Saturday 19 February 2011

The Huffington Post: What plans does AOL have?

One of my favourite blogs/news websites has been in the news a lot in recent weeks.

You might have heard of the Huffington Post, which was sold to the American internet company AOL for $315 million (£195 million).

This story’s been huge in the media and business pages, particularly in terms of what it means for the future of online journalism and how news websites can make money and attract more investment.

As a journalism student and a blogger it might not surprise you to learn I have some interest in the subject.

The Huffington Post has been a bit of an inspiration to me. It started off as a series of blogs that still make up the majority of the site’s content, but it also aggregates content from other news sites.

I liked its varied mix of topics, something I've tried to do with my own blog.

HuffPo as it’s known by some of its fans was set up by the Greek born, American businesswomen and socialite Arianna Huffington in 2005. Since then it’s become an internet phenomenon.

It attracts 25 million visitors each month, with featured blogs written for free by different writers, including celebrities, politicians and other high profile figures.

The brand image of the Post is its liberal/left leaning slant (think of an online US version of the Guardian) Many of the site’s contributors are happy to write blogs and articles without pay as they believe in the values and liberal politics the website represents.

The more conservative AOL has taken over the Post to try and take advantage of those 25 million monthly visitors, which will attract more advertisers and increase ad revenues.

This got me thinking: Are writers going to continue providing free content for HuffPo whilst AOL look to increase profits on the back of their labour and will AOL continue with HuffPo's liberal stance.

As a blogger I’d love to get published by the Huffington Post. Partly because of its image, but obviously because of the potential for millions of people to see your work. I'm sure many of HuffPo's 9000 registered bloggers who contribute feel the same, but how long will their enthusiasm last?

HuffPo's liberal political stance is at the very heart of its brand image, but AOL hasn't bought HuffPo to push that liberal agenda, it's a potential opportunity to increase revenues based on the huge audience that visit the Huffington Post.

I don't necessary have a problem with this, One of the great challenges of online media is trying to work out how websites can make any money even with high audience figures. AOL are betting they can find a way with HuffPo.

I'm not sure that any potential profit should be based partly on the work of thousands of unpaid writers, it undervalues the writing and journalism produced. It's no surprise that HuffPo even before the AOL deal had a number of critics over its business model.

LA Times writer Tim Rutten was quoted in the Guardian comparing the Post’s business model to a ‘galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates’ Harsh words!

He went on to say that the deal ‘will push more journalist more deeply into the tragically expanding low wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.’

These comments caught my attention. You've got to value the content produced and the time and effort that's involved in creating it. I haven't read much about AOL's commitment to producing quality journalism or improving HuffPo's content.

The more cynical argument that I partly agree with, says AOL's will look to produce more content that has greater ‘traffic and revenue’ potential’.

By this I mean content like celebrity news stories rather than duller news reports that will attract more page clicks and visitors from search engines like Google.

It’s going to be interesting to see what direction HuffPo takes from now on. Arianna Huffington has already announced that the site will now become more ‘centerist’ rather than liberal. Is this a rebranding process or as some have suggested a sell out of its progressive voice?

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