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Yesterday's surprise announcement that AOL is buying The Huffington Post for $315m sent shockwaves through the blogosphere.
The deal is not only one of the biggest in the consumer internet space in the past several years, it's one of the biggest online publishing acquisitions ever involving a 'blog'.
The HuffPo isn't just any blog: it's an opinionated online property political in nature. And AOL isn't just any company: it's a former behemoth trying to succeed once again, largely by acquiring other properties. That's usually a tough strategy even for companies at the top of their game.
Calling the HuffPo "one of the Web’s most popular and innovative sources of online news, commentary, and information", AOL CEO Tim Armstrong told AOL employees that "By combining The Huffington Post with AOL’s network of sites, thriving video offerings, local expertise and enormous reach, we will create a company that is laser-focused on serving our audiences across every platform imaginable – social, local, video, mobile and tablet."
But will it work? Ridiculous claims like "The Huffington Post is the platform for influential people" aside, there's one big problem with AOL's acquisition of the HuffPo: the site's history.
The HuffPo was founded to promote progressive political interests. Sure, it has expanded the breadth of its content beyond politics, but its raison d'être is to promote a political agenda.
To that end, the HuffPo's brand is still 'progressive politics', with aggressive content aggregation and SEO bait thrown in for revenue. Armstrong ignoring the site's political nature while claiming that it has "great focus on women’s content" pushes the limits of credulity.
In short, the HuffPo and its new corporate overlord have a huge challenge: maintaining the credibility that the HuffPo has established with its core audience of politically-minded readers, but at the same time ensuring that AOL itself doesn't simply become a larger megaphone for Huffington's politics, which would be entirely incompatible with the company's content strategy.
Unfortunately, it's not clear that there's a real plan for accomplishing this. In announcing the acquisition to HuffPo readers, Arianna Huffington wrote:
Far from changing our editorial approach, our culture, or our mission, this moment will be for HuffPost like stepping off a fast-moving train and onto a supersonic jet. We're still traveling toward the same destination, with the same people at the wheel, and with the same goals, but we're now going to get there much, much faster.
Translation: we're not changing anything, including our "mission" and "goals." Yet she also wrote of "our commitment to innovative original reporting and beyond-left-and-right commentary." Given that the HuffPo's founding mission was to create a platform for the distribution of left-leaning political messaging, one has to ask the question: which one is it? You can't have your cake and eat it too. Armstrong appointing Huffington to be the head of editorial at AOL is sort of like Carol Bartz appointing Glenn Beck to head up Yahoo's editorial. Sure, Huffington and Beck have built successful media 'empires', and there is a lot other publishers and media companies can learn from both. But they're not the kind of people you want running a media empire outside of the world of politics.
This said, even if we dismiss the challenges created by the HuffPo's political focus, Huffington's apparent interest in real journalism is fundamentally at odds with AOL's desire to mass-produce profitable content. The only way to reconcile these apparent conflicts is with the understanding that most of what Armstrong and Huffington have stated publicly and to their respective constituencies is just fluff.
The reality: AOL desperately needed to take a punt on a prominent content property with a lot of eyeballs, and Huffington was offered a sum of money she couldn't refuse. Nothing more, nothing less.
It's unclear how exactly this will all play out. Judging from the responses to Huffington's announcement on the HuffPo, there are a lot of HuffPo readers who aren't exactly thrilled. But that doesn't exactly indicate that there's going to be a significant backlash, or large attrition.
What is abundantly clear: with such an un-strategic acquisition, Tim Armstrong isn't likely to get the 1+1 = 11 he thinks he will. He may even want to consider another equation: 1-1. I'm not sure what this equation equals at AOL, but in the real world, it's 0.