Print journalism enthusiasts Claire Sabel and Carolyn Ruvkun scored invites to CSAAD, Columbia Spectator’s Annual Awards Dinner, held this year at the Columbia Club in midtown. Speccies schmoozed, Arianna Huffington charmed, and hobnobbing ensued.
“Journalism is not a spectator sport,” declared Arianna Huffington. It was an unfortunate choice of words, since the media mogul was presenting the keynote address at the Columbia Spectator fundraising dinner. Former Republican political wife and failed independent gubernatorial candidate turned ubiquitous liberal commentator and networker extraordinaire, Huffington is a little zany, to say the least.
But Spec snagged her just at the right time. Three weeks ago, AOL bought Huffington’s wildly popular news blog, the Huffington Post, for a cool $315 million. Once just another lefty startup, HuffPo now attracts 26 million visitors a month. “I’m in recruitment mode,” Huffington announced in her trademark Greek accent. She jokes that she was born in Fresno but “cultivates an accent to give the air of an ethnic minority.” It “makes me more popular—except in Arizona.” People chuckled.
Things got serious when Huffington fielded questions. Attendees took their best shots: you don’t pay your bloggers, you just aggregate information without producing original content, you take leftist stances in your books but claim that the site is politically netural, and you post trashy stories— “if you can call them that.” Zing! But Huffington had heard it all before. She deftly responded to their questions and dismantled their accusations with a touch of sass.
Bloggers want exposure and Huffpo needs content, she explained. Anyway, people don’t pay for news anymore “except for financial news, like the Wall Street Journal, and for some reason weird porn.” She argues most journalists, guided by the assumption that everything is divided between left and right, merely “regurgitate polls” without adding “flesh and blood to the data.” HuffPo and other blogs, then, incorporate the best of traditional journalism with new media, offering transparency and a forum for discussion. Now everyone can engage in the lofty “pursuit of truth.” She also argues while new media may suffer from “OCD,”—exhaustively covering the same stories—this overexposure is preferable to the old media’s “ADD”—abandoning front page stories without following them up. When challenged that HuffPo’s obsessive behavior tended to be celeb-oriented, Huffington retorted, “Even people who love Kierkegaard and Spinoza also sometimes want to read about Lindsay Lohan.” Too true.
After Huffington dashed off for an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Joan Didion, famed essayist and author, approached the podium. Soft-spoken and frail, Didion had clearly suffered the grief she so candidly expressed in The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion’s 2005 memoir recounts her grieving process after the sudden death of her husband. Shortly after Didion submitted the manuscript, her daughter Quintana died of pancreatitis. She graduated from Barnard in 1989 and served as Spec’s photo editor. In Quintana’s memory, Didion presented the Quintana Roo Dunne award for Visual Achievement to Neel Patel, the former online editor who designed Spectrum.
After a few more rounds of applause and expressions of good wishes from the editorial board, Speccies and alums proceeded to the after party. At this point, we politely excused ourselves and headed back uptown.
Photos by Spec