The HuffPo and AOL: a marriage made in heaven or hell?

Here in the online peanut gallery we tend to take particular notice of moves that shake the current dynamic of media and information delivery, and today’s tremor certainly has the potential to expand into a full-fledged earthquake.

AOL, that stodgy and barely remembered provider of dial-up which used to litter our doorsteps with “free” installation CDs and tried to make the internet proprietary, has announced a $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post.

At first glance this appears to be an unmitigated disaster. The HuffPo, as readers affectionately call it, is a stalwart of what passes for Liberal media in the U.S. (by which I of course mean, not so venomously right-wing and hate driven as to drive reasonable people to plug their ears with molten metal).

Founded by Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer in 2005, the Huffington Post has achieved no small success and notoriety since it’s inception. With an estimated 60 million in revenue this year, a 50% increase over the previous year, the Huffington Post has found a way to make money, and significant amounts of it, delivering news and political content online.

It has often been criticized as lacking in original content (much of its content is re-published) and hewing to a more mainstream perspective as it has grown but, despite the vituperative hate of those in the U.S. media scene who hate the very existence of anyone who disagrees with them, it has grown exponentially and developed a not insignificant following of 25 million visitors each month.

So when I first saw the news this morning I groaned. Another upstart, progressive organization bought out by a major corporation, right? Well not quite, although probably close.

Arianna Huffington will stay on to run the newly created Huffington Post Media Group as President and Editor-in-Chief. This new media group will bring all the existing news and information services of AOL under the ostensible control of Huffington and the HuffPo, increasing her reach to over 100 million monthly visitors.

So presuming Huffington keeps editorial control, AOL keeps its hands out of the political cookie jar, and Huffington doesn’t succumb to the urge to self-censor then maybe this is a good thing right?

Here’s some of Huffington’s starry-eyed post today:

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

I’m not so sure I believe her.

Every time a corporation buys out a worthy organization, media or otherwise, there’s always a lot of talk about how the corporation has no interest in interfering in its politics or mandate and lots of promises of how nothing will change. But of course it always does change, and rarely for the better.

Ms. Huffington has more or less sold her soul to the devil for a quadrupling of readership and a cool $315 Million bucks.

The new look of web media?

AOL’s interest seems straightforward, and similar to that of MSNBC when it moved from a third place news network to a decidedly liberal one with a heavy emphasis on opinionated commentary.   Viewing a crowded media spectrum on the right, both MSNBC and AOL have chosen to invest in the underrepresented left and target citizens alienated by the vitriol on most platforms.

But make no mistake; this is purely a business decision. Faced with a change in market conditions, either one would happily do an ideological 180 if it meant boosting their numbers. Just ask Keith Olbermann.

So the end result will likely be to take an already white bread media source and blanche it further for mainstream consumption. Maybe Arianna Huffington will prove me wrong, and lead a liberal revolution from her shiny corporate office, but I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, some of my colleagues here at Forget the Box will be tackling the fascinating implications of this sale for media organizations like our own, and the New Media/Old Media paradigm, later in the week but I do want to share a quote from the New York Times‘ coverage before I leave you:

One of The Huffington Post’s strengths has been creating an online community of readers with tens of millions of people. Their ability to leave comments on Huffington Post news articles and blog posts and to share them on Twitter and Facebook has been a major reason the site attracts so many readers. It is routine for articles to draw thousands of comments each and be cross-linked across multiple social networks

We’re not quite there yet, but that is the type of community we would like to develop. Not so we can sell out for millions, but so that we can all share a new and interactive way to read and react to the news, and challenge the corporate media paradigm.

The traffic on this website has grown exponentially in the last several months and each one of us is gratified to the depths of our dark writer hearts. But we also want to know how the stories we share make you feel. Please let us know what you think, in the comments section below, on Facebook or on one of those other newfangled social media things I dimly understand. We’ll all be the richer for your contributions.

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