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.