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HuffPost, Whitehouse.gov team up to talk student aid

Since it launched this February, HuffPost College has teamed up with 67 partner papers on campuses across the country. Today, the vertical is teaming up with another kind of partner: the White House. The news site and the Obama Administration are co-sponsoring a student-financial-aid-themed “Open for Questions” live chat — which will stream, live, on both HuffPost and Whitehouse.gov between 9:15 and 9:45 EST this morning.

The unofficial star of the show (besides Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes, who will represent the White House during the conversation) will be Amanda Litman, the editor of Northwestern’s North by Northwestern newspaper, whose question — about the Obama Administration’s plans to increase minority enrollment in US colleges and universities — received the most reader votes in a HuffPo-sponsored, Digg-meets-American Idol-style contest. The prize? Asking her question of Duncan and Barnes in person, at the White House.

In some ways, a press-political partnership like the one between HuffPost and the White House (between, you know, a news organization and a presidential administration!) embodies many of the familiar, Brave New World-themed grumblings about the partisanship of online media. In others, though, the partnership is simply a more direct, and more transparent, version of age-old, if quieter, partnerships — press conferences, source relationships, etc. — between the press and the White House.

“I’m hoping, and I think the White House is hoping, too, that this is just the beginning of a partnership between us,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, HuffPost’s Technology & Innovations editor, who oversees HuffPost College. The idea for the chat, in fact, Vargas told me, came not from the HuffPost…but from the White House. Macon Phillips, the Administration’s director of new media (whom Vargas knew from his days covering the 2008 campaign for The Washington Post) had seen the “Majoring in Debt“ series that HuffPost College had produced for its launch; Phillips wanted to reach out to college students through an “Open for Questions” session with the vertical. “It wasn’t us that went to him; he went to us,” Vargas says. “The White House went to us.”

The contest, though, was HuffPost’s idea: Vargas and HuffPost College coordinator Leah Finnegan decided to ask their partner papers to ask questions of their readers. And the readers responded. Some 20 sites from HuffPost College’s network of college newspapers from across the country (including Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the University of Texas, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and SUNY-Stony Brook) submitted questions. Vargas and Finnegan then culled from the submissions, selecting the top 13 questions, then asked the college editors to to rework the questions as 30-second videos. They then made those videos into a slideshow/poll, which was promoted on the HuffPost homepage.

Within 36 hours, Vargas told me, the slideshow has been shared on Facebook and retweeted some 2,193 times; it had elicited nearly 5,000 comments; and it had received around 150,000 votes. (“That’s like Oscar-dresses-on-Style & Entertainment territory,” Vargas points out.) “The Huffington Post, undeniably, has become a lab for how social media is leveraged,” he says. But will this morning’s White House team-up experiment pay off? We’ll be tuning in to find out.

                                   
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