Can The Huffington Post as we know it now survive its merger with AOL?
Any answer begins with a rephrasing, for accuracy, of my first question. The Huffington Post has not merged with AOL. Arianna Huffington’s and Ken Lerer’s left-leaning news/blogger platform has been acquired by AOL. There can be a world of difference in verbs.
When I read last night about the AOL Huffington Post deal, immediately I thought about my husband’s old law firm, where he practiced from before he passed the Bar exam until he went to Apple not quite three years ago. His firm–McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen–quipped about in the trades as “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” because the partners backed away from various mergers over the years, finally joined forces with Boston’s Bingham law firm. This “merger” gave the San Francisco-based McCutchen firm financial stability and a business-savvy East Coast leadership. Well and good. But along with the money came a new balance of power. A bigger entity (Bingham) had swallowed a smaller (McCutchen). It did not matter that McCutchen had the preponderance of Ivy League-trained attorneys and the better reputation. What mattered was that Bingham wanted McCutchen for one thing: its top-ranked litigation practice. Other pieces of the firm were expendable.
All of us understand this kind of acquisition–going back to our childhood, when we rooted through cereal we would never eat in order to get the toy at the bottom of the box.
For AOL, the Huff Po prize is traffic. The kind of traffic that leads to increased ad revenue.
What of the old Huffington Post will be expendable? Where is the cereal?
1. Bloggers. AOL will winnow the 10,000 bloggers who currently have some kind of blogging privileges at Huff Post. This is the “depth of content” on which Huff Post rests. In my experience, however, there is little or no editorial oversight of these pieces. Most of Huff Post on any given day is, in a way, filler. In my observation, there is little or no fact checking. A reporter friend of mine regularly has her content “repurposed” by a Huff Post blogger, without attribution. I wager that none of the paid staff at Huff Post knows that this is going on since pieces not in “The Daily Brief” or not featured on the front page of a news section receive so little attention.
I cannot imagine that AOL, with its larger liability issues, will allow this lack of oversight to continue.
Perhaps the majority of Huff Post bloggers will be redirected to a local Patch.
2. Classic Huff Post Content. Much of the old Huff Post will disappear, therefore. Here are links to two front-page Huffington Post pieces from the past month that pose liabilities for an AOL. The first is a bigoted rant against Mormonism, the second an ill-informed feminist take on Egyptian women. The Huffington Post can get away with these, for outrageousness is part of the Huff Po brand. It is not part of AOL. In talking to Kara Swisher, Arianna says that The Huffington Post “has put a lot into maintaining civility.” In new media la-la–land, Arianna has always been able to get away with such ridiculous assertions. (In my observation and experience, people in media are afraid of her.) For AOL, however, civility is indeed important. Avoidance of legal liability and PR disasters are important, too. Mormons, like Republicans, are used to being trashed on Huff Post–not so much on AOL.
Readers do not go to or through AOL in order to have their blood pressure spike. On the contrary. AOL is not a young demographic. Huff Post is. AOL is Middle America. Huff Post is hip. Who will give way?
AOL will reclothe Huff Post in centrist style. This is the brilliance of The Daily. Only days-old, it has already perfected the anodyne. When I complained to my husband about The Daily, expressing great disappointment in its content, he said, “It’s not written for you. It’s for readers of USA Today.” The Daily will be AOL’s competition. The future for big news organizations is in claiming the middle.
Again, the American law firm provides a salient comparison. Which law firms are surviving? The mega-firms that have offices globally and expertise across many fields and the boutique firms that micro-specialize and live lean. In the new economic and competitive environment, mid-sized law firms are dinosaurs. Media seems to be experiencing the same polarization. Large conglomerates like AOL/Huff and the Murdoch Empire will survive. Niche sites like Talking Points Memo and Beliefnet will, too. Readers are drawn to two kinds of news content on the Internet: news as a relaxation experience, like mainstream TV; news as aphrodisiac, feeding a passion for politics, fashion, celebrity, whatever.
3. Brand. The Huffington Post brand is an effervescent mixture of wit, leftist politics and celebrity. I don’t see how the liveliness of the brand can survive diffusion on AOL. For one thing, AOL is a centrist news site, and the commenters have always been more conservative than liberal. I know this because I’ve been an AOL member since the Dark Ages and habitually scroll through the comments at Politics Daily. I find it less interesting that AOL will lose this readership (to a site like Murdoch’s The Daily) than the possibility that Arianna will lose hers.
