Five Takeaways from Arianna Huffington’s Appearance at Tufts University
When it was announced in February that the Huffington Post cofounder, chair, president, and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington would speak at the Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism at Tufts University—one of the most important academic events of the year—the school’s newspaper, The Tufts Daily, ran an editorial criticizing the selection.
“Though she is among the most powerful individuals in media—and has been a columnist, panelist, commentator, author, and CEO—Huffington has never actually been a journalist,” said the editorial, stating that the Huffington Post’s model of news aggregation contrasts with the model of the “unbiased hard news journalism” that defines the legacy of Murrow, a broadcast journalist who rose to prominence during World War II, and that is practiced by former forum speakers Christiane Amanpour and Brian Williams.
The ninth annual event took place yesterday at the Cohen Auditorium on the university’s Medford-Somerville campus in front of an audience consisting of representatives from area universities, members of the press, Tufts alumni, current students, visiting admitted students and their parents, and Murrow’s son Casey, who attended with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. While introducing Huffington, Julie Dobrow, director of the university’s Communication and Media Studies Program, acknowledged the student newspaper’s editorial, agreeing that Huffington does not fit into the traditional mold of a journalist. But at the same time, Dobrow defended her selection, saying that Murrow would have embraced Huffington because “she, like he, is a true journalistic innovator.”
The forum, titled “From TV to Tablet: Is the Digital Frontier Making Journalism Better?” was moderated by Tufts alumnus Jonathan M. Tisch—host of the Emmy-nominated television program Beyond the Boardroom with Jonathan Tisch—who interviewed Huffington about the changing media landscape.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Despite criticism, Huffington defends the Huffington Post’s model of news aggregation and guest blogging as a valuable platform for encouraging a variety of voices.
“Even if I had an unlimited budget, I would still aggregate news,” said Huffington, attributing part of the Huffington Post’s success to its promise to readers to compile the best online content in one place, whether it’s original or not.
Huffington equally values the Post’s investment in original reporting—in 2012, it won a Pulitzer Prize for David Wood’s 10-part series “Beyond the Battlefield,” documenting the lives of wounded veterans and their families—and its open invitation for content from guest bloggers and citizen-journalists.
“They’re people who can write and speak from their own immediate experience, or because they love the topic and they can delve deeply into it,” she said. “They strengthen democracy.”
The current state of media is often framed as a battle between print and digital media—and the possible demise of print—but Huffington sees a hybrid future.
“I actually have always believed and continue to believe that print will survive indefinitely,” said Huffington, using her daughters’ frequent consumption of print magazines as an example of print media’s inherent appeal.
Instead of one winning over the other, Huffington sees an increased convergence of print and digital media going forward.
“Traditional media, as the New York Times has done well, are doing more and more online—doing great stuff with infographics, with bloggers, with using social media—while purely online media like the Huffington Post are doing more and more investigative reporting and traditional journalism,” she said. “That’s the convergence, the hybrid future that I see.”
Huffington believes that we are in a “golden age for news consumers,” as they are now able to participate in a conversation with the media.
Citing a “great cultural source” rather than a “great journalistic source,” Huffington quoted will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas: “We used to consume news sitting on a couch, but now we consume it galloping on a horse.”
Rather than just consuming news, people now comment on it, share it, and pass it on, forming a “much more dynamic process,” said Huffington. “Self expression has become the new entertainment. People want to express themselves—they want to be part of the story of their times, and that’s incredibly healthy.”
But Huffington warns that the ability to share everything—made possible by technology—can be dangerous.
“There’s a kind of snake in the digital garden, and the snake is that we tend to love anything that goes viral independently of its value,” she said. “We need to learn to actually disconnect from technology in order to connect with ourselves and increase our ability to go deeper into subjects.”
There will always be a need for storytelling—and people love stories about people.
While traditional newspapers may follow the “If it bleeds, it leads” mindset, putting bad news on the front pages, the content that is most often shared online consists of positive stories about people, according to Huffington.
“We’re finding that the news that’s most shared is either about incredible examples of compassion, ingenuity, generosity, or news that can make our lives less stressful and more fulfilling,” said Huffington, citing the story of Glen James—a homeless man who found $40,000 in Dorchester and promptly turned it in to the police—as an example.
Following the same logic, Huffington stressed the need for journalists to use examples of real people within the context of broader stories in order to make the information more relatable and accessible to the public.
“People love stories, and being able to put flesh and blood on the data is key,” she said.
Personal well-being is key to success.
For a portion of the conversation, Huffington, who is promoting the release of her 14th book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, strayed from the topic of media to emphasize the importance of personal well-being, echoing the sentiments of her popular TED Talk on sleep as key to success.
“By conventional definition [of money and power], you might be successful, but if you’re lying in a pool of blood on the floor of your office, you’re not successful by the same definition,” said Huffington, recounting her collapse from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, which caused minor injuries, two years into launching the Huffington Post.
There is a “collective delusion that in order to succeed, we have to burn out,” said Huffington, and it’s important to step away from it and take care of yourself. “Our jobs, however magnificent or grand, do not solely define us. That’s not all we are.”