Author, newspaper columnist, radio commentator, television fixture and onetime California gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington has never shrunk from new platforms for her opinions.
Now she's on the verge of upping her exposure with another venture -- and inviting 300 of her big-name friends and associates along for the party.
Huffington said she planned to open the Internet "group blog," the Huffington Post, next month. She said she wanted to create a dynamic salon for opinions that could "expand the dialogue to more than just one side of the political spectrum."
Web journalists and commentators anticipating the planned May 9 launch said they were impressed with the stature of the participants Huffington signed on to write for the website (www.huffingtonpost.com) -- including newsman Walter Cronkite, music mogul David Geffen, former Sen. Gary Hart, writer David Mamet, attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and novelist Norman Mailer -- but that it remained to be seen what form the unpaid contributions would take and what their frequency would be.
"It's creating a new environment that is not really like traditional blogging," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Is this a new kind of communication: a unique, elite blog-salon? Or is this just Arianna Huffington trying to find another career? We don't know yet."
Huffington, 54, began supplementing her syndicated newspaper column about a year ago with a Web log, or blog. She said at the time that the form was "the greatest breakthrough in popular journalism since Tom Paine broke onto the scene," referring to the American Revolution-era writer.
In her proposed inaugural column, she calls the Huffington Post an "innovative group blog where some of this country's most creative minds will weigh in on topics great and small, political and cultural, important or just plain entertaining."
Huffington will maintain her Los Angeles base, with a paid seven-member staff in New York drawing together material for a continuing news feed that will supplement the unpaid commentaries.
Her principal business partner in the venture is Ken Lerer, a former executive vice president with AOL Time Warner. Also contributing both content and financing are television producer-writer-actor Larry David and his wife, political activist Laurie David, along with several other financial backers.
Huffington has not released a full list of contributors, but she said they included writer-producer Aaron Sorkin, talk-show host Michael Medved, Playboy Chief Executive Christie Hefner, and actors Harry Shearer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Although Huffington and the bulk of the participants announced so far reside on the left side of the political spectrum, she has invited conservatives to submit pieces too. And she encourages postings that don't hew to any political line or that expose the authors' passions (cooking or hiking, for example) outside politics.
"We want to show people in the full totality of the way they are," Huffington said. "That way, it makes it easier to talk to people you don't necessarily agree with."
Wall Street Journal political commentator John Fund is among the conservatives who have agreed to post items on the site. He said he recalled from Huffington's days throwing dinner parties as the wife of former Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) in the 1990s that she knew how to bring together an interesting stew of people.
"I'm very happy to sample at her buffet table and contribute a little," Fund said. "I think there will be some intellectual nourishment there."
As do other blogs, Huffington plans to link hers to other websites and to encourage responses from readers. It will be up to the commentators how much they want to take part in the back and forth.
Veteran Web commentator John Aravosis predicted that a smaller group of pundits would emerge as the regulars on Huffington's site, and that only then would its true character emerge.
"Every online project morphs into something new eventually," Aravosis said. "That is part of the fun of it. But you really don't know what it's going to become."
Blogs have been credited as a leveler of American journalism -- offering a public forum to anyone with a computer and an opinion.
Huffington's effort diverges from that short tradition by giving another outlet to those -- like comedian Bill Maher, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and film directors Nora Ephron and Mike Nichols -- who already have the mainstream media's ear.
"Although my personal interest is in seeing more bottom-up participation, I think anything that expands the conversation and includes thoughtful people whether well-known or not has to be a good thing," said Dan Gillmor, a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, who nurtures citizen news sites.
"One tension here is that she is creating a blog here for people who are already part of the media conversation," said Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "How much readership will there be for people whose voices are already being heard?"
Huffington says that in the "500-channel universe," where the public is bombarded with information, repetition can be good.
"That's why we need stories to be covered and re-covered ... until they filter up enough to become part of the cultural bloodstream," she writes in her proposed initial blog for the site.
The Huffington Post will sell advertising. Another innovation will lead to some of the content being distributed to traditional media through a news syndicate, Tribune Media Services.
Most of the content will be posted as written with no editing. Some will be copy-edited for distribution through the syndicate.
Tribune Media Services is owned by Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times.