The AOL-HuffPost Show: Who’s Really in Control?

Not the media.

Last Thursday, The New York Times ran a story titled “Huffington Gains More Control in AOL Revamping.” Later that day, Business Insider challenged that account, blogging: “Actually, Arianna Huffington Has Been Demoted.”

By Friday morning, in the spirit of the unnuanced press reports, Poynter’s site asked “Who’s right about Arianna Huffington’s role at AOL?”

The answer could be “both.” Or “neither.” Or “it’s a little more complicated than that.” (Also, quite compellingly, “who cares?”)

Who controls what at a media company, particularly at a behemoth like AOL, is a story that media reporters should cover. But the choice to frame the story in such a simplistic manner—pitting big personality vs. big personality and playing up whatever conflict must exist between them—is silly, and it comes at the expense of more substantive stories about what these individuals and media companies are doing.

Let’s look at what happened here.

The strange Times story, written by hyper-connected media reporter Brian Stelter, was hardly as conclusive as its headline suggested; its claim that “Huffington gains more control” was based—as Stelter reported it—on Arianna Huffington’s own charcterization of things.

Per his lede paragraph:

One year after its acquisition by AOL, TheHuffington Post has become a source of growth for the beleaguered company, which is still trying to shed its dial-up Internet image. Now, in what Arianna Huffington characterizes as a move to keep the Web site’s growth accelerating, she has taken several of its business functions out of AOL and under her control.

Later in the piece, Stelter gives this analysis: “The changes appear to give Ms. Huffington more authority within the closely watched media company, where her title is president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.”

The piece goes on to discuss the state of the AOL-Huffington Post marriage. An analyst characterizes the merger as a “yearlong-plus integration challenge,” yet Stelter’s story, shaped largely by Huffington’s comments, keeps veering back to a glowing account of HuffPost’s growth and global expansion. While HuffPost may indeed be a “bright spot” for AOL, Stelter’s article is stubbornly focused on this point.

AOL’s perspective is noticeably and oddly absent from Stelter’s article. In fact, Huffington appears to be Stelter’s only source, aside from the once-quoted analyst and “executives,” who are vaguely attributed at one point. (In response to questions about his sourcing over Twitter, Stelter said AOL had confirmed his facts.)

Stelter’s reporting on Huffington’s augmented powers was re-reported by a number of outlets—CNN Money, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Capital New York, Hollywood Reporter, New York, and Fishbowl New York among them—few of which appeared to have independently confirmed the story, but almost all of which went ahead and stated Stelter’s case more boldly. (The fact that this was Stelter’s analysis of Huffington’s characterization got lost in aggregation). So Stelter’s original story was weak, and then all of these secondary sites just ended up making it weaker—until, in the end, all that was essentially left was a headline that turned out not to be true.

Rather than being so quick to rewrite somebody else’s reporting, it’d be more productive if these sites would advance the story with some reporting of their own. Surely, they should at least confirm that what they’re rewriting is accurate. Joe Pompeo, writing for Capital New York under the headline “Arianna Solidifies her authority at AOL,” had a typical treatment:

the bigger news in the Times piece, written by Brian Stelter, is that Huffington is consolidating her power within AOL, which acquired her website last year. As part of a structural reorganization, AOL’s technology, business-development, marketing and communications units will begin to report to her. (Huffington already oversees all of the merged companies’ editorial departments.)

Pompeo repeated Stelter’s reporting, but he also synthesized it with previously reported information that, according to Business Insider, is no longer true. Meanwhile, others like GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram piggybacked off Stelter’s story to speculate on the true precariousness of CEO Tim Armstrong’s position at AOL. (Armstrong’s contract was recently extended through 2016):

Armstrong may have saved AOL (at least for now) by buying Huffington Post and replacing much of the lackluster editorial product with new-and-improved content from HuffPo, but in the end the very assets he purchased could wind up taking over AOL from the inside out, leaving him with nothing but a fat exit package.

While Ingram’s analysis goes deeper, his reliance on Stelter’s reporting renders it practically worthless—like a bloodhound thrown down the wrong trail.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson was the first to challenge Stelter’s reporting in his post, “Actually, Arianna Huffington Has Been Demoted.” Carlson noted that while aspects of Stelter’s reporting were accurate—several business functions of HuffPost had been moved under Huffington’s control—Stelter failed to mention one important development:

Today, after a recent re-org at the top, Huffington’s job is much different. In important ways, it is much smaller.

For example, Huffington no longer has oversight over TechCrunch, Engadget, Moviephone, Stylist, AOL Video, or, most importantly, Combined, those sites - recently removed from Huffington’s portfolio - account for audience more than 50 million people strong.

Carlson’s story was not perfect: Jay Hirsch is misidentified as Jay Kirsch and the story, which relies on unnamed sources, resorts to this kind of reporting:

A source close to AOL has a theory: Stelter is a TV writer who is also writing a book about the Today Show, NBC’s morning show. AOL just hired the chief PR person for NBC News, Lauren Kapp, to run marketing and press relations for The Huffington Post.

Still, Carlson’s story began the unraveling of Stelter’s narrative. And as it turns out, Huffington herself backed away from the characterization of her expanded power at AOL. Women’s Wear Daily caught up with Huffington at a book party last Thursday night:

Asked how she feels about having more control now that she has taken on several of AOL’s business functions, she said, “I don’t see it that way. Changes are necessary because of the growth of the Huffington Post. Being able to integrate technology and marketing with editorial is going to make it easier for us to grow much stronger.”

At the very least, the Times story was incomplete and off-target in its analysis. To be fair, Stelter sprung to work when his story was challenged, and engaged, at least on Twitter, with those that were questioning and criticizing his story. But this seems like investigation that should have struck Stelter as natural and necessary before he published his original story. More than anything, a lot of these stories have the feel of the “spinroom journalism” that follows political debates. In those events, reporters give campaigns incredible license to spin the story in their candidate’s interest. The goal for campaigns is to favorably manipulate perceptions of the candidate and their place in the horserace. Here it’s just media moguls trying to manipulate perception of their position in the AOL-Huffington Post power struggle (or in the power struggle the tech press imposes on them). This is ceding them far more power than they deserve.

These sorts of stories might be more useful if they remembered the bigger audience and considered implications beyond the images and egos of media superstars. For example, a reporter could have explained what these changes substantively mean—in terms of content, process, corporate vision, or any number of things—for AOL’s employees or for audiences, instead of focusing on what they mean for a tremendously rich celebrity who doesn’t need any more publicity.

TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis followed up on the BI story, largely out of professional curiosity (TechCrunch is an AOL-owned blog):

You know every once in a while you come across news about your company and it turns out your boss is no longer your boss anymore. If you’re me this probably happens to you every three months.

Anyways this morning I read in the media that Arianna Huffington (who I think used to be my boss) gained more control within Aol and then subsequently read that actually she had been“demoted.” Okay truth please guys?!

Though still not clearly sourced beyond her own ‘digging’, Tsotsis’s blog post comes across as the most authoratively reported of all. She also puts a much-needed brake on the ‘was Arianna promoted or demoted?’ media frenzy by reminding readers that it doesn’t really matter that much:

What does this mean for TechCrunch AND YOU? Well I’m assuming we’ll be saying Jay or whoever’s name instead of Arianna’s when we call Aol to change our System Passwords once a quarter. Arianna was rarely involved in our day-to-day anyways (well except for that one time) and now we’ll have no Aol editorial oversight, at least that we know of.

AND YOU? Well it probably doesn’t mean very much to you at all.


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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.