07 February 2011

Huffington Post - AOL is a bigger deal than you think

"Rosebud." 2.0
So it's all over the news this morning that AOL just bought Huffington Post for $315 million, and Arianna Huffington will be in charge of all of AOL's content development. AOL owns a number of niche media properties - sites like TechCrunch, Moviefone, and Mapquest.  Huffington Post has been trying to diversify its offering into many of these niches.

I think we may be witnessing the first real digital media business model that will be profitable over the long term.  I also think the feisty global digital media startups that have tried to have a global impact could very likely be eaten for lunch.  Consider what Ms. Huffington says in her announcement post:
At the first meeting of our senior team this year, I laid out the five areas on which I wanted us to double down: major expansion of local sections; the launch of international Huffington Post sections (beginning with HuffPost Brazil); more emphasis on the growing importance of service and giving back in our lives; much more original video; and additional sections that would fill in some of the gaps in what we are offering our readers, including cars, music, games, and underserved minority communities.. 
By combining HuffPost with AOL's network of sites, thriving video initiative, local focus, and international reach, we know we'll be creating a company that can have an enormous impact, reaching a global audience on every imaginable platform.
Remember my New Year's resolution? It's coming true -- and it's only the beginning of February. Let's go down the checklist: Local? AOL's Patch.com covers 800 towns across America, providing an incredible infrastructure for citizen journalism in time for the 2012 election, and a focus on community and local solutions that have been an integral part of HuffPost's DNA. Check.
Expertise on local focus, global reach, leveraging citizen journalism to cover important issues, with a flair for politics.  Sound familiar?  That's what Global Voices Online does right now.  (And their coverage of what's been happening in Egypt has been excellent.)  Their model of tracking and aggregating local bloggers in every corner of the world is a good one - but they've done it from a non-profit mindset.  I'd argue they do it from an anti-profit mindset.  GVO has been very resistant to work with for-profit enterprises (though there have been some exceptions) because they see it as a threat to their independence and credibility.

GVO is less than a year away from getting a titanic competitor in the form of a global media network with real financial backing, political clout, and strategically audacious leadership.  I don't think GVO will die - there will always be a place for non-profit media - but I think the leaders of GVO and groups like Internews better be thinking long and hard about evolving, adapting to the new marketplace, and looking for new partnerships.


Solana Larsen said...

Hi David,

I think you're right that it could look like competition on some level. Though I doubt that HuffPo Brazil would be feeding into HuffPo USA to help address imbalances in foreign reporting... We can only hope! That would make them a global collaborator :-) I have a hard time thinking of them as a competitor because what we do is so different.

Sadly, the commercialization of the space inhabited by Patch and The Huffington Post have hardly been a positive development for readers or citizen media enthusiasts. I don't hear a lot of local bloggers cheering on Patch in the USA, and I know a lot of people who can't bear HuffPo for the ads and screaming SEO headlines.

More exciting to me right now, since you mention Egypt, is how GV is to find a role for itself in an environment where mainstream media generally is becoming better at leveraging local citizen media in their own coverage. We still get a big boost of traffic and attention in these crisis situations, and the reason that's important is not even only related to Egypt, but also to Gabon, Syria, Sudan, Jordan and whatever other countries we are currently following that mainstream media doesn't have the attention span for.

I'm really happy to see mainstream media follow citizen media. From the beginning, GV has worked with major international news organizations and journalists to support them to use citizen media better. Still, we can be pretty sure that Huffpo would not put Gabon on their homepage until after it became a global news story, because it doesn't drive traffic. As far as I can see they've mostly adapted to a mainstream media news agenda and made it their business.

Global Voices is a very sincere, and genuinely global organization and community, and I think the challenge to keep building bridges and assisting and supporting local online citizen media activists remains. Whether or not there will ever be a vast audience for the kind of thing we do is probably less dependent on what AOL or HuffPo does, than whether we can keep presenting a genuine challenge to mainstream media generally, and keep growing the audience for our own work independently at the same time.

David said...

Thanks Solana - great to hear from you! You know I'm a big GVO fan and always will be.

I definitely agree that what HuffPo does right now is very different from what GVO does. It's not that you do different things, it that HuffPo will quickly try to assert itself as the leader in the things GVO already does well, even if they never duplicate what you do exactly. HuffPo has the resources to do that. To me it's an issue of crowding out your brand.

HuffPo succeeds by aggregating content from others, getting a lot of people to write for them for free, and having a very small paid staff. They're very good at presenting information in consumer-friendly ways. Local bloggers aren't thrilled with HuffPo and yes, the SEO stuff is a bit over the top - but HuffPo has 25 million unique visitors per month and they're growing rapidly.

HuffPo has to always grow its readership and they see markets like Brazil as the way to do that. I expect they'll use the model that worked for them in the US - get a handful of signature journalists to headline regional sites and then encourage local bloggers to contribute for free - enticing them with the idea of more traffic and notoriety on the HuffPo platform.

Then HuffPo will assert itself at the global meetings where GVO is already seen as a thought leader - Re!Publica, TED, you name it.

GVO has been an amazing innovator and driver of quality journalism and related content, and it's run by smart and committed people. I think GVO has to take steps to assert its own "brand leadership" as well. Sadly, amazing content like what Amira is leading in MENA is only going to get GVO part of the way there.

I do think, however, that the brains at GVO are big enough to figure this out...

Solana Larsen said...

I share your concerns for the future, and I'm not entirely sure what path we'll end up taking. So far we've felt our way forward, and never been competitively aggressive. We've earned a lot of respect for being special and attracting so many smart and committed people from around the world, and that does give us an opportunity (responsibility!) now to be creative and think bigger than previously. We do have some ideas... only it's hard to grow without losing touch with who we want to be. Thanks for accompanying us on the journey David!