- Monday August 25 2008 01:39 BST
When I heard that Arianna Huffington was setting up The Huffington Post in 2005, I thought it was a joke. It sounded like the personal indulgence of a millionaire socialite who "didn't get the web" or she'd have started 10 years earlier.
But it didn't take long to find out how wrong I was. HuffPo, as it's known, rapidly became a major force. The Observer called it the world's most influential blog, and it helped inspire the Guardian's own Comment is Free.
Huffington was born in Athens in 1950 as Arianna Stassinopoulos and made her initial impact in the UK. At university she was president of the Cambridge Union, before becoming a TV and radio personality and moving in with the late Bernard Levin, the sharpest newspaper columnist of the age.
She then left for the US, where she married Houston oil millionaire Michael Huffington. And when he ran for Congress as a Republican, Arianna got into American politics. It was an interest she retained after they divorced in 1998 – following 11 years of marriage – along with a chunk of his money and his surname.
Although The Huffington Post wasn't a personal ego trip, plenty of
egos were involved. Arianna got everyone's attention by enrolling lots of celebrities – initially, perhaps, her friends and contacts – to blog opinions and serious political commentaries.
Nor was HuffPo on the conservative right, like her former husband. Arianna had moved to the left and was closer to the Democrats. As it tuned out, an independent liberal voice was just what America wanted.
Today, HuffPo has so much content that it has turned into a newspaper, and that is how it styles itself: it uses a three-column newspaper-style grid with lots of small index pictures. It also has various newspapery departments including politics, business, entertainment and living.
And it has Green, an ecological section that takes in the environment, climate change, "crazy weather" and so on.
The main sections are supplemented by the Huffpost's Big News Pages, which bring together all the stories about a particular topic. Examples include Russia Georgia War, Iran, Barack Obama, Oprah, Apple, Britney Spears, Sex, and Green Living. If you don't see what you want, there's a Huffington index that is somewhat like The New York Times.
Unlike most newspapers, readers can leave comments on any story, and they do. One piece on the current front page has accumulated almost 6,000 of them. HuffPo may have started hiring reporters and video makers, but the blog-based community is still an important part of the mix.
This month, more surprisingly, HuffPo has added Chicago, which marks its first attempt at providing a local newspaper within an internet newspaper. It has local information, local bloggers, and is edited by someone who used to work for the local paper. Huffington says: "We plan to roll out local versions of HuffPost in dozens of cities."
Tomorrow, the world? Arianna has already conquered England, America and a large slice of the web, so why not ...