Two of the hottest 2008 presidential campaign scoops belonged to the Huffington Post's Off the Bus. Arianna Huffington let the citizen journalism project stagnate, then gave it to her godson.
Matthew Palevsky, who graduated from Brown University last year, will have help running Off the Bus. Gabriel Beltrone, an NYU senior and former Off The Bus intern, will be his right-hand man. Palevsky's mother Jodie Evans, co-founder of left-wing protest group Code Pink, has long guided her son's activism and will no doubt be happy to lend advice. His billionaire father, the computer entrepreneur Max Palevsky, can provide other means of support.
Then there's his own background, such as it is. In college, Palevsky worked on the urgent issue of drug reform. Since then, he's been a bureau chief at the Real News Network, a nonprofit TV news organization bankrolled by his father, where Palevsky interviewed such luminaries as... Arianna Huffington.
He faces a daunting challenge. Among Off The Bus' more prominent stories were "Bittergate," in which HuffPo's Mayhill Fowler recorded Barack Obama's comments about "bitter" working-class voters "clinging to guns or religion," and a recording of Bill Clinton slamming Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum as a "slimy... scumbag." OTB garnered 12,000 volunteer participants, Arianna Huffington wrote in November, a database of free labor many cash-strapped news organizations would kill for.
But the effort lost momentum. It's been more than two months since Off The Bus updated regularly, and nearly as long since the last post. And young Palevsky has big shoes to fill. He takes over from Amanda Michel, who at Harvard Law formed an institute to organize volunteers over the Web, as she had done for John Kerry and Howard Dean; and Marc Cooper, a Nation editor and longtime magazine writer now teaching journalism at USC. Both were profiled in the Times and thanked by Huffington, but neither appears to be any longer active with HuffPo.
We poked around about Palevsky and Off The Bus after receiving a copy of this email, sent by Huffington to her entire staff yesterday:
Palevsky's name sounded familiar; the questions that could not be answered by Google were easily filled in by the HuffPo grapevine.
It is not lost on that network that Huffington has largely surrounded herself with unseasoned, twentysomething lieutenants who are more easily controlled by the notorious micromanager. The HuffPo front page is controlled by tortured twentysomething screamer Colin Sterling and Katharine Zaleski, like Palevsky the well-kept child of a wealthy family. That Palevsky and Beltrone will shepherd Huffington Post's single greatest strategic asset despite their total lack of management experience is thus not surprising. But it should give the eccentric, breakdown-prone publisher's investors pause, to say nothing of boosters of citizen journalism:
Huffington bragged after the election that the open, volunteer model of Off The Bus was not duplicated "in the national section of any major newspaper covering the 2008 election." The papers practiced journalism "the old way." In the end, though, Huffington was more interested in clinging to the traditional system of nepotism and cloistered favor-trading than in building a new, more democratic media infrastructure.