HuffPo in the Playboy Mansion

In case you missed it over the weekend, shortly after the Super Bowl ended Sunday night, octogenarian millionaire Hugh Hefner married his third wife, 24-year-old model Crystal Harris.

Okay, that didