Everyone is weighing in on AOL’s decision to acquire The Huffington Post for $315 million. Some argue that the deal makes sense, and plenty more predict that the online-media combination will be a disaster.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the debate is how AOL and Huffington Post executives are describing the thinking behind the deal. The HuffPo, as it’s known, has its roots as a popular, controversial, and left-leaning political blog. But in AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong’s lengthy memo to employees, the word “politics” only comes up twice, and both times in the context of a longer list of coverage areas.
Instead of describing Huffington (who is taking control of AOL’s entire editorial output) as a political pundit, Armstrong said that she’s “a world-renowned topic expert on women’s topics and issues” and that the her site includes “a great focus on women’s content.” This seems to fit with one of Armstrong’s main emphases in The New Yorker’s profile of AOL (subscription required) from earlier this month. New Yorker reporter Ken Auletta wrote:
[Armstrong] also decided to direct more of the company’s focus toward women, whose interests and needs, he believes, are not well served by the rest of the Web. When AOL started redesigning its blogs, it began with the women’s sites, like StyleList.com, AOL Shopping, and KitchenDaily.com. Nearly sixty per cent of all visitors to [AOL’s local news network] Patch are women. On the company page describing its demographics for the sake of advertisers, the first two categories mentioned are “women” and “moms.”
That all sounds great, but critics point out that the two companies are linked less by a focus on women and more by their reputation for less-than-top-notch content. (Perhaps the most amusing criticism of AOL’s content came from TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, who is an AOL employee himself — he described AOL-owned Engadget as a “plasticized caricature of a real blog.”) Writing at The Daily Beast, the site run by Huffington’s nemesis Tina Brown, Dan Lyons lays out the case that the journalism in the combined company will be mediocre and the advertising prices will remain low.
Personally, I’m not sure if AOL can really turn itself around. But if Huffington can’t save the company, who can? Auletta’s largely skeptical article (his conclusion: “AOL does not seem to be saving journalism, and journalism does not yet seem to be saving AOL”) suggests that AOL needs someone at the top with a strong editorial vision. Whether or not you like the HuffPo, Huffington has built a site with a real brand, a massive audience, and a profitable business model.