What is really intriguing is that Arianna decided to go corporate rather than double down on the Huff Post strengths. First of all, this decision gives the lie to her frequent assertion this past year that she is pro Main and con Wall Street. Of course, the hypocrisy of her “let’s hear it for the little people” mantra has already been undercut by her refusal to pay bloggers like me. And I had been waiting for the moment when senators like John Kerry and economists like Robert Reich finally realized that they cannot say one thing and do another: to talk sympathy for working people and yet blog at a site that treats its writers badly. Eventually, celebrity blogging at Huff Post was always going to become the modern equivalent of a membership in an all-white, all-male club: a choice politicians, however reluctantly, would have to avoid. It was only a matter of time.
But The Huffington Post could have evolved into a great political news site. When Arianna told Kara Swisher that at Huff Post “we put flesh on the stories,” I was taken aback. That is exactly what Arianna had a chance to do but chose not to. The Huffington Post made its bones as a news site through its coverage of the 2008 presidential election, and that legitimacy came through the myriad stories at OfftheBus. But Arianna chose not to take that kind of news coverage one step further, with better writing, rigorous oversight and editorial depth. The paid political team at Huff Post, based in D.C., do only inside-the-Beltway political reporting. The Huffington Post missed an opportunity to combine that with the new kind of political news story OfftheBus was creating.
Here is an Arianna irony. Politics is not her strength. She has no political acumen. Consider, for example, her (and Huff Post’s) starry-eyed assessment of Barack Obama in 2007-2008 and the attitude now. The difference reveals how little either Arianna or her DC reporters understood candidate Obama. Arianna’s strength, like that of many successful immigrants, is that she has few preconceptions. She is open to new ideas. A secondary strength is that, unlike most famous rich people, she is not a snob. She may have trouble with relationships but she does not know a stranger. She could have used these gifts to expand political coverage at her Internet site.
Why did she not? Part of the answer, I think, is that Arianna is not a journalist, whatever fizz-wiggy observation Jeff Jarvis may make about her “getting journalism.”
Arianna is not a journalist because she is interested only in stories that support her point of view. A real journalist, or a real editor sending out reporters to get a story, wants the truth of the matter, wherever that may lead. Therefore, Arianna did not want me writing about the State Department’s citizen teams in Afghanistan, because the stories may have put our Afghan effort in a positive light. She did not want me writing about whatever the hell Hillary Clinton is up to at State (and haven’t we all been asking ourselves that question this past week?) because she has no interest in Clinton or her work in foreign policy. This is not the mindset of a journalist.
4. Arianna Huffington. In her interview yesterday with Kara Swisher, Arianna repeated something she has said often before. “This is my last act.” But I suspect that within a couple of years Arianna will have left her new post as editor-in-chief of all AOL content and started a new venture. Her own foundation, perhaps. Certainly, she will have the money to do so. Why will she leave? Think about it. What kind of job is her new one at AOL? She has been bumped up to a supervisory role. Nominally, she will be in charge of every kind of content from Mapquest to TechCrunch. This level of integration requires managerial and people skills that have never been any of Arianna’s strong points.
More importantly, Arianna is moving from an environment that favored her creative outspokenness to one that does not. Free-spiritedness, like Arianna’s sudden announcement to Jon Stewart, apparently on a whim, to commit a quarter mil of Huff Post resources to bussing enthusiasts to a DC rally, is not the kind of decision-making much favored in the corporate world.
The Huffington Post is a node of the chaotic blogosphere where less-than-ethical practices, such as treatment of bloggers, smearing of subjects and purloining of content, are tolerated (although less than previously). But AOL is a publicly-traded company, with a board of directors, some of whom are not likely to appreciate Huff-style practices. Alberto Ibarguen, whose name is associated with the Knight Foundation and ProPublica, and Fredric Reynolds, former CFO of CBS, come to mind here.
The funny thing is that I will be sad to see the day when “Huffington Post” is merely a name. Arianna had the opportunity to create a political news site complementary to the strengths of Politico. She really could have dipped her toe into Middle America. That she did not is our loss.
February 7, 2011