To underscore the point, Huffington offered an example: Imagine a host interviewing Beyoncé. An editor from the newsroom breaks in with word of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announcing a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Perhaps, Huffington suggested, the host might want to ask Beyoncé her thoughts about this news.
“Everything in our universe,” she said, “will be featured here.”
Tim Armstrong looked on and smiled and let Huffington do the talking, which made good sense, given that this was now her show. And lest there be any confusion, four large photographs hung in the hallway just outside of the studio: Arianna with Suze Orman and Arianna with Jamie Oliver and Arianna with a group of happy young people and Arianna with Mark Ruffalo and, then, Tim Armstrong.
Armstrong had come to AOL in 2009 after making his name overseeing sales and advertising at Google. He was 43, tall and handsome, the sort of man whom central casting might send over if the part screamed: successful. But at AOL he had inherited a company that, to put it bluntly—and many did—had no discernible reason to exist. AOL had once dominated the online landscape. But that was in the late 1990s, light years away in digital time. Its original core business, dial-up Internet service, was evaporating, even as it moved to transform itself into a content business. Armstrong seemed just the man to accomplish a turnaround; he was also a major investor in Patch, a network of local-news websites that AOL bought after his arrival.
Still, the decline of AOL provided a harsh lesson about corporate lifespans in the digital world. Nineteen years after its IPO and 11 after its $350 billion market-value merger with Time Warner, AOL was losing 19,000 customers a week.
So eager was AOL to boost its content-driven traffic that in late 2010 it devised a strategy, The AOL Way. Management set markers: Monthly story production rate was to rise from 33,000 to 55,000, video from 4 percent of the content to 70 percent. All staffers were to write between five and 10 stories a day. To help them make those numbers, AOL produced a 60-page handbook filled with graphs, content flow charts, and such exhortations as “Each article should be profitable and generate at least 7k PVs/story.” Editors were to “Identify High-Demand Topics”; guidelines were provided to “breaking, seasonal, and evergreen.” Editors were commanded to calculate a story’s “profitability consideration.” “Site leaders” were expected to have on hand no less than eight packages that could produce $1 million in revenue. One employee anonymously told Business Insider, which broke the story, “AOL is the most fucked-up, bullshit company on earth.”
The AOL Way was, with apologies to Maimondes, “a guide for the perplexed.” The problem was that AOL was neither a legacy news organization, which produced content that people would, in fact, want to read and share, nor did it have the DNA of, say, a Huffington Post.
The Huffington Post, however, was said to be looking for a buyer.
When Armstrong met Arianna Huffington, Huffington would later say, they hit it off so famously that by the end of that first meeting, they were finishing each other’s sentences. Two months later, AOL announced the purchase, $295 million of it in cash. Notably absent from the agreement was a non-compete clause. Ken Lerer left and started his own venture capital firm, Lerer Ventures, which Eric Hippeau soon joined. Peretti left for BuzzFeed. Berry would leave several months later and take up residence across a spacious room from Lerer Ventures—one floor below the original Huffington Post newsroom. HuffPost resided in the sleek lower Broadway office of AOL. Of the three founders of the Huffington Post, only Arianna Huffington remained. In a sense, she was just getting started.