The road ahead for The Huffington Post: Nine months and a merger later, ‘Capital-J Journalism’ is still a work in progress

Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington. (Screen shot via AllThingsD.com)
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On March 3, less than a month after AOL agreed to acquire her eponymous website in a $315 million deal, Arianna Huffington was joined by AOL chairman and chief executive Tim Armstrong on a stage at the Times Center on West 41st Street.

It was a little after 5 p.m. when she appeared in an auditorium packed with reporters and industry wonks gathered for the curtain-closing act in a conference hosted by the website paidContent. Dressed in a macramé-like brown sweater and sleek black pants tucked into knee-high black boots, Huffington radiated her signature calm charm and warmth next to the dark-suited executive to her left. She admitted self-deprecatingly to her naïveté during the AOL merger ("I have learned a lot about things I never knew existed"), repeatedly stroking back a swath of strawberry-blond locks that dangled above her right eye. The host, paidContent's Staci D. Kramer, peppered the duo with inquiries about the future of their newly christened conglomerate: The AOL Huffington Post Media Group.

Armstrong had spoken about AOL's shift to a content web portal, a strategy he was brought in to execute. Huffington modified the tone.

"Basically, to use old-fashioned language, what Tim was talking about—creating the best content on the internet, on a global level, on every platform—what this really means is creating great journalism online. In order to do that, we really have to change a lot of things. We have to make the company be driven by editors."

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Huffington's goal here was clear: To continue the brand realignment The Huffington Post had begun before the merger, to go from being perceived as a highly successful but possibly cynical eyeball-catcher to a serious news operation that could be a contender among the great capital-J Journalism institutions in the country and, in fact, the world. It was time for The Huffington Post to go professional.

"It’s like, you cannot create great journalism if editors are not running the show," she said. "In a way it's almost tautological, but it has implications in how the company’s run. And that's really what we've been working on.”

Almost nine months later, the professionalization of The Huffington Post is still very much a work in progress. A mammoth undertaking before the AOL deal was a glimmer in Huffington's eye, the merger only made it bigger. On one hand, the merger provided The Huffington Post with a massive infusion of capital with which to become a respected and highly competitive journalism operation. On the other hand, it created a herculean task: To dismantle and reassemble both organizations into a coherent whole.

A little before 3 p.m. Monday, the 61-year-old Huffington Post president, editor-in-chief and co-founder had been in a meeting with some Italians from a Milan-based media property that her website, now in the process of expanding its global footprint, is negotiating with.

Huffington had treated her Italian friends to lunch and a tour of The Huffington Post's 1,800-square-foot fifth-floor headquarters on 9th Street and Broadway while assessing the potential for a partnership that would export the brand to Italy.

Afterward, Huffington and two of her generals in the battle to professionalize The Huffington Post, Tim O'Brien and Peter Goodman, told Capital that since the merger, they'd hired 200 journalists, created a 10-person desk of news editors, and were publishing between 50 and 60 originally reported, real news items a day, with several large features a week clocking in at more than 3,000 words.

"If we had not merged with AOL, we would not have been able to do anything remotely approaching this scale," Huffington said.

BY THE MIDDLE OF LAST YEAR, THE HUFFINGTON POST was a massive web operation with more than 20 million readers a month, putting it on course to catch up with The New York Times. The company had successfully negotiated $37 million in venture-capital investment to amp up the operation and make it a massive aggregation brand; it was time for the investors to make an "exit," as it's called by dealmakers. Initially, the strategy was to go public, and allow investors to cash in on the tremendous value they'd built in the untrammeled stock market.

“I was very confident in our I.P.O. strategy,” Huffington said.

But while no investor at the site's five-year anniversary would have disputed the value of Huffington Post shares, the brand lacked the professional prestige of the other news organizations it was becoming competitive with. Unpaid bloggers were still thought by many to be its bread-and-butter, after all; and there was no question of comparing the site to major news gathering operations like CNN or The New York Times for authoritativeness.

An I.P.O. would be a very public beauty contest, for which changing that perception was important. During the early days, the site was essentially a catch-all of tabloid-inspired political and entertainment headlines supplemented by blog posts from Huffington's cohort of lefty celebrity pals. Founding editor Roy Sekoff oversaw the latter side of the operation. The news side was the province of Ken Lerer, one of the co-founders of the site, and its chairman until this past February when the AOL deal came through. Despite Lerer's business background, "he was smart about it," according to a former editorial employee who worked under him. He kept a close eye on the site’s headlines, which were written by a handful of "news editors" responsible for the upkeep of the front page. (Back then, the front page was, in fact, the only page.) Their jobs involved scouring the web for big stories and packaging them as such that readers would want to come back for more.

"What we were doing was not journalism," said someone who worked at The Huffington Post when it was still in its infancy. "It was taking original content from other sources and rewriting headlines in a way that would give liberals a justification to be indignant about current events. It was also to find what is generally called 'weird news,' and also entertainment stories, like a Lindsay Lohan nipple slip, which consistently attracted three times more clicks than any political story."

Eventually, The Huffington Post began expanding its team to include paid news bloggers, reporters (primarily based in its Washington D.C. bureau, which opened in 2007) and "vertical editors," who would prove essential to the success of the hyper-topical sub-channels it soon began spawning left and right. (There are now 46 of them.) By the time AOL came calling this past winter, Huffington's once barebones newsroom was starting to look increasingly equipped to support that other, more old-school approach to covering the news.

The ambitious Capital-J Journalism program began in earnest, you might say, last September, when Howard Fineman, a 30-year veteran of Newsweek (and a familiar face on cable news), decided to join the march of defectors fleeing the venerable weekly in the midst of its fire sale to 91-year-old audio tycoon-turned-philanthropist Sidney Harman, who died of cancer in April. Huffington hired Fineman as a senior politics editor, though he has since ascended the masthead to the more strategy-oriented perch of editorial director.

The move seemed rather stunning at the time: New media maven ensnares grey-haired magazine guy to work for website. But it was a good way to raise eyebrows.

"Mr. Fineman’s move from a print medium to online news is a sign that The Huffington Post, which has until now heavily relied on young bloggers, is maturing," The New York Times observed, perhaps a bit condescendingly.

A few days later, Huffington announced that she had poached one of the Times' own, hiring Goodman, then a prominent economics writer at the paper, as its business editor, putting him in charge of all financial and tech coverage.

"We have officially entered Phase II of The Huffington Post," reported The New York Observer, "in which the site will throw around big money to steal talent from traditional outlets."

Phase II was in full swing by December, when O'Brien, the Times' Sunday business editor, was named the site's national editor, a title that soon morphed into executive editor.

"There's nothing more fun than communicating with young, hungry reporters who want to learn the craft and want to aspire to do big, meaty, compelling stories," he told Yahoo's Michael Calderone at the time. "I love that dynamic. It's very much like being a teacher." (A few months later, they hired Calderone, too.)

When O’Brien and Goodman arrived at The Huffington Post about a month apart late last year, the place, for the most part, wasn’t wired for original reporting. Their job was to make it be.

They started hiring beat writers, mostly on the business desk at first, and imbuing them with the sensibilities they’d developed at their esteemed alma maters.

The plan was that O’Brien and Goodman would oversee their writers’ beats from a big-picture standpoint. Goodman would also continue working on his own writing and reporting.

Then AOL came along, with its $2.4 billion in revenue clocked in 2010, with an offer to buy the company for $315 million, and the I.P.O. strategy was tested.

Huffington said it was she who championed the deal.

“We had become profitable, we had a great sales team, we were beyond on track with where we wanted to go,” she said. “Nobody on the board wanted to sell. There was nobody who wanted to cash out. I really had to work to convince the board that this was the best for The Huffington Post. To double down on all of our objectives.”

News of the merger was surprising and swift. Even the top editors were in the dark until a week before the agreement became public on Feb. 7. A month later, the deal was a fait accompli.

As a result, O’Brien and Goodman had to retrench somewhat from their full-time editors’ roles. The change did not go unnoticed.

“Once the AOL deal happened, it soon became clear that they were now media executives,” said a journalist who worked at The Huffington Post at the time. “So you had reporters who were just languishing.”

There were lots of meetings with AOL suits. Lots of strategic planning. Lots of figuring out how AOL culture worked and how to integrate AOL culture with Huffington Post culture.

O’Brien was tasked with integrating Patch, AOL’s nationwide network of hyperlocal community news hubs, as well as staffing up the editorial side of MapQuest, another AOL property. Goodman was handed about a dozen business-related AOL sites, including Daily Finance, AOL Real Estate and AOL Autos, which were among the properties that survived the merger. (It ended up claiming several hundred editorial jobs on the AOL side.)

How were these sites to be structured now that they existed under the AOL Huffington Post Media Group umbrella? Which of the dozens of freelancers contributing to them needed to be cut loose? Which ones deserved to be hired into full-time jobs?

"There was this intense period where we were juggling a lot of additional responsibilities," said Goodman.

"I had promised both Tim and Peter that there was going to be a period where they'd need to devote a lot of their energies to running the migration of the AOL sites and the building of the sites," said Huffington.

MEANWHILE, AS THE INK DRIED ON THE AOL DEAL, THE TALENT KEPT flowing into the newsroom. One by one, reporters arrived following stints at vaunted metropolitan dailies (The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald), insider Beltway reads (Roll Call, Politico, The Daily Caller), buzzy upstarts (The Daily, TBD.com) glossy magazines (Reason, Good) and, in the case of some who were hired through a mentorship program for young journalists, the halls of Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Columbia).

Throughout the spring and into summer, it seemed like there was an announcement every week rattling off the latest batch of recruits. The heavy hitters stood out the most. Michael McCauliff, for instance, had been a Washington correspondent for the Daily News, leading the paper's Hillary Clinton coverage during the 2008 primary race. David Wood was one of several AOL hires who survived the axe that fell on the company's Politics Daily site, which was absorbed by The Huffington Post; although the septuagenerian Pulitzer finalist was perhaps more well known for the years he'd spent covering military issues and foreign affairs for Time, Newhouse News Service and The Baltimore Sun. Tom Zeller, meanwhile, got his own press release when Huffington Post added him to its growing collection of New York Times alumni as a senior reporter covering energy and the environment.

The senior editorial team also started falling into place. After Fineman, O'Brien and Goodman had settled in, John Montorio came over from the L.A. Times as culture and entertainment editor. (He was recently promoted to executive features editor.) Maura Egan left her job as a travel editor at T magazine, The New York Times' semi-regular style supplement, to head up The Huffington Post's lifestyle coverage. (Though she left after only five months.) Neil Katz, formerly a Star-Ledger and Daily News journalist with a knack for video, made the jump from executive editor of CBSNews.com to Huffington Post's executive news editor, "to help manage editorial teams across all AOL Huffington Post Media Group destinations, working closely with editors to develop their coverage, including the addition of more video—a key goal of the company," according to a release. Lori Leibovich, who’d been an editor at Salon, Tina Brown’s Talk and various glossy lifestyle titles, was hired as “women’s editor.” And Michael Hogan abandoned his post as executive digital editor of Vanity Fair for a joint title of executive features editor and editor-in-chief of the AOL entertainment sites Moviefone and AOL TV.

But it’s O’Brien and Goodman who are seen as the central characters in The Huffington Post's journalism story.