They laughed when Arianna sat down to the keyboard. They were wrong. I was wrong, too. I hadn’t imagined that Huffington Post would become the force in media and politics that it became.
Tim Armstrong and AOL are smart to acquire Huffington Post as a media property and Arianna Huffington as the head of content.
I was just thinking yesterday that though AOL has lots of content and plans to make a lot more, I never think to go there, apart from heading to one of its brands, such as Engadget. Portals are burned toast. Making content for search is not, I believe, a growth strategy, as the more Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) becomes personalized and successfully seeks out signals of quality and originality, the more SEO will die as a black art.
So to execute on its content-and-advertising strategy, AOL needs brands with engagement. Huffington Post is that. Armstrong needs someone who understands that the critical sphere of discovery for content will more and more be people: peers links, not algorithms; Arianna gets that. The company was bought at a high multiple to its revenue, but I think the price is not insane. Armstrong didn’t buy pageviews (how 2005); he bought a content and distribution strategy.
The only thing that makes me nervous is hearing Arianna talk with Kara Swisher about the center. No, Arianna, don’t heed the siren call of the view from nowhere. But I can’t believe that’s possible for her. Arianna’s not going to be buying Glenn Beck. Arianna must be Arianna.
One wonders why big, old media companies didn’t buy Huffington Post. The better question is why they never started their own HuffPos. Only one did: The Guardian. When it saw HuffPo, I remember, its response was, ’sh*t, we should have done that.’ So they did, starting Comment is Free as a vehicle to change its relationship with the public (more than as a business strategy). The New York Times (NYSE:NYT) or Washington Post (WPO) are still too tied to their views of themselves as the founts of all fonts; as far as they may have come, the HuffPo model remains a populist leap too far. TV is too wrapped up in its makeup. I tried to convince many publishers in Germany that they should start HuffPo and not one bit.
So, who could have bought and invested in the growth of AOL? Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO)? Thank God Arianna avoided that black hole of online death. Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al all see themselves as platforms for others’ content, not content themselves. No, AOL and Armstrong were stubbornly going their own way with a content strategy and that’s what made HuffPo an ideal acquisition. Who else could AOL have bought? Gawker Media? No, as friend and professional contrarian Nick Denton keeps insisting, he’s not a blog; he’s not a blogger, but a content maker.
Content alone isn’t enough for AOL. It has content. Lots. What HuffPo and Arianna bring is a new cultural understanding of media that is built around the value of curation, the power of peers, the link economy, passion as an asset, and celebrity as a currency. As a friend of mine reminded me via email from London, HuffPo, thanks to its roots, also has a keen understanding of the value of technology innovation to build platforms. Unlike old media companies, HuffPo groks scale.
And let’s not forget that HuffPo gets journalism. I remember a few years ago when Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, goaded Arianna in a talk before his staff about why she’d possibly want such as them: reporters who cost a lot and are pains to work with. Because their stories get more traffic, Arianna replied. She understands the value of reporting.
On Twitter just now, Jim Schachter of the NY Times (I work with him on the Local via CUNY, so we are brothers in hyperlocal) was wondering what Arianna’s ascension means for AOL’s soon-to-be 1,000-suburb-strong Patch. I think she can get them to add more human voice to it and think about aggregating regional and city-wide issues across them. Arianna has long thirsted after local and Patch gives her the scale to execute her imperialist strategy.
If this acquisition works, it will be because Arianna really is the boss of content and gets to scale her vision and because AOL brings its key strengths–ad sales and capital–to what comes next.
I’ll be eager to see what does come next.
* DISCLOSURE: I forget that I am listed as an advisor to Patch on its site. That should be taken at face value. I have no personal business relationship with Patch. I was asked to join its advisory board but because I have so many fingers in so many hyperlocal pies, I said that I’d be happy to chat with them but not be a compensated advisor. We meet now and again and work together via CUNY’s J-School on Patch in Brooklyn.
* MORE: The free-content thing…. I see snark passing on Twitter and heard some flak from a few Brits regarding what they see as HuffPo’s free-content problem: It doesn’t pay its writers. Well, neither does my blog but I do it anyway. Why? Because there are other values than payment from an employer (who often takes too much control in return). I write on this blog because I get attention, links, ideas, answers, criticism, an outlet. I crosspost on HuffPo — see this post there (how meta can you get?) — because I get more attention from a wider audience.
In the link economy, there are two creations of value and two opportunities to make use of that value: the creation of the content and the creation of the audience for it, via links. HuffPo brings me links to people and for me, it’s worth it to post there. No one — not even the quite persuasive Arianna — is forcing me. I do it out of my self-interest. Huffington Post was smart enough to build a business, a scalable and efficient business, out of that self-interest.
To think that content must be something that is created only by content companies that pay content people to create it is, like or not, outmoded. Content is no longer scarce, people. It is abundant. Google understands that. Twitter understands that. Huffington Post understands that. Sadly, old content people from old content companies still do not. Therein lies a lesson in this acquisition.