AOL and Huffington Post merger: The rapid rise and sale of Arianna Huffington's Post.

Media criticism.
Feb. 7 2011 1:30 PM

SEO Speedwagon

The rapid rise and sale of Arianna Huffington's Post.

Arianna Huffington. Click image to expand.
Arianna Huffington

I underestimated Arianna Huffington when she launched her Huffington Post in May 2005. I didn't trash the site the way Nikki Finke did, though. Finke called Huffington the "Madonna of the mediapolitic world [who] has undergone one reinvention too many," and slammed her site as a "humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog" that represented the "sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable." And those were among Finke's nicer comments.

Instead of critiquing Huffington's debut copy, I speculated as to whether she was up to the job of "impresario." On the scale of things, my write-up is more embarrassing today, now that Huffington has sold the Post to AOL for $315 million, than is Finke's pissy take. Huffington has proved herself a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary.

Ordinarily, when a gigantic media organization swallows a startup like HuffPo, it lies about wanting to preserve the founder and all the talent he or she has assembled in their leadership roles. Then they fire them. But in this instance, AOL has handed Huffington the keys to its entire editorial kingdom—national, local, financial, as well as MapQuest and Moviefone—and christened her president and editor of AOL's Huffington Post Media Group.

How to account for Huffington's remarkable success? If you've ever edited Huffington's raw copy (I have) or read a galley of one of her books before the published version comes out (which I've also done), you know that she's not much of a journalist. But instead of impeding her, those limitations actually gave Huffington an advantage over other sites—Slate included—that hewed to old-media standards. Old-media types don't feel right about rewriting the copy of their competitors and calling it a story. Huffington glories in carving the meat out of a competitor's story, throwing a search-engine optimized (SEO) headline on it, and posting it. She even claims to believe that she's doing the originator a favor by sending traffic back to it via a crediting link.

Likewise, old-media types tend to cringe if a headline oversells a story or a story is trumped up solely to grab eyeballs. Huffington suffers no such shame. There is no celebrity slide show beneath her tastes and no SEO trick she won't employ if it will get her traffic. As colleague Noreen Malone noted yesterday, and I tweeted, the HuffPo pulled off one of the greatest acts of SEO whoring in the history of the Web yesterday. If you Googled the query, "What time does the Super Bowl start," the first return was a HuffPo "article" titled "What Time Does The Superbowl Start?" And lest the search engines miss the germ of what was clearly a trending question, the first three paragraphs of the HuffPo posting read:

Are you wondering, "what time does the Superbowl start?"

It's a common search query, as is "what time is the super bowl 2011," "superbowl time" and "superbowl kickoff time 2011," according to Google Trends the evening before the Super Bowl.

It's easily answered too. Super Bowl 2011 will take place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

Back in 2005, no self-respecting journalist would ever sink so low to chum the waters with such foul SEO bait. But thanks to Huffington, all self-respecting journalists—especially those who fear for their jobs—have abandoned those anxieties and are happy to chase Arianna's SEO Speedwagon wherever it may go. They'll even drive over inconvenient journalistic shibboleths that stand between them and their page-view destinations. Aping her, they'll happily publish more copy daily—some of it marginal—than any human would want to read in a week or a month, as long as it harvests page views.

I'm not judging Huffington here as much as I'm describing her. Some of her innovations may make me squirm but—to paraphrase Samuel Johnson—nobody but a blockhead ever wrote a story that he didn't want people to read. Like a good tabloid editor, Huffington (and Matt Drudge before her) knows what the masses want to read and how they want it packaged. How her SEO mastery will survive the rejigging of search-engine algorithms and imitations by competitors (like Slate and everybody else on the Web) is a question I'm not prescient enough to answer.

But this isn't the first time "upmarket" journalists have followed "down-market" journalists or paid them the compliment of imitation. Adolph S. Ochs, who purchased the New York Times in 1896 and strove to maintain it as an "objective" and "respectable" newspaper, once extended high praise to the Ariannas of the day—the yellow journalists at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. While most old-media types in those days disparaged Pulitzer and Hearst, Ochs said in an 1899 interview:

Such papers as The World and The Journal exist because the public wants them. I hold that some of their features are open to criticism, but each of them has done infinitely more good than harm. 

I'd say the same thing about the Huffington Post—and have. While I rarely go there except to sample the Washington reporting of Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney, its success and $315 million payout speak to the power of journalism to reinvent itself. Combined with the sale of Associated Content to Yahoo last year and the successful IPO of Demand Media last month, it may also indicate that the market for search-engine-friendly content has peaked. As the Wall Street Journal's Shira Ovidepoints out today, AOL is the place that paid $850 million for the social-networking site Bebo in 2008 and then sold it in 2010 for "a small fraction" of that price. (AOL's current CEO, Tim Armstrong, arrived after the company bought Bebo.)

By the Journal's reckoning, the purchase of HuffPo amounts to a confession by AOL that Armstrong's "content-first strategy" wasn't working and that he was assigning content strategy duties to Huffington. "Get it? Huffington Post is taking over AOL," Ovide writes.

The problem with media acquisitions is that they're hard to make work. The clash of cultures, HuffPo's startup mentality vs. AOL's makeover philosophies, may undo the Armstrong-Huffington marriage. Also, will the Huffington Post be as fleet now that it's part of the AOL system? And to reprise what I wrote back in 2005, does Huffington have the skills needed to run a corporate ship? Will she be undone by a not-yet-launched site even more pop- and SEO-oriented than hers? I'd make a guess, but as my earlier column proves, I'm a terrible prognosticator.

******

No article about the Huffington Post's skills at repurposing copy is complete without citing the Oct. 13, 2008, New Yorker profile of Huffington by Lauren Collins. Collins writes:

Her synthetic gifts have, at times in her career, raised questions. Her Maria Callas book prompted accusations of plagiarism from a previous biographer of Callas; the case was settled out of court. Lydia Gasman, now an emeritus art history professor at the University of Virginia, says that Huffington's Picasso biography included themes similar to those in her unpublished four-volume Ph.D. thesis. "What she did was steal twenty years of my work," Gasman told Maureen Orth in 1994. Gasman did not file suit. (Huffington denied both allegations.)

Repurpose your favorite Huffington anecdote in e-mail to me: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. And watch my Twitter feed for further new-media discoveries by @noreenmalone. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.