As a new era of media mergers and acquisitions unfolds—in the aftermath of the federal approval of the Comcast/NBCU deal—AOL’s $315-million purchase of Huffington Post ought not come as a surprise.
Media companies, old and new, are rethinking and repositioning in order to grab pieces of a future that will be more digital and less analog, more dynamic and less ponderous, more opinonated and less obsessed with a balance that never was achieved. But this is about a lot more than AOL and Huffington Post. Indeed, it’s about a lot more than media companies and their millions—make that billions. This deal and arrangements like it approach fundamental questions of producing journalism when traditional sources are revenue are drying up, and go to the heart of much broader debates about how citizens will get the information they need to engage in a democratic process that is now far from functional.
Huffington Post, with 25 million monthly visitors, seems to “get” the new age. And AOL, now delinked from the Time-Warner omnibus, is looking to brand itself as the content source for news junkies in a twenty-first century that will have fewer newspapers and traditional broadcast news sources and more digital destinations. It’s been a struggle, and AOL has lost a lot of money in recent years. The company was looking for a bold move.
So, now, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong says he’s cut the deal with Arianna Huffington — editor-in-chief, co-founder and “face” of the popular news and opinion site—and her team in hopes that the the arrangement “will create a next-generation American media company [that] will embrace the digital future and become a digital destination that delivers unmatched experiences for both consumers and advertisers.”
That’s the sort of thing media moguls say when they acquire a “media property.”
But Huffington Post is not just any media property. It’s a place where prominent progressives blog and where millions of Americans get news, information and ideas that tend toward the left.
So is Huffington Post still going to be Huffington Post?
Huffington, whose conversion from conservative commentator to outspoken critic of the Bush-Cheney administration made her a hero with much of the left, says things will stay the same. And her new position, as president and editor-in-chief of AOL’s “The Huffington Post Media Group”—which will take in all of AOL’s content sites, including Patch, Engadget, TechCrunch, Moviefone, PopEater, MapQuest, Black Voices and Moviefone—should give her the authority to maintain her vision.
But the pressure will be on to generate revenues—the great challenge for web-based news operations. Huffington Post reportedly made $31 million last year, which is a lot of money, but not nearly as much as will be expected from an entity for which AOL just paid more than ten times that amount. So Huffington’s marketing skills, which are considerable, are already very much on display. “Our readers will still be able to come to The Huffington Post at the same URL, and find all the same content they’ve grown to love, plus a lot more—more local, more tech, more entertainment, more finance, and lots more video,” she says.