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Cheezburger founder, Medill alumnus Ben Huh provides optimistic insight for future of journalism

Ben Huh (BSJ99), the founder of Cheezburger, the largest humor destination on the web, told the audience at his lecture on Tuesday that major innovation in journalism is good news for the industry.

“What’s fascinating to me is that there’s a lot of ‘woe is me’ going on in journalism, especially in the newspaper industry as people get laid off and people lose their jobs,” Huh said. “But I feel like we should be celebrating this time.”

During the next five years, Huh predicts that consumers will see a revolution in the way news is delivered, presented and covered.

He joked, though, that this insight was coming from someone whose company is famous for cat pictures with misspelled captions. However, he isn’t only about humor.

“Ben has a lot of foresight about what’s going to be important for the industry,” said Assistant Professor Jeremy Gilbert, who worked with Huh at the Daily Northwestern when the two were undergraduate students at Medill.

Now, more than a decade later, Huh is in the process of starting a news company called Circa, which was born, in part, from his frustrations with the way traditional news is presented.

“The goal of Circa,” Huh said, “is to create a beautiful news consumption experience for the mobile web.”

Huh also commented on how he thinks the newspaper industry continues to struggle financially because many dailies haven’t figured out their true mission.

“It is very difficult to not give the audience what it wants and expect them to pay,” Huh said, adding, “Either you’re in journalism to make the world a better place or you’re in the journalism business.”

He referenced an article by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft, who compared journalism content to cable television programming. When cable television first debuted during the early 1970s, many viewers did not want to pay for it when network shows were free. However, over time, they grew more willing to pay because cable offered specialized content and choice.

“We like choice,” Huh said. “We are willing to pay for things that we didn’t have access to before.”

Huh also spoke about his own company, Cheezburger, which took something that interested people – humorously captioned pictures of cats – and provided a place for users to view them and to generate more of them.

Though Huh’s career diverged from journalism, he said that if he were to go back in time, he would still choose Medill as his undergraduate school and Northwestern as his university.

“Medill taught me the fundamentals – that accuracy matters. The Medill F is still a very, very valuable tool,” Huh said. “Learning the techniques of journalism is very important in life … Your ability to make a case out of the ideas that you have and other evidence that you have collected is incredibly valuable.”

He also said he is pleased by what Medill is doing now.

“I’m very happy to see Medill evolving and figuring out what is valuable to journalism,” Huh said, “especially in the age where people have less time, people have more sources and people have a lot more going on in their lives.” 

To see an extended version of Huh's talk, go to our YouTube page.