Most of us know Arianna Huffington as one of the world’s most influential media figures, for leading the transformation in how news is delivered and consumed.

But few of the more than 600 attendees at Communitech’s sold-out Tech Leadership Conference this week would have anticipated Huffington’s formidable knack for charming an audience.

Within seconds of taking the stage, the founder of the wildly popular Huffington Post group of news and blog sites found a sure path into local hearts.

“Thank you so much; it’s really great to be here in RIM country,” Huffington said amid a welcoming round of applause. “I say that as somebody who has not one, not two, not three, but four BlackBerrys.”

Holding her smartphones aloft, Huffington said she can’t imagine life without them, and pointed out she has more of the devices than she has children.

A warm, engaging and broad-reaching address followed, in which she touched on everything from The Huffington Post’s successful year-old foray into Canada and the importance of getting enough sleep, to her divorce and our current obsession with social media, and its sobering implications for quality journalism.

After her address – and a long round of handshaking, photo-posing and amiable chatting with attendees – Huffington and I sat down backstage for a brief one-on-one chat. Here’s how it went:

Q – Huffington Post Canada is approaching its first birthday. How is it performing?

A – It’s really great. It’s getting 2.7 million unique visitors (a month), thousands of comments a week, hundreds of bloggers.

It’s just a very, very thriving community, as well as great journalists and different stories around key issues.

We did a series called Minding the Gap about growing inequalities, and series that have an impact on the culture and on the conversation, which is part of what we want to do, as well as being a platform for people to be able to express themselves.

Q – What would you say distinguishes the Canadian site from the main Huffington Post site?

A – It’s all run by Canadian journalists, and that’s really key to all of the sites we’re launching internationally.

The template of what makes the Huffington Post is the same: A combination of original journalism, community, bloggers and aggregation. But, because it’s so rooted in Canada – or in Quebec in the case of our Quebec site – it’s addressing the issues of paramount importance here in the community.

Q – What have you personally learned about Canada that you didn’t know when you went into this a year ago?

A – I’ve learned so much.

Let’s take the bloggers. The MP who quit Twitter on his blog, I thought he was just so refreshingly authentic. He walked us through his process; what he liked about Twitter and what he didn’t like, and it was not written the way it would have been written in the States by a politician, because everything goes through a homogenizing machine, and by the end of it, language is drained of any soul.

That is just an example of how there’s a lot of authenticity in how people blog, whether you agree with them or not, and that’s really the point.

Q – You spoke briefly about what you call the ‘fetishization’ of social media, and the inconsequential nature of a lot of what we’re communicating online. If you take that obsession to its logical conclusion, where do we end up?

A – Not in a good place.

In politics, it puts the premium for journalists on being 10 seconds ahead of somebody else on an irrelevant scoop. I mentioned Donald Trump endorsing Mitt Romney; that’s an example of a completely irrelevant scoop.

Who cares? It doesn’t matter; it’s not even news? I mean, if he was endorsing Obama it might be a little more interesting, right? But it’s like Dog Bites Man, you know?

And yet, people celebrate in the journalists’ community, and we are all tempted by that, because the incentives are all about breaking stories rather than providing context or explaining or telling stories, which are such important parts of journalism.

So we really almost have to work against the culture to salvage those parts of journalism.

Q – Could this just be a passing infatuation with a new toy, that will correct itself over time?

A – I think we need to make sure that we celebrate the new toys, but also put them in their place.

I don’t think we can just leave it to chance; too much is at stake.

Q – What do you say to those who feel the Huffington Post has contributed to some of that social-media obsession?

A – Yeah, I mean, absolutely.

In a way, because we’re so good at social media, we don’t fetishize it. Sometimes you see more-traditional media companies who have come late to the party, so they have to be more rah-rah-rah and cheerleading about it, but we don’t have to be; we are established as a social media leader.

And so, ironically, we are now prioritizing and course-correcting.

From the beginning, I must say about the Huffington Post, we saw ourselves as a combination of the best of the old and the best of the new. We never, ever rejected what makes great journalism; in fact, we’ve totally embraced it.

Even in the design of the site, we had the designer of New Yorker covers; the typography is very traditional. We always wanted, even in our design, to express that we were embracing what’s best about journalism.

Q – Speaking of that, you’ve been touted as one of the most influential media figures in the world. How can you use that influence to make sure quality journalism survives and thrives in a world of non-stop news cycles and short attention spans?

A – Well, I think we can demonstrate that online, people do read long-form journalism.

In fact, we are about to launch on April 24 an iPad magazine app, which is really beautifully designed, which is going to feature our best long-form journalists as well as our bloggers and our snackable bits.

In the beginning, we thought the internet was going to kill long-form journalism, but The New Yorker is doing a great job of selling its app every week.

Q – What can the rest of us do, as news consumers, to ensure that quality journalism survives?

A – Right now, we’re never just consumers of news. We’re also talking back; I mean, people are heard now, instantly.

So if we read a long-form piece, or it’s a piece that focuses on stories or a piece that focuses on investigative journalism or whatever, we just need to acknowledge that it’s important, and say so.

Q – What will you tell others about your visit here today?

A – I just remember all over again how much I love being around people who are starting things.

Everybody I met had some interesting story, and I think you see, in their eyes, the dream and the sense of possibilities.

Like all of us, not everything is going to succeed, but I think part of embracing the startup culture is embracing failure along the way, and getting up one more time and trying again.

I think you see that spirit in the room, and in everybody I met, even a dentist. I met a dentist who was experimenting with social media in being a dentist.

And I loved the grandparent app, and Formulating Change.

My favourite thing here is giving my business cards away and wanting people to blog, and people do, and I love that. I’m a complete evangelist; I want everybody in the world, because I believe everybody has something to say.

Q – I plan to take you up on that.

A – That would be fantastic.

 

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
Google+

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.