We already know that Arianna Huffington is smart. She and her small team have built a media company from nothing in just a few years, and now they’re flipping it to AOL, where she’ll be content editor in chief. The price sounds bizarrely high to me at $315 million, but so do lots of prices these days in what looks like a new Internet bubble.
Others have commented at length on the synergy of the deal. If AOL is going after a link-driven community, the blend could work in the long run. The Huffington Post has been evolving from its origins, as the left-wing op-ed page of the Internet, into a blend of aggregation, curation, pandering — all of which have been done with some genuinely intriguing if not innovative technology initiatives — and some home-grown content. The first three of those are likely to be, in the end, much more important for the business than the original content.
AOL has been rolling the dice at an ever-more-frantic rate lately on digital content. The reported $25 million it paid for TechCrunch made sense to me, and I think it’s way too early to say, as many are doing, that the Patch local-news service is failing. But there’s a common thread in many of the content initiatives: paying low (or no) money to the people providing the content, and having lots and lots of it.
Indeed, the Huffington Post’s home-grown content, for the most part, has been especially notable for its low cost to Huffington: low as in free. Although some actual paid journalists work for the organization, her blogger network is an amazing achievement; she’s persuaded untold numbers of people to write for nothing, to have their names on the page as compensation for their labor. Exploitive? Sure, in a way, but let’s also recognize the fact that people want to put their stuff on the site. No one writes for the New York Times op-ed page for the money; it’s for the platform to spread ideas.
And, based on the email Huffington sent to her bloggers, that’s the model she plans to continue. Here’s part of that email:
Together, our companies will have a combined base of 117 million unique U.S. visitors a month — and 250 million around the world — so your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation. That’s the only real change you’ll notice — more people reading what you wrote.
It’s hard to imagine something that sends a more dismissive message. Which is why I’m hoping that Huffington will recognize how this looks and then do the right thing: namely, cut a bunch of checks to a bunch of the most productive contributors on whose work she’s built a significant part of her new fortune. They’ve earned some of the spoils. I think Huffington is smart enough to know not just the PR value of doing this. And, and feel free to call me naive for saying this, I also think she’s wise enough to know why she should do it on more ethical grounds, too.