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Huff Post: Future of Journalism?

With newspapers dropping dead like flies in a bug-zapper, the search is on to find their replacement in the media world. One name has emerged as a potential model for the post-newspaper era: The Huffington Post.

Founded in 2005 and backed by Arianna Huffington (whose divorce from oil magnate Michael Huffington netted her millions), the Huffington Post initially presented itself as a counter weight to the right-wing Drudge Report. Over time, however, it has moved to include both news coverage as well as commentary on the site.

With over 11 million unique visitors monthly, HuffPost's audience is roughly the combined total of the Drudge Report and Politico, its two main competitors. But success brings more scrutiny. HuffPost's practices are increasingly coming under the microscope - and some observations are not so flattering.

In a feature in Time magazine, it was noted that:

HuffPo is not made for people who like their news straight. As the situation in Iraq got boggy, the economy soured and the Bush Administration's popularity face-planted, folks wanted a place to vent. And when the Obama phenomenon took off and Wall Street collapsed, they wanted a place where they could both celebrate and vent more. HuffPo was the easiest, most satisfying place to do it.

"We like to expose hypocrisy," says Katharine Zaleski, the site's news editor. The Huffsters see what they do as curating the news: finding the good stuff from other sources and artfully exhibiting it for the enrichment of the more educated, liberal news consumer. And yet the site's most viewed stories often have to do with the trivial -- every garment in Michelle Obama's wardrobe gets its due -- and the racy. It's improbable that anything like the wildly popular HuffPo slide show of Pamela Anderson's disturbingly shaped nipple would be featured on, say, Politico.

The most serious - and frequent - accusation Huffington Post faces is plagiarism. An outright content theft incident in December left Arianna Huffington defensive - she blamed it as a mistake by an intern.

Other HuffPost tactics are also coming under fire. For one, its comments sections are lightly patrolled - the site has a staff of 28 editors. Profanity and mudslinging on its blogs are par for the course. Finally, its aggregation methods are beginning to get noticed. Its search-engine optimization success has increased pageviews. And often the search led to a HuffPost article that "borrowed" heavily from other original sources.

At least one analyst sees a potential war brewing between Old Media and Huffington Post.

(N)ews organizations may not tolerate others cherry-picking their content and repurposing it for profit for much longer. "Someone is going to sue the Huffington Post," says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. "It's not just about the volume of the content that it appropriates, it's about the value." There are other aggregators, but HuffPo is the most tempting. "It's a big player, and the site that has got closest to the line" between fair and unfair use of copy, Benton notes.

Like it or not, Huffington Post will be a force to be reckoned with for some time to come. Last December, it secured $25 million in funding from Oak Investment Partners. With the cash infusion, Huffington laid out her goals: "This commitment from Oak Investment Partners will allow us to accelerate our growth, with more verticals, more video, more citizen journalism initiatives, more cities for our local editions, and a fund for investigative journalism."