Colin Delany February 7, 2011

What Will AOL’s Acquisition of HuffingtonPost Mean for Progressive Activists?

Big news this morning in the online content and advocacy fields — AOL is buying HuffingtonPost for $315 million, meaning that a site that’s become a prime outpost for liberal-oriented commentary and news is coming coming under the wing of a major corporation. What are the implications for progressive activists?

It depends, of course, on the direction that AOL takes HuffPo. It’s hard to imagine that the new owner would allow what is intended to be its main content-provider to be entirely liberally focused, but does that mean that Huffington Post would change or that AOL would set up some kind of balancing outlet with a conservative bent? The latter would obviously have much different consequences than the former, since a shift in HuffPo’s own editorial slant would likely drive away many or most of the huge number of contributoring bloggers who’ve really built the site. Plus, it would seriously undermine HuffPo’s brand — though the Post has steadily hired full-time writers and has become more of a news-generating site than when it started, its public image revolves around being a platform for voices on the political Left.

A balancing site would likely take quite a while to set up, though, meaning that AOL’s political content would still be dominated by progressive voices. Which brings up the next question — will HuffingtonPost remain a distinct brand or will it be brought under an obvious AOL umbrella? Again, we come back to the question of how the site is perceived and what that means for contributors’ willingness to continue to write for the site. As a couple of folks have pointed out in email discussions this morning, AOL’s own new news-gathering and story-writing process is evolving towards an emphasis on web traffic, online video, quick turnaround and high-volume publishing, all characteristics that HuffingtonPost has emphasized as well. But will HuffPo be allowed to keep its current stable of contributors, or will it move more toward a model dominated by paid, full-time staff?

The answers to these questions, of course, lie in the future. But it’s also fascinating to remember the past, a different internet era in which AOL bought Time Warner in a show of dot-com-era strength (or as The Onion put it, the “Largest-Ever Expenditure Of Pretend Internet Money”). Eleven years later, the remnants of that once-mighty online access provider now struggle to be relevant in a ‘net driven by content — words and pictures — and the company finds itself turning to a relative newbie for salvation. Plus, of course, spending A LOT of money in the process.

Update: See Jack Shafer’s Slate piece on HuffPo as an SEO/linkbait superstar.

Note: Epolitics.com founder/editor Colin Delany is a HuffingtonPost contributor.

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