You’ve Got Fail? AOL, Huffington Post Conglomerate in Bad Faith

January 20, 2017

A merger of visions”?

"An equation of 1+1=11"?

An unlikely pairing of two online media giants”?

A great American success story”?

"The equivalent of a fourth-quarter Hail Mary pass"?

"A slow-motion train wreck and will end in disaster”?

These are some of the ways people have been talking about AOL’s “game-changing” acquisition of the Huffington Post for $315 million earlier this week. The positive descriptions, it should be noted, come directly from Arianna Huffington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong themselves. The rest of the world isn’t so sure.

AOLI had to laugh when I saw this headline in the Hollywood Reporter: “Advertising Execs Worry Huffington Post Will Taint AOL's Brand.” Because, really? Since when is AOL’s brand so spotless? But these execs are speaking from a political perspective – Huffington is associated with the left, while AOL’s positioning is more broad. (If anything, I think the company is associated with a technologically unsavvy Middle America.) However, as the article notes, “Huffington herself after the deal announcement emphasized that political content at the Huffington Post makes up only 15 percent of traffic as it has expanded into various other fields.” Ah yes, of course, “fields” like celebrities caught topless (which I’m pretty sure makes up the other 85%).

The HuffPo sits in a weird place, brand-wise – it’s not a straight news source like the WSJ, but as a more indie news + culture rag, it’s not as respected as Salon, and it’s not as hip as, say, Gawker. AOL isn’t buying a great reputation, but it is buying tons and tons of traffic. As The Wrap notes, “the Huffington Post now commands a higher valuation than the New York Times and more monthly traffic -- about 25 million unique visits per month.”

AOL is also investing in a crap-ton of cheap content that comes complete with a semblance of a viewpoint. In other words, those who do go to the HuffPo for news appreciate its progressive angle. As media analyst David Carr put it in an interview, “People don’t go to a portal anymore, they go to a particular sensibility.” Interviewer Brian Stelter countered, “What they’re paying for is aggregation rather than reporting,” and Carr agreed: “It’s not a good day for those of us who type for a living.”

Indeed, it’s journalists and other writers who greeted this news with the most dismay. Brian Newman Rayl at Market Playground wrote of Huffington’s announcement of the purchase: “Huffington’s usual verbiage that includes something to the effect of ‘corporate greed is undermining America’ was not included in her statement, since The Huffington Post is now a part of that ‘corporate greed.’” He rounds up some of the reactions from the site’s writers, including this post on Adbusters: “She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.” Hilariously, the article closes with the line: “While the outrage probably will not be detrimental to AOL or The Huffington Post, it is a sign that people will stand up for their values and beliefs.” You go, exploitees! Show ‘em where you draw the line and then watch out for those tumbleweeds.

Caroline McCarthy of CNET focuses on the HuffPo’s sketchy integrity: “[it] has been able to turn a profit, but a slim one, on heavy amounts of link aggregation, slideshows, ads running alongside posts from unpaid bloggers, and sensationalist headlines.

Timothy Rutten of the LA Times pretty much maxed out on disgust levels:

The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy's industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it…

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air responded to Rutten’s piece with more of an even tone, but agrees with him (and Carr above) that this isn’t good news for writers:

To some extent, this is unfair.  After all, no one will force these aspiring “galley slaves” into drudgery and exploitation.  Most of them, if not all, could easily self-publish on their own blogs — and it’s a fair guess that most of them will.  They will use their AOL-HuffPo exposure to direct some traffic back to their own blogs, hoping themselves to catch lightning in a bottle and make their mark.  It will be akin to buying a lottery ticket, but the odds are somewhat better, and the only cost these “galley slaves” will endure is lost time and perhaps opportunity costs.

However, Rutten is on more solid ground when he criticizes the economic model for its impact on journalism.  AOL has turned its back on the professional, balanced approach taken over the last two years (ironically, in a move away from blogging).  Flooding Patch and AOL with thousands of amateurs will undoubtedly dilute the reach, attention, and credibility of the professional writers and journalists that remain with the site.  The terms of the deal almost guarantees that AOL/HuffPo will have to cut its investment in paid writing as well.

I don’t know what this will do for AOL as a company or brand, but I do think the Huffington Post’s brand comes out worse for wear. What do you think? Can the HuffPo "save" AOL?

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Have a great weekend, folks.

Photo credit: Al Pavangkanan

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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