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Arianna Online: Is the AOL-HuffPo Deal Good News for News?

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Graphic from this morning's HUFFINGTON POST homepage.

You’ll have to excuse anyone, like me, who works for Time Warner for having flashbacks this morning, as word spreads of AOL buying The Huffington Post for $315 million. (Here’s HuffPo’s statement.) A high-profile deal between a media content company and AOL, with starry-eyed leaders on both sides promising synergies that will make “1 plus 1 equal 11″? Why, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, this deal is not precisely AOL merging (disastrously) with Time Warner in 2000. In this case, for instance, AOL (which is now independent from TW again) is arguably in the Time Warner role: the old-line media company looking to get juice from a rising new-media property. And Arianna Huffington locks in her company’s value with the deal, in the process taking over AOL’s editorial side and consolidating her position as a major-media player.

My natural skepticism aside, past (lack of) performance is no guarantee of future results. But here are a few issues and questions the deal raises:

* Does this make online news deeper, or cheaper? Huffington Post’s original coup in becoming a destination site was not original reporting—though it did some—but linking to and aggregating other sites’ news for its own benefit, as well as creating an army of “contributor” bloggers who kept it full of content for no pay except exposure. AOL, meanwhile, has had many media ventures in its long history, but most recently it’s gotten attention for its plans to expand by creating more low-cost “content farm” material, by staffers or freelancers turning out a lot of copy for very little money.

Now, whether journalists make a decent buck for their work should not worry you (unless you’re a journalist). What should matter to you is the quality of the information you go online to get, and whether it’s being driven further down by the pressure to churn out words, useful or not, that will quickly draw traffic by chasing hot topics and Google searches. (If you’ve ever tried Googling information on a subject where reliable info is essential—a medical issue, say—and turned up page after page of farm-generated, dubious “how to” articles, you know what I mean.)

Still, content-on-the-cheap is not the only option for AriannaOL; the HuffPo has been greatly expanding its full-time paid news staff lately to produce credible original content, and AOL has, at least, been trying to grow as a news outlet while others shrink. So best-case, this is a sign that HuffPo and AOL have decided that investing in quality content is better than chasing whatever eyeballs are available this nanosecond.

* Does the HuffPo’s history undercut AOL’s neutrality? The argument here is that, since the Huffington Post established itself as a leading voice for left-of-center politics online, its founder’s takeover of AOL’s content side immediately throws its political balance into doubt. I tend to think this worry is overrated. First, while the HuffPo’s politics may be clear, it also has an ideology of doing whatever it takes to generate traffic—its most-viewed features are more celebrity-skin slideshows than political posts. (Huffington herself has evolved over time, after all, having first emerged in public as a conservative pundit married to a Republican congressman.)

AOL, meanwhile, has focused a lot on media areas that have little to do with politics—for instance, its big-ticket buy of Techcrunch—and I suspect Arianna will gladly have these sites do whatever pulls eyeballs for them, irrespective of politics, much as, say, Rupert Murdoch is glad to have liberal entertainers like Seth MacFarlane pull in the bucks for Fox TV. If anything, the deal could have more of an effect on the flagship HuffPo among its political core audience, making it seem like the revolutionary pigs at the end of Animal Farm who became so closely allied with the human establishment—”four legs good, two legs better!”—as to become indistinguishable from them. (Right now, the homepage of the HuffPo has one of those media-empire diagrams, above, that usually accompany articles about the dangers of Big Media—at progressive outlets like The Huffington Post.)

Is It a Good Deal—for Both Sides? Coming after a string of similar acquisitions (many of them by AOL), and The Daily Beast’s merger with Newsweek, this one cements the feeling that there’s a movement of power from more-established media companies to digital upstarts—or, that some of said digital upstarts are smartly cashing on their hugely inflated valuations while they still can. Om Malik argues that AOL is overspending for HuffPo: “For Huffington and her partner and investors, this is a sweet deal. Why? Because they are selling at the top of the market!”

I don’t claim to have sufficient inside knowledge of HuffPo’s revenue (current and projected) to assess the price. And I suppose my working at an ancient-media dinosaur like Time Warner makes my skepticism automatically suspect. But I’m a writer first, a corporate employee second, and as a journalist, it’s simply in my long-term self-interest to believe that somebody can make a media business work in the digital age, without turning 99% of news into cheap, fast variations on “See Kim Kardashian’s New Bikini Bod! [VIDEO].”

If that person is Arianna Huffington, then more power to her! I may as well get that sentiment on record, since it’s possible we will all be working for her someday.

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