Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong are still celebrating the merger deal between HuffPo and AOL—a deal that they hinted will go through within days, rather than weeks. At Thursday’s paidContent conference at the Times Center, Huffington assured the audience that everyone in the two companies have been getting along swimmingly. She said that Armstrong and everyone at AOL have gone out of their way to make her feel welcome there: Armstrong has “sent cars for me with baristas and smoothies!”
The panel’s moderator, ContentNext editor Staci Kramer, soon cut the honeymoon talk short and got down to business: “Will there be layoffs?” she asked Armstrong about AOL. He nodded. “My guess is that there will be job changes in the transition; that’s one of the things we’re working through,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things.”
Towards the end of the panel, after talking about new hires, the future of Patch, and the challenge of meshing two big distinct brands, Kramer shifted the conversation to a criticism that has kept nagging The Huffington Post since the acquisition announcement. “There’s been a lot of talk about the idea that investors in Huffington Post are making a lot of money on the backs of people who did all this work and aren’t getting paid for it,” Kramer said. “The drumbeat keeps going. How are you going to continue to use citizen journalists, or bloggers, or people who want to contribute without being paid, and are you seeing a change in that interest, now that you’re being paid so much?” And a question from the audience addressed a second frequently mentioned topic, asking Armstrong how he felt about “content farms,” in general, you know, considering.
Huffington and Armstrong (or, “Tarianna” as Kramer dubbed them) had their answers ready. To the question about unpaid contributors, Huffington said that they can’t seem to keep up with the hundreds and hundreds of submissions the site gets daily—so many submissions that she will soon have to hire more blog editors to read and post them.
“Honestly, the people who make that criticism completely fail to understand the sea change that has happened,” Huffington said. “Self expression has become a tremendous source of fulfillment and entertainment for people; people who say that do not understand Facebook, do not understand Wikipedia, do not understand blogging, and they certainly do not understand why people go on television without being paid. People hire people to put them on T.V. for free—to go on Bill O’Reilly, or Jon Stewart, or Rachel Maddow—to put out their views. Why aren’t people saying, ‘We’re not going on Rachel Maddow! We’re going on strike!’ Go ahead! Go on strike! What does it matter?” The audience laughed. “You know it’s like, the activity of going on strike when nobody really notices!”
Huffington referred the audience to a piece by political reporter Jason Linkins, in which he described the distinctions between HuffPo’s paid staff and unpaid bloggers. “We have one hundred forty-three editors and reporters who are very well paid, and we have very high expectations of them,” she said, describing the long hours and huge workload they have, especially when news is breaking. “These are the people we are paying, the professional journalists we are paying, it’s just absurd for me to compare the two.”
As to the topic of content farms, Huffington spoke about the high quality of her site’s journalism, and Armstrong warned against generalization. “Content forums are platforms—you can create the world’s worst content on it, or you can create the world’s best content on it,” he said. “It comes down to who’s running it, and what the process is. And I think to basically condemn the entire space, that it’s not a valuable space, is really shortsighted.”
Finally, Kramer asked Huffington, under her oversight, “Does ‘The AOL Way’ stay?”—referring to the infamous leaked memo that delineated AOL’s policy of emphasizing speed and quantity of posts above all else. Huffington kept it light: “Our editors are going to be driven by passion,” she said. “The old-fashioned qualities that made great journalism are the same. Nothing has changed.”Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner