Hey, journalists! Stop getting all huffy about the Huffington Post's "lifting" of stories.

Media criticism.
April 15 2009 6:04 PM

Don't Get All Huffy About the Huffington Post

The sort of borrowing it does is in the American journalistic tradition.

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The gripe against the Huffington Post isn't the total amount of borrowing as much as it is the frequency and concentration of their borrowing. By that I mean that no publication screams "theft" when a thousand blogs do the same thing as the Huff Post but do it once each. In fact, they love it when a thousand blogs excerpt and point to their copy. What they find insulting, I think, is that the Huffington Post borrows again and again and again without end, and they serve millions of pages and sell ads against this borrowed copy.

Instead of getting wigged out at the Huffington Post, offended sites would be smarter to glean a lesson from experience. Top journalists aren't going to like hearing this, but not everybody has time to lounge about with the 2,000-word masterpiece that you and your editor handcrafted. They want to get to the salient point, and they want to get there now. As heretical as it may sound, the Huffington Post is adding value by skinning alive that beautiful baby seal you just birthed and serving its fresh, beating heart to readers in a hurry.

Instead of feeling diminished by the Huff Post's excerpts, more publications might want to pre-empt the site by serving distilled versions of their own articles. That's right: Even the Post and the Times and the Journal can learn something about how to serve readers from the Huffington Post.

Don't cluck your tongue. The Washington PostCo. and the New York Times have already conceded that there is a market for a shorter version of the day's news—they just haven't gotten around to putting it on the Web. The Post Co. has published the Express, a weekday free tabloid, since 2003. The Times produces its eight-page "synopsis" of the daily newspaper called TimesDigest for hotels, cruise ships, and health clubs. If the Huffington Post is such a threat, both companies should repurpose these tightly coiled reads to the Web. When you're in a hurry, information reduction is a good thing!

Finally, this will irritate my colleagues in the press, but much of the Huffington Post's success has to do with their superb mastery of search engine optimization, the swiftness with which they post the most timely videos (especially during the campaign), the regularity with which they update the news on their home page (I'll bet they count clicks in real time), and their willingness to publish sugared trash (Padma Lakshmi butt nekkid) alongside the broccoli of serious politics (Thomas B. Edsall) without flinching. (One major Huff Post downside: It's ugly like a bleeding naked mole rat painted DayGlo.)

A story belongs to its author and his publication for one news cycle, which in the Hearst-Pulitzer era generally meant the hours or minutes it took to compose and plate the story and print it in the next edition. In the digital era, ownership of a story is even more fleeting. Etiquette demands that journalists give their colleagues ample credit, something that I always try to do. But etiquette speaks with a soft voice, and I don't know of many readers who are as concerned about journalists' hurt feelings or where the news "originated" (whatever that means) as much as they worry about its truth-value. In any event, no reader should be denied the news just because the competition got there first. If a publication thinks it has a copyright infringement case or a violation of the hot news doctrine, it should take it to court. Otherwise, please pipe down.

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One more semi-nice thing to say about the Huffington Post: If I needed an up-to-the-minute news feed 24 hours a day—and I don't—and I had to choose between the New York Times Web site and the Huffington Post, I'd hold my nose and click on the naked mole rat.

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No article about the derivative quality of the Huffington Post is complete without a mention of the founder Arianna's back story. In the Oct. 13, 2008, New Yorker, Lauren Collins writes this about Huffington:

Her synthetic gifts have, at times in her career, raised questions. Her Maria Callas book prompted accusations of plagiarism from a previous biographer of Callas; the case was settled out of court. Lydia Gasman, now an emeritus art history professor at the University of Virginia, says that Huffington's Picasso biography included themes similar to those in her unpublished four-volume Ph.D. thesis. "What she did was steal twenty years of my work," Gasman told Maureen Orth in 1994. Gasman did not file suit. (Huffington denied both allegations.)

If that passage were smaller, I'd broadcast it via my Twitter feed. Send your condensations of Collins' passage to slate.pressbox@gmail.com for my amusement. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Huffington in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.