Huffington’s cultural revolution: Destroying the old world to forge a new one, for a while

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Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington. (Screen shot via AllThingsD.com)
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Here's a short play, set in 1997:

Scene: Journalist, applying for a job, is seated across a table at a moderately priced Italian restaurant from an editor who's just taken over the Arts and Entertainment section of a respected national publication.

Journalist: The thing is, I really admire all your writers—but I mostly write about the downtown music scene, and I've never really seen more than little 200-word squibs about that stuff in Publication X.

Editor: That's exactly right. That's why we are talking to you. We need to engage a younger reader—not just for advertising but because we need to engage a new and different audience, and we need to be more timely and now. A big part of your job will be to change this publication; that's part of why I think this could be such an exciting opportunity for you.

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Scene: A bar. Journalist, six months into the job, is with a friend who stayed at the downtown scene mag she came from.

Journalist: Yeah, I don't quite know what to do. My editor keeps being encouraging but I can't seem to get any of my feature pitches through; and when I do it's inevitably refashioned as an infographic or a 250-word front-of-book item.

Friend: But, you're at Publication X. I'd kill to be there.

Journalist: As it happens, no, you wouldn't. I know it sounds crazy—but if it wouldn't look so bad I'd go back to where I was in a heartbeat.

Friend: But how many more readers have you got for your 100-word capsule on Yo La Tengo than you did for the 2,000-word profile of them you did for us?

Journalist: I don't know. And somehow, I find I don't care.

You can change the particulars however you want, and set the time anytime you want. Some examples: The website, famous for its slideshows and linkbait, wants real reporting now; the magazine, famous for its celebrity profiles and fashion spreads, wants features on the state of women in Afghanistan; the newspaper, famous for its discounting of the importance of work on the web, wants to liberate you to blog all day; the blog, famous for its short, pithy takes on other people's news, wants long essays. A website that has traditionally treated its "editors" as "product managers" who spend more time in bizdev and marketing meetings than editorial meetings wants to free them to provide meaningful guidance, support and direction for a new editorial team with beefier journalistic bona fides.

Change is much easier in theory than in practice, is the point, and never comes without a real fusion of corporate goals and editorial point of view. So AOL, which needed real content and a real audience, bought the Huffington Post, whose original content was, at least, realer than AOL's.

The high-minded idea behind it, Huffington Post editor in chief Arianna Huffington said when it was announced just over six weeks ago, was to fuse "a legendary and powerful new media brand [AOL] with a vibrant, innovative news organization, known for its distinctive voice, a highly engaged audience, an expertise in community-building, and a track record for demystifying the news and putting flesh and blood on the data while drawing our audience into the conversation."

A few weeks later, Huffington and AOL C.E.O. Tim Armstrong "taught" a journalism class in Brooklyn and promoted a video about it, effectively branding Huffington and Armstrong journalism experts, a term that, fairly or unfairly, rankles many in the profession who point out that you need more years of experience than Huffington in the media to land a backfield editor job at a Sunday section of The New York Times.  They may be completely sincere about their emphasis on the Capital-J Journalism of what they are doing. But either way, they have clearly decided to make it the backbone of the public narrative they are creating. 

Now, here's how I imagine AOL and The Huffington Post made its decisions about which 30 titles to shut down or fold into other titles yesterday.

1. Title A and Title B are "similar," from an advertising/marketing/audience demographics point of view.
2. Choose the one with the larger audience.
3. Fold the smaller one into the larger one.

In some cases there were idiosyncrasies complicating all that.

Luxist was an AOL brand about fancy things in every area—boats, cars, private islands, fashion, real-estate, cigars, watches, appliances. From that point of view it transcended "style" in editorial terms and had its own way of cutting across the luxury goods market on the advertising and marketing side.

What does it mean to fold it into Stylelist? A sample Luxist headline from today reads: "Porsche 918 Spyder Heading to Production for $845,000." Stylelist bills itself as "Real style for real women who love fashion, beauty and celebrity," and promotes verticals via google that include Hair, Fashion News, Photos, Videos, Beauty, Cuts & Style, Fashion Week, Style News, How to Wear and Makeup. Where does the $845,000 Porsche Spyder story go, then?

Fans and readers will have such arguments for pretty much every title that's been folded up or folded into another in yesterday's announcements; wherever you place the marker though, the principle stays the same.

The new Huffpo-AOL entity will not likely be given the time or space to grow larger audiences from smaller ones; instead, they must exchange the latter for the former. And in the midst of all this, there is the bragging coming out of Huffington Post about its high-profile hires.

That these moves should happen at the same time is an important thing to consider. One move, a great big bloody corporate consolidation, is aimed at streamlining a content business, on the principle of maximizing pageviews against spend. The other moves, the acquisitions of experienced, accomplished journalists, are aimed at naysayers who believe Arianna Huffington represents the least credible approach to creating quality journalism.

Most of the sites we are talking about are beloved by large audiences, but their DNA is not largely composed of what you'd call "original" reporting, or at least traditional reporting. (There are notable exceptions in both the AOL and Huffington Post stables, of course, but they have not been the centerpiece from a business point of view.)

What Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington promise to do with their new, merged site is to compete editorially with outlets whose businesses have, all along, been built on traditional reporting. To that end Huffington has been boasting about a series of successful poaches from major media outlets; the hiring of Tim O'Brien from the Times business desk is a signal to the world that they are embarking on something different. Subsequently O'Brien has managed a few nifty hiring maneuvers, too.

Huffington may believe that this will be enough to do the trick. But we have seen this before.

Personally, I've known many "serious" journalists who move to organizations like this—startups with a specific mission in the digital marketplace, "content" divisions at search-engine companies or on the websites of television networks that need some text to get readers and searchability, or at newswires that want to expand beyond their bare-bones reputations for speed and reliability and create content with more engagement and marketing potential.

Even before the Internet you saw this: I remember a period of time at the Times under Howell Raines, where many of my friends at internet- and "alternative"/traditional-print media operations were getting calls from editors eager to fulfill a mandate to freshen things up at the Gray Lady. (Ironically, I think it finally did happen at the Times, but mostly, I think, because of the merging of the digital and print editorial operations. But that's another story, and needs research and reporting.)

The point is, when journalists are called on to redirect the corporate culture of an organization, sometimes it works in a small way, but usually it doesn't; and almost never on a vast scale. If management's idea for a brand overhaul is to import cool, or gravitas, or intelligence, the best-case scenario is almost always that the importees exist successfully but completely separately: valuable parts that don't add much to the sum. (Part Two is they always leave.)