The Pulitzer Prize win by the Huffington Post (s aol) for a series on injured soldiers was hailed by some as a victory for the “blogosphere,” a first-time win of the prestigious journalism award by a “blog.” But the fact is that those terms have become increasingly meaningless — especially when describing an entity like the Huffington Post, which has blog-like aspects and also newspaper-like aspects. Meanwhile, traditional media such as the New York Times have also been developing increasingly blog-like features, which is further blurring those dividing lines. What we have now are just media outlets, some large and some small, some of which are online-only and some of which also print things on paper. Can we move on now?
It’s true that the Huffington Post started life as a “blog,” or rather a loosely-connected network of bloggers, as a long profile of the website in the Columbia Journalism Review makes clear. Co-founder Ken Lerer and Jonah Peretti used Arianna Huffington’s broad connections within the entertainment and political communities to pull together an eclectic group of commenters who were willing to write for nothing — and that core group expanded dramatically as the Post continued to grow. That growth was fueled by Peretti’s understanding of online media and chief technology officer Paul Berry’s understanding of how the internet (including search-engine optimization) works.
The HuffPo hasn’t been a “blog” for a long time
But in many ways, the Huffington Post hasn’t been just a blog for some time now. Yes, there are still writers who post their content to the site and don’t get paid for it — which has been the subject of much criticism and even a lawsuit. But the reality is that newspapers also routinely run columns and opinion pieces that are written by outsiders, and in many cases they don’t pay them either. Why? Because those writers see a value in having their content seen by as many people as possible, for personal or professional reasons, just as those who write for the Huffington Post do.
On top of that foundation of bloggers (or op-ed writers, to use traditional media terminology) the HuffPo has built the rest of what would otherwise be known as a newspaper: investigative reporting, such as the series that print veteran David Wood did on injured soldiers, as well as a growing number of regular news reporters and salaried columnists across a wide range of different subjects. As my PaidContent colleague Staci Kramer has pointed out in her own post on the Huffington Post Pulitzer win, the specific medium that any of this journalistic work appears in is no longer as relevant as it used to be.
Did the Huffington Post leverage its web speed and broad reach, including traffic-driving features such as slideshows of swimsuit models and aggregated posts based on stories written by other media outlets, to build the foundation that allowed it to add those traditional journalistic elements? Of course it did, just as many newspapers have. In fact, the history of newspapering — and particularly pioneers like William Randolph Hearst — reads a lot like the rise of the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed and other entities, except with paper instead of bits.
The lines between old and new media are blurring
And while the Huffington Post has been getting more and more newspaper-like, entities such as the New York Times have been getting more blog-like: the relaunch of the medical section of the paper’s website, called Well, is just the latest in a series of similar relaunches that have turned sections of the NYT into blog-style portals. The Bits blog and DealBook are two other prominent examples — writers like Nick Bilton publish their content on a blog that just happens to be owned by the New York Times. As journalism professor Jay Rosen put it in an email to HuffPo media writer Michael Calderone:
[W]hile it’s tempting to see the Huffington Post’s Pulitzer as a ‘big win for new media,’ or something like that, the real story is that these organizations — the Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Washington Post — are becoming more like each other. Old media and new media are increasingly antiquated terms.
The debate over whether bloggers are journalists may have died down somewhat over the past few months, but it still flares up periodically, like a brush fire that just won’t go out. The question “are blogs journalism?” — or similar questions such as “Is Twitter journalism?” — make no sense any more, if they ever did. Are telephones journalism? Are pencils and pens journalism? No. They are just tools. A blog is also just a tool, one which can be used for journalism and for many other things as well. The same tools that allow the Huffington Post or Buzzfeed to post dozens of photos of cute kittens can also be used to tell heart-wrenching stories of social significance, as David Wood has.
And so we no longer have blogs vs. newspapers — we simply have media, and content, and publishing. As Clay Shirky said recently, publishing is no longer an industry or even a job, it is a button. Anyone can do it, for better or worse (and I would argue it is for the better when it comes to journalism). And yes, there is an argument to be made that digital-native media will win more often than print-native, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Does all this make the media landscape more complicated, more noisy, less easy to categorize? Yes. But it also makes it infinitely richer.
Note: We’ll be talking with leaders in tech, media and investing about how to make the most of today’s opportunities at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads, May 23, at The TimesCenter in New York.