Be kind, unwind, says new media ‘queen bee’

In February 1995, a story in Newsweek magazine described Arianna Huffington as a “queen bee wanna-be” — who “specializes in grand gestures.”

Follow Joaquim P. Menezes on Twitter.

That was a decade before Huffington (who grew up Arianna Stassinopoulos outside Athens) launched The Huffington Post. It was also a period when many in the media underestimated her.

No one makes that mistake now.

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The Huffington Post – the online only blog news site she founded in 2005 – today averages eight million unique visitors a month. It has nearly 4,000 contributors and covers everything from breaking news and politics to media, business and life style.

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As for Arianna Huffington, a year after the launch, she made it into Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and was recently named one of the most influential women in media by Forbes.

Unplug and recharge

It’s within the digital universe that Huffington fashioned her own image, shot to fame, and dramatically expanded the popularity and reach of her publication. 

Yet, for all that she is also well acquainted with the darker side of digital.

And it was a theme she spoke passionately about during her presentation at Advertising Week recently held in Toronto.

“We need to use technology, not to be used by it,” said The Huffington Post’s founder and editor-in-chief.

She rued that information workers are allowing tech tools and devices to infiltrate every aspect of their life, every moment of the day – and in the process steadily eroding their health, well-being and balance.  “Many of us have unwittingly become so addicted to our devices that we can’t sleep without our BlackBerries and iPhones by our bed.”

Technology, she said, is making us obsessive. “Surrounded by devices, we haven’t really learned how to disconnect when we need to.”

Other top names in the publishing world today are making the same point.

Huffington recalled her recent conversation with Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books. “She said something profoundly true: that technology, right now, is moving ahead of social adaptation.”

At a practical level this phenomenon is taking a tragic toll on our health and well-being.

Sleep deprivation among information workers, Huffington warned, is becoming an epidemic. “And the more sleep deprived we are, the less healthy, happy, and productive we are.”

She cited a University of Michigan study that found getting just a little extra sleep each night has a far more beneficial impact on a person’s state of mind than a huge increase in income.

One of the study authors, psychology professor Norbert Schwarz remarked that “making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”

Such findings, she said, should make us seriously rethink our priorities.

If happiness is the goal, you’ll probably reach it faster by getting to bed a little earlier than putting in hours of overtime in the hope that management will reward you with a raise, she said. “And the odds are, a happier you will also mean a more creative and productive you — so you’ll likely end up getting that raise as well.”

The first pre-requisite for better sleep is to get those devices as far away from your bed as possible, Huffington said. “That is the time to recharge.”

She said one of the topics her publication is covering comprehensively right now is how to use and adapt to tech innovations in a way that still retains our humanity.

This means there should be times, every day, “when we consciously disconnect from all these innovations in order to connect with the most precious resource we have: ourselves.”

At The Huffington Post they call it “unplug and recharge.” It’s a principle the publication is promoting with crusading fervour.

It used last year’s Democratic convention in the U.S. to spread the message.

At the convention The Post set up what they dubbed “an oasis” — a space for relaxation open to all delegates and members of media. “They could come in, do yoga, meditate, eat healthy food … recharge and then go out and do their job.”

This space, she said, is a metaphor for the “oasis” all information workers need to create for themselves each day. “It’s critical.”

A brave new [media] world

Despite the beating print pubs have taken over the past few years, The Huffington Post’s editor-in-chief doesn’t believe print is a dying industry, nor that new media brands — such as her own — will be responsible for its demise.

In this “brave new world”, she visualizes old and new media not as either/or contenders, but as complementary.

“It’s a world where we must absorb the best from one another. From the old media we learn qualities such as accuracy, fairness, original reporting. And from the new media: immediacy, interactivity, transparency. That’s the hybrid future we’re celebrating.”

But she also predicted there would be some road-kill along the way — and the victims would be brands with a blinkered approach that refused to adapt quickly enough to an ephemeral environment. “They will suffer if they insist on merging into traffic riding a horse and buggy.”

But notwithstanding her ode to the “hybrid future”, a good portion of Arianna Huffington’s presentation at Advertising Week seemed to contradict that very hypothesis.

In the style of Karl Fisch — former math teacher, producer of the hugely popular video: Did You Know? – Huffington trotted out statistics on the rapid and inexorable downfall of the old media.

Did you know – she asked her audience — that:

  • Newspaper circulation is down 7 million over the past 25 years, while unique readership of online news is up 34 million in the past five years
  • Newspaper advertising fell nearly 19 per cent this year. Web advertising is up 9 per cent and mobile advertising up 18 per cent
  • More video was uploaded to YouTube in the last two months than if ABC, CBS and NBC had been airing completely new content every minute of every day since 1948

She also highlighted what she believes is one of the greatest benefits of new over old media — the ability to stay focused on a story until it crashes through the static and something is done.

She contrasted that with traditional media, which she said suffers from
attention deficit disorder — “they break big stories on the front page and then abandon them.”

“By contrast, we in the new media suffer from obsessive compulsive behaviour. We stay on a story, uncovering all various facets, until something is done about it.”

That dogged approach, she said, is critical to impact journalism – “the kind that really helps change the world we live in for the better.”

Trust is the new black

Online lends itself better to this kind of obsessiveness, than print, she said. One reason for that is the sheer number “citizen journalists” who may contribute to a story – through blog posts, twitter comments, videos et al.

But with so many providers of news and content online, she said, “trust” becomes a huge issue. “Whom do you trust? Who is credible?” – these are key questions.

She recalled an observation by Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist that “trust is the new black.” 

But it’s also an observation pertinent to traditional media – which by and far — failed us in its coverage two of the most important issues in recent times: the Iraq War and the financial meltdown.  

Newmark had commented that on both issues, while there was some really good journalism — that was buried “not curated into the front pages, and then, infrequently if at all repeated.”

By contrast, Huffington noted how the power of citizen journalism powerfully emerged during the uprising in Iran last year.

Her own publication, she said, sought to give citizen journalists a forum by featuring, 24/7, their Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and videos and photos – often uploaded from cell phones. “At a time when many in the mainstream media had been shut off by a repressive regime, we saw the power of new media.”

She recalled how shortly after, the uprising in China happened, and the Chinese government targeted the most powerful bulwark of citizen journalism – Internet access. “They completely shut that off, while providing access to a few select reporters, who could publicize the official view.”

All journalists crave access, she said. But while access is wonderful it’s also dangerous.

“You sometimes end up becoming a stenographer to power,” Huffington observed, citing the example of Bob Woodward, who as a young reporter for The Washington Post in 1972 broke the Watergate story along with Carl Bernstein.

Today, she lamented that the same Woodward’s recent books on the Bush era are nothing short of “a complete stenography to power.”

“He had unlimited access. He tells us how many peppermints were at the cabinet table, providing that ‘fly on the wall’ detail. It’s all very seductive, but completely misses the story.”

With new media the truth is also often compromised, but there are others who will quickly set the record straight, she said.

“After all, it’s much easier to seduce a few reporters than tens of thousands of Twitterers and Facebook posters.

It’s these digital natives, who collectively, in the end, will get us to the truth.”

Follow Joaquim P. Menezes on Twitter.

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