Will HuffProse Infect AOL?

The politics of the Huffington Post/AOL merger

The announcement that AOL will acquire the Huffington Post, and that Arianna Huffiington will take control of all AOL content as president and editor-in-chief of the coming Huffington Post Media Group, is not boding well for Melinda Henneberger’s not-yet-two-year-old Politics Daily. Among the icons on a graphic depicting the merger and headlining the Huffington Post today—HuffPo verticles among AOL brands like TechCruch, Patch, PopQuest—Politics Daily is conspicuously, if unsurprisingly, missing. That prominent icon you can see—Huffpost Politics—might have just swallowed it.

Jeremy W. Peters at the Times is hearing unconfirmed reports that this is indeed the AOL site’s fate: “…news Web sites like Politics Daily and Daily Finance are likely to disappear when the deal is completed, and many of the writers who work for those sites will become Huffington Post writers, according to people with knowledge of the deal, who asked not to be identified discussing plans that are still being worked out.” Politics Daily’s own report on the merger is a straight news piece sans any naval-gazing about its own place in today’s hubbub.

The question then is: Will the newly moved Politics Daily’s straight-news reporters and ideologically-mixed pundits be forced to now write in HuffProse—the generally liberal-leaning newsflashes of “bashings” and “blastings,” and scathing anti-right op-eds that proliferate on Arianna’s website? Or will the famously ideological pundit, editor, and author keep things ideologically clean, as she is promising?

With Huffington taking over all AOL content, the concern reaches well beyond whatever politics vertical emerges from the deal. AOL has been determinedly apolitical as a content provider, as the even-handed Morning Joe-ness of Politics Daily shows. (The company’s concern, as last week’s leaked “master plan” shows, is too bluntly survivalist to be concerned with politics.) With Huffington soon at the helm, some are seeing a possible conflict. Will this “impresario of the digital left,” as one commentator called her today, infuse AOL’s rather vanilla properties with her liberal brand? And even if she doesn’t, will the specter of Huffington alter the even-handed name AOL has built with its content?

The Washington Post touched on this in its report on the merger today, with Paul Farhi writing, “By handing so much control over to Ms. Huffington and making her a public face of the company, AOL, which has been seen as apolitical, risks losing its nonpartisan image. Ms. Huffington said her politics would have no bearing on how she ran the new business.” The Times’s David Carr similarly notes that “given that Ms. Huffington has been very straightforward about using a liberal prism on the news, AOL is now handing control of its still considerable traffic and content assets to someone who uses ideology as one of her decision tools in creating news content for consumers.” In a rumination on what the deal means for Patch.com, AOL’s network of local news websites, MinnPost’s David Brauer wonders “how Huffington’s strongly liberal ‘brand’ might harm Patch in strongly conservative exurbs, though maybe that link never gets made at the reader/advertiser level.”

Politico’s daily debate hub for “policy makers and opinion shapers,” The Arena, today asks, “Will Huffington Post go centrist?” One pundit says AOL is doing an MSNBC “in becoming the preferred niche for left-leaning” audiences; Christine Pelosi writes that “the more apt question is whether HuffPo’s populist voices will be Olbermanned by corporate interests.” In other words: forget what Arianna will do to AOL, worry about what AOL with do to Arianna. And so on and so on.

This is all very interesting to play out in our heads—what happens when the political and the apolitical get steamed-up over dollar signs and unique visitors and revenues and expansion, and dash to the nearest bedroom? And we should keep the above questions in mind as the merger hardens and the Huffington Post Media Group surfaces. But for now, in our heads is where it will have to play out. Whether or not Huffington will reign supreme as liberal doyen or AOL will rein her in, or need to, remains to be seen. As does the fate of Politics Daily—so far, all we have is speculation and a graphic. As always, day one of merger news brings more questions than answers.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,