Before her speech to an audience here on the second day of the Council on Foundations annual meeting, Arianna Huffington was introduced by a costumed Benjamin Franklin, who said he shared many qualities with Ms. Huffington “including the human trait of imperfection.” Said Mr. Franklin: “She was once a conservative.”
When Ms. Huffington, founder of the liberal Huffington Post Web site, took the stage, she jested of the founding father: “The only thing I’m a little upset about is he never live blogged the Constitutional Convention.”
She then delivered a speech that mixed broad themes, such as the vibrancy of local community efforts and people’s hunger for a sense of community, with personal anecdotes about her children and pitches for her own journalistic efforts.
“During all my different incarnations, there has been one steady conviction,” she said. “What’s happening at the community level, at the human personal level, is absolutely essential for bringing about fundamental change.”
She said that digital journalism, Twitter, and other technologies could bring those success stories about change at the local level to Washington—which, by contrast, is beset by dysfunction. (At times, she says, viewing tales of grass-roots success and Washington failures makes her feel as though she were watching a “split screen.”)
Ms. Huffington talked about how changes in technology had overhauled how people use and consume news and what stories get told. People don’t just want to read the news anymore, she said, they want to engage with it and take action, and new technologies enable them to do so.
But, she said, not all changes have been positive. She bemoaned the media’s focus on superficial topics like the “balloon boy” saga—the hoax in which a couple claimed that a hot-air balloon had mistakenly taken off with their young son in it—at the expense of serious subjects like the war in Afghanistan. Ms. Huffington’s own site, which she recently sold to AOL, has itself been criticized for its focus on triviality and hype.
Ms. Huffington, who now serves as editor-in-chief of not only her eponymous Web site but also AOL’s other properties, described efforts in which she’s involved to elevate local news, such as AOL’s local-news site Patch. She also talked about people’s enormous hunger for a sense of community. That was driven home in October with the Rally to Restore Sanity, organized by the comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and sponsored by Ms. Huffington, who provided bus service from New York to Washington for thousands of people who wanted to attend the event. Ms. Huffington said she met one man who’d traveled from Washington to New York just so he could take one of the chartered buses back down to Washington. That’s how badly people are craving a sense of community, Ms. Huffington said.
She closed with a message that likely resonated with many at the 7:30 a.m. session of the council’s meeting: Get enough sleep and take time to “recharge.”
“I had dinner with a guy who boasted that he’d slept for four hours the night before,” she said. “I thought, you know, if you’d slept for five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting.”
A Hashtag Revolt
Meanwhile, the Council on Foundations was struggling with a challenge of its own unique to the digital age: an insurrection over Twitter hashtags.
The council created the hashtag #2011Annual for the event, but by Monday, some Twitter users had migrated to #cof11, which they deemed shorter and more specific.
(Hashtags are used on Twitter so people can easily find topics and conversations.)
The council, meanwhile, was remaining firm.
This morning, the organization tweeted: “We’re asking folks to use #2011Annual for this conf but plan to consider another for future.”