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.)

First of all, remember why Huffington Post is there, at AOL: It's because the bottom is falling out of AOL's dial-up subscription business. Tim Armstrong's big idea—and it comes after he saw great success as an entrepreneur and head of sales, but little to no experience running a major content organization—was to make up the difference on selling advertising against content.

But wait a minute. Wasn't the bottom falling out of the content business, too? Huffington did a mean business making a company with massive revenues without really much innovation in the making of content. The successes were in the marketing and distribution of that content, in the inherently social presentation, and in its search-friendliness. Those successes in turn were made possible because the burdens of a large, expensive content operation were never taken for granted, but scaled to provide the necessary margin on the ad business. That is, the question was never how do we monetize the content we want to make but what is the least expensive way to expand inventory available to our successful ad sales and marketing operations.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But the explicit project here is now to develop a fully staffed news organization within AOL. That's not a model the Huffington Post has tested before on a significant scale—and it's one her peers and competitors, who have years of experience working on that model, have not yet succeeded at, even without having to plug a hole in a completely unrelated business (in this case, dial-up subscriptions). Can the margin on a previously unsuccessful business model for journalism be big enough to pay for itself and cover losses elsewhere in a large corporation that is trying to get out of its old business and into a new one?

On its face, the role of AOL has been to welcome the Huffington Post as a group of distinguished journalists who are about to show them how it's done. The infamous AOL Way document that received so much scorn from journalists was, in a very quick negotiation with the Huffington Post, radically turned on its head in favor of one so new to the organization that Bob Buch, a vice president of business development for AOL, in a post on his own blog (which is nevertheless written to be read by his colleagues), is urging the company to stop using the term "content."

At the beginning of his post on the issue, he confesses, "A good friend of mine is a film director and the closest person I know to a professional creative person." 

After a conversation with this person, who at 36 years of age is sleeping on the floor of his brother's house because of his passion for filmmaking, Buch had a realization. "It occurred to me that calling it content commoditizes it and sends a message to the creative community that quality doesn’t matter."

"Commoditizing" is a dirty word, for sure. But isn't it precisely what AOL hopes to do with journalism—turn it into a commodity? Isn't that was journalism must do to remain in business?

Most of Buch's post is actually about news of the Times' new metering system. In it he forms an interesting argument for free journalism:

The benefit of the advertising model is that the publisher and the writer have mutually aligned interests. They both want as many people reading each story as possible. The writer gets famous, and the publisher has more pageviews on which to sell more ads. However with the subscription model, the writer and publisher have misaligned interests because while the writer still wants broad distribution, the publisher wants to keep the best stories locked up for only the paid subscribers to see. The better writer you become, the less distribution you get.

Is Buch describing the point of view of journalists whose primary commitment is to "quality"? Is he describing the "artists of a certain kind—maybe better described as passionate professionals" his company has just brought into the fold?

In my experience, he isn't. He is describing journalists who want to get famous, journalists whose chief objective is maximizing their readership. The journalists I've known who are "passionate professionals," as a rule, see the size of their readership as an indicator of how much effectiveness and power to change things their work has; therefore, the value of the size of their readership is a function of the quality of the work. Hits are good, and the absence of them is bad. But who cares how many people come to read something that doesn't matter?

Buch's revelation only applies to journalists who don't believe that, and who believe that finally, pageviews are everything. If his company proceeds on this premise--that journalists are as happy as the number of clicks they get--then the content will reflect that. All "content" will be equal under that law, regardless of quality; it will be anathema for a publisher to "subsidize" some content with other content, because this is not maximizing revenue, but enabling underperformance. And, eventually, the journalists who do not care primarily about pageviews will leave, and be replaced by ones who do, or who just don't feel in a position to be picky about where they work.

That environment, for better or worse, usually is anathema to the culture of "serious" or "quality" journalism. Even as Huffington taunts the club-footed, humble-braggy Bill Keller about her poaches from his newsroom, a V.P. of business development for her operation has this to say about the recently erected metering system at the Times:

Even if you believe that the New York Times writers have the best prose, analysis, and access to newsmakers, is it really $180 a year better than all the other free sources on the web combined?

Without passing judgment on the metering system at the Times, I think it's fair to say that Buch has put a dollar value on the difference between the work practiced at AOL/Huffington Post and that of the Times, from which some of Huffington's most impressive hires have just arrived.

So what's next? Either the "serious" journalists who have arrived at AOL from Huffington Post and elsewhere will have to reckon with a metric they find silly, or AOL will have to learn a lot more about journalism.

Arianna Huffington will have to make the best journalism as profitable as the dreck, or the "quality" part of the operation will stick out on a P&L because of its cost. In that context, the charms of Journalism may well soon be lost on Armstrong, who will, after all, be under pressure to explain why he paid so dearly for access to people capable of producing it.

Also, Huffington will have to succeed with what is substantially a new business model. I have heard some of the salaries being offered to the "serious" folks, and they are well above market. We know Huffington can make a business millions of dollars when the costs are low. What happens when the costs are high?

Finally, this operation will have to outperform every other similar operation of its kind by enough of a margin to underwrite AOL's other business.

Even if the prospects for all this are better than I am suggesting, there's one final factor: AOL will have to weather some difficult times before this strategy is even analyzable as a success or a failure. In other words, patience. It's not a virtue we've seen a lot of at Armstrong's company before.

So, my final, gut prediction, which I would be very pleased to see falsified: Arianna Huffington will create a vital and interesting news desk that in the short term garners AOL praise as a remarkably ambitious and high-quality web-native news operation. It will gain traction against other web operations and will even look, for a while, like it's making a little bit of a run at the big guys, like cnn.com and nytimes.com.

Traffic will increase—slightly. There will be reports of budget overruns and creative disputes. I'll hear from friends at bars that they're not getting edited because their bosses spend all day in partnership and biz dev meetings; that new memos are floating around about pageview targets and assigned "hot" topics meant as traffic-catchers.

Within a year, several of the most high-profile editorial hires will leak out to a variety of other news organizations, some old and some new. Before long you will be wondering what happened to all those names. And finally, the fast-and-cheap view of "journalism" will return to AOL-Huffpo, amid reports of mild success after a rocky start, all judged on pageviews and profit margins; the "quality" and "journalism" buzzwords will be forgotten parts of the corporate lexicon. Because, to borrow a phrase from Buch, journalism and the "content" strategy of AOL are misaligned.

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