Q&A: Betsy Morgan '90

 

Huffington post chief Betsy Morgan '90 on the future of news media, working on the web, and breaking ranks with tradition

By Mackenzie Dawson '99
Photography by Daniel Derella
 

When Betsy Morgan ’90 left her position as general manager of CBSNews.com to become CEO of The Huffington Post last October, a New York Times article hinted that the move was a watershed moment for the Internet news industry. It was “significant that an executive like Ms. Morgan would move from a mainstream news site—and that The Huffington Post would seek a leader from the ranks of traditional journalism,” the Times said.

Her ascent to the apex of new media was unimaginable when she arrived at Colby in mid-1980s with an electric typewriter. Now she and Arianna Huffington are the only names above the line on the masthead of an online news Web site that ranks as the most visited news blog and the most linked-to of all blogs. This spring Morgan sat down with writer Mackenzie Dawson ’99 to discuss her career, team building, and the future of the news business.
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What was your first job out of college?
When I graduated I had this romantic notion that I wanted to use my degree [in government and economics]—but in an applicable way. So I went to work for the Federal Reserve in Boston, working in their economic research department. As it turned out, a lot of the things that I learned at Colby were very applicable to working in this department. It’s also where I got my first taste of management; for two out of the three years I was there, I ran the recruiting program. The Boston Fed had a recruiting program not unlike what investment banks had. … I really liked it and found I was good at it; liked doing the recruiting, managing a team, and working with a team. Some of my peers went on to get Ph.D.’s in economics. I thought about it, but that seemed a bit math-intensive to me. It was that first job out of college [that] gave me the bug to go to business school.

A lot of people felt your switch to The Huffington Post in October helped legitimize the relatively new site and indicated something about the future of news. What do you think?
I think that’s absolutely true. My jumping from traditional media to a pure-play, interactive, media-content publishing site was, in many ways, another validation of the medium. I’m certainly not the first to do that. I did hold a prominent job at CBSNews.com. And over the past few years, there have been a lot of senior executives making the leap to the Web, but generally within the same company. For me to make the leap to this completely new organization, one that had a new mindset and new sensibilities, sent an interesting message to the marketplace. In the last six months we’ve tripled our audience to fourteen million unique visitors a month, and we’re really proud of that. Before this, the online news space was dominated exclusively by mainstream brands. And I think we’ve shown that a new brand can grow at rates that mainstream news hasn’t seen in many years. Our views are Facebook-like in terms of Web growth. It’s proving that there’s growth out there and that you can do things a little bit differently.

Why did you decide to make the switch? What about HuffPo interested you?
First and foremost, it was the team. I’ve always been fortunate; one of the reasons I’ve stayed in jobs for a long time is that it’s about the people and the team. The founders of The Huffington Post—Kenny Lerer, Arianna Huffington, and Jonah Peretti—are an extremely smart team, and the greater team within the company was also very talented. My role was to fill a management hole in the company; it needed a business leader. Teams and people are really important. There are great ideas out there that never come to fruition because a team gets in its own way, and I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of other people. It’s one of the reasons I ended up at a liberal arts school. I wanted to be somewhere that values that. And at Huffington Post, we’ve taken that appreciation of human capital and combined it with smart technology. We’re not the Google news algorithm.

How does your position at HuffPo differ from what you were doing at CBS?
My job here is all about managing a team and motivating people; getting them the information they need to do their job successfully. I’m a big believer in organization. Traditional media has tended to take its behaviors and rules in the medium that was originally established—and then import them over to the Web. Someone will say, “It worked for us in television,” and then just put it on the Web. But we’ve found that that’s often not very successful. Publishers in traditional media think about the “front door.” The front page, the first five minutes, and how it sets the tone. But what the Web has shown us is that people are happiest when there are a lot of front doors. You can have a front page, and it’s important, but that shouldn’t be the only way you think about your business. We get a lot of traffic of people coming through referral links, etc. When you think about how your audience is behaving with your product, you’re going to make different decisions.

The Huffington Post does not pay its bloggers, a fact that has stirred up some controversy in the media community. Do you have plans to pay bloggers in the future?
Not all of the plays have been written yet for this company. That said, we have a very good relationship with our bloggers; we’re unbelievably respectful of them. By blogging, they get terrific exposure and our brand gives them a unique platform. We’ve had a positive two-way relationship with them. Could that include money at some point? Sure. But it feels very 1993 to say, “Hey, it’s all about the check that I get at the end of the month.”

Is there a place for print and traditional media in the future of news gathering?
There’s absolutely a place for print, and for enterprise and investigative journalism as well. That’s always going to be hugely important. That’s part of the reason the HuffPo exists; a lot of time is spent linking to traditional journalism. They are crucial to the future of news. But I think that in some ways, traditional media has been overbuilt. What I think you’ll see a change in is journalists whose job it is to rewrite an AP story. There’s not a lot of value to recrafting an AP story. However, journalists that break a story, that add to the dialog and coverage of the story, are still going to be incredibly important. What might change? Well, for instance, having six TV trucks at a forest fire, shooting the exact same footage; that seems wasteful. If there is shrinkage in traditional media, I think that’s where you’ll see it.
 
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