Can Heather Reisman, Huffington Post Canada’s editor-at-large, do for online news what she did for books?

Can Heather Reisman, Huffington Post Canada’s editor-at-large, do for online news what she did for books?

(Image: Daniel Ehrenworth) 

Over the course of your career you have transformed two different industries—beverages and books. Is Huffington Post Canada going to revolutionize online media in this country?
The Huffington Post has already revolutionized online news globally. The idea of it coming here was to be “glocal”—global and local. It will give Toronto journalists and bloggers and other Canadians the opportunity to be heard, and a lot of that content could get cross-posted to the U.S. version.

What does an editor-at-large do?
One of my jobs is to reach out to my network. I encouraged my friend Xiaolan Zhao, who is one of the pre-eminent experts in the world on the mix between Eastern and Western medicine, to write for us. I asked my old friend Ray Heard, who used to run news for Global, to write about politics, and I suggested that economist Jeff Rubin blog about finance.

Did Arianna Huffington, the company’s founder and editor-in-chief, approach you directly?
Arianna and I have been friends for some time, and we bounce business ideas off each other constantly. As soon as she knew she was coming to Canada, she called me.

Can Canada support its own Huffington Post? Gossip and scandals aren’t quite as juicy here as they are in the U.S.
I rejoice in the fact that we might have a little less of the “Paris Hilton did X, Britney Spears did Y” kind of stuff. I mean, who the heck cares? Look what’s going on in the Middle East and China. The world is in absolute transformation.

The Huffington Post does a masterful job of aggregating and repackaging other people’s stories, but what is the site’s higher purpose?
Everyone, including the Huffington Post, is grappling with a difficult balance. On the one hand you have a need to reward those who create the content. On the other you have the consumer’s desire for that content to be free. As for the idea that they repurpose: my impression is that the Huffington Post wants content to be free. Content wants to be out there.

That seems like a surprising thing for a bookseller to say.
It’s not my philosophy; it’s my interpretation of consumer behaviour. Readers want to get as much content as cheaply as possible. That doesn’t mean content will become totally free; in fact, I think there will be a corrective effect as people realize the value of thoughtful newspaper writing, which needs financial support.

Indigo recently exceeded $1 billion in annual revenue, which is extraordinary considering the state of the bookselling industry in general. How did you do it?
We expanded our kids’ section to be both books and “edu-tainment” toys, and our gift and lifestyle businesses have also started to grow. Part of the growth has been digital, too­—30 per cent of readers are expected to switch to digital in the next few years—but there is still a huge number of people reading physical books.

Steve Jobs is indistinguishable from the Apple brand. How important is your personal brand to Indigo as a whole?
It contributes, but I would not compare myself in any way to the extraordinary Steve Jobs. I do contribute with my passion as a book lover, though.

Speaking of which, I’ve got to ask: what are you reading now?
The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner, which is about the first four prime ministers of Israel. It’s fascinating given what’s happening in the Middle East, because the players and countries were at such different states of evolution at that time.

You and Gerry are so well-known here. Can you still be regular Torontonians?
Of course. We are regular Torontonians. Yesterday we wandered around Yorkville and dropped into Summer’s for ice cream. From time to time someone will recognize us, but it’s not common. We enjoy the city the same way we did 30 years ago.