The AOL acquisition of Huffington Post for $315 million is a dramatic move to bring the missing ingredient to AOL’s latest strategy to become a content company. In one move they have added a critical skill set that has been missing from their attempt to morph the company into a real media business: an editorial soul, or personality.And while it is true that Arianna Huffington has built a true media brand, and that she has done it largely on her own editorial sensitivities, it remains to be seen whether or not AOL can accept such a strong personality as its own, and allow it to flourish in a larger corporate enterprise.
Huffington Post is by all accounts an editorial success. Using a mix of original content (its growing editorial operations), the newly valued skill of curation (the display and promotion of interesting and talk-provoking blogs and discussion) and a sophisticated knowledge of community, social networks and search engines, Huffington Post has quickly become a media giant in the worlds of politics and society, growing an audience of approximately 25 million unique users and reportedly on track to generate $60 million in advertising revenue this year. But while it has designs on expanding its influence into many different areas of content, that hasn’t yet happened in a big way.
AOL has spent mightily to build its content business, from Finance Daily to Patch, the series of hundreds of local news sites it is building. But it has done so without doing something essential to the success of any media business. It hasn’t build an editorial soul, or identity. There isn’t a content operation built first around highly influential (inside the company and outside) editorial people who understand audiences and readers. There are some high ranking content people, and many are very smart. But with few exceptions they have not built their careers around building audiences with content. AOL was always a company that built audience with technology and aggregation. It just hasn’t valued the Editor or Producer as an equal to business leaders or even technology people. Hiring hundreds of young journalists to staff local news businesses is a start, but without proper editors or leaders, those effort have little chance of succeeding.Bringing in Ariana Huffington and the Huffington Post does automatically make AOL a player in the media landscape, but true success will lie in AOL’s ability to grow the Huffington Post business as its own, and ultimately, making it larger than Ms Huffington herself. AOL must STILL build its Editorial Team and personality, with smart editors and producers. And while that job will fall on her now, It still needs to bring in people that can both HELP Ms. Huffington to build on her success, and be ranking and influential players in the overall company as well.
To be sure, she is a force. But Ms. Huffington has succeeded largely in worlds where she is comfortable and informed: Politics, government, pop culture. She will now have control over all of AOL’s content operations and while that is a clear improvement over a business that effectively had NO editorial leadership, it’s unclear that Ms. Huffington can help build competitive operations in areas in which she has no history or background: general news, sports, finance and markets, the arts or many other areas AOL will need to excel in to succeed as a large scale business.
On the other hand, who says she can’t find the right people to lead those efforts. No one at the existing AOL has been able to attract the right talent, or even indicate they understood the need to do so. Arianna Huffington just might change all that. One thing is sure, life at AOL and in the digital content space just got a whole lot more interesting.