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Why Arianna Huffington is leaving the Huffington Post

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Arianna Huffington has decided to step down (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for AOL)

Arianna Huffington, the former conservative commentator who co-founded and built the Huffington Post into one of the Web’s most prominent liberal media giants, said Thursday she will step down to focus on a new health-and-wellness start-up.

Saying on Twitter she thought “HuffPost would be my last act,” Huffington, 66, said she would instead focus on new venture, Thrive Global, a yet-to-launch start-up focused on “ending the collective delusion that burnout is a necessary price for success.”

After co-founding the site in 2005, Huffington’s news giant quickly became one of America’s most-visited websites and led a new wave of opinion blogging, news aggregation and journalism crafted entirely for the Web. Her co-founders, Kenneth Lerer and Jonah Peretti, would later go on to spearhead the viral sensation Buzzfeed.

A left-leaning counterpoint to conservative news aggregators like the Drudge Report, “HuffPo,” as many called it, routinely repackaged stories and borrowed liberally from other news outlets, sparking tensions among traditional media but also creating a traffic-chasing model that has persisted and expanded today.

“In a way, it’s a golden age for consumers,” she said in 2010. “The Huffington Post is committed to the link economy.”

Arianna Huffington's decision to step down as editor-in-chief at Huffington Post was surprising, but The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan thinks this is typical Huffington. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: IAN LANGSDON/The Washington Post)

The site has since vastly expanded its staff across 14 countries devoted to original reporting, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a series on wounded veterans and their families. It is the 156th most-visited website on the planet, Alexa data show, though its popularity has slipped. The site had 75 million unique visitors on desktop and mobile in the U.S. in June, down 18 percent from a year ago, Comscore data show.

Huffington Post killed story pitch critical of Uber

Many Huffington Post writers and contributors are unpaid, and Huffington has argued that their visibility on a routinely viral news site is payment enough. Hundreds of staffers at the site last year voted to create a union.

Huffington stayed in leadership after AOL bought the site in 2011 for a landmark $315 million. But rumors swirled about her role after AOL was sold to Verizon last year for $4.4 billion. Huffington actively pursued other projects, including heavy promotion of her new book, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.”

In June, Huffington announced she was working on a new start-up but said her “primary focus” would remain her namesake site. But in a statement Thursday, she acknowledged she “simply couldn’t do justice to both companies” as Thrive Global’s prospects evolved.

Verizon last month also announced it would buy Yahoo, whose online news business closely parallels The Huffington Post’s. AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong said in a statement Thursday that “AOL and Verizon are committed to continuing (the Huffington Post’s) growth and the groundbreaking work Arianna pioneered.”

Huffington’s leadership has been called into question in recent months due to worries over her decision-making and focus on side ventures. In April, she was named to the board of directors for Uber, a potential conflict of interest given she was the top editorial executive for a site involved in covering Uber news. Soon after, the site rebuffed a story pitch that was critical of Uber.

The newsroom’s growing focus on sleep-related stories in line with Huffington’s new book also struck many as odd. Staffers there suggested Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple “examine whether the finite editorial resources of the Huffington Post are being imprudently plowed into book promotion for the editor-in-chief.”

Arianna Huffington’s sleep machine

Thrive Global, which launches in November, was described as “a corporate and consumer well­being and productivity platform” that would provide training, seminars and “e-courses” on “neuroscience, psychology, productivity, sports and sleep.”

First cast into the public spotlight in the 1990s during the failed Senate bid of her now ex-husband, Michael Huffington, the Greece-born Huffington has become one of the most powerful women in media and a multi-millionaire in her own right. A syndicated columnist, she has also written 15 books on politics, spirituality and self-help.

Huffington’s exit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes amid some of the most heated days of the presidential campaign, during which the site has been an outspoken opponent of Republican candidate Donald Trump. Last summer, coverage of Trump was filed not under politics, but entertainment. Since December, all stories regarding Trump have included editors’ notes branding him a “serial liar,” “misogynist” and “racist.”

Huffington Post reporters said the news came as a surprise to the newsroom, with some senior managers learning only of the decision Wednesday night. Many others learned of the departure from Thursday-morning memos from Huffington, who was most recently editor-in-chief.

“To everyone at HuffPost: it’s you who make HuffPost what it is,” Huffington tweeted Thursday morning. “I’m filled with gratitude to all the colleagues and friends I’ve made here.”