and who then proceeded to write — and publish — 10 more.

“What stops us so often from fulfilling our dreams, from doing something that can make a difference, is fear of failure,” she said. “And I say, if you don't try, you're definitely going to fail. I feel very strongly that failure is just part of any successful life."

It hasn't, she concedes, always been easy. Despite the best-sellers, the acclaim and her Internet powerhouse, Huffington still wrestles with personal demons. That includes what she calls a very loud, "obnoxious roommate that lives in my head."

“I could not do anything without that inner voice stepping in and telling me how wrong I had done it — it was endless self-criticism,” she said.

Gradually, over the years, she says she's learned to tone down that voice, even poke fun at it. She has also, she insists, learned that success — and all the trappings — are not enough.

“I don't think you can have a fulfilled life without the instinct to find meaning in life; each person will discover what that is for themselves,” she said. “To find it in every day, to find it in every contact.”

That supercharged, whirlwind lifestyle will continue, but nowadays, she insists, there is a new sense of balance.

“As I've grown older, I've been able to put things in perspective,” she said. “If we worry about all the little things people say about us — are they approving of us? — then we're really wasting our lives. And we're missing the point of life.”

All this helps explain why she can, with such relish; eviscerate the candidate she once championed: Sen. John McCain.

"I think John McCain should not be allowed to hold sharp scissors, let alone be president," she said.

That new perspective also helps explain why she can so heartily chuckle at the philosophical distance she's traveled.

“You are wrong, you change your mind, you move on, you change sides,” she recently told a lecture audience in Los Angeles — to laughter and applause. “No problem: I completely believe in redemption."

Whatever the approach, it's turned her into a celebrity and, for many, an icon.

While the Huffington Post has traction with a growing audience, it's probably too early to say if it represents a fad — or the future. One thing, though, is certain.

“I'm doing what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “And the fact that I don't exactly know what shape it's going to be, you know a year or two years from now, is part of the creative pleasure.”

How far can she take the Huffington Post?

“How many people are there in the world?” she asked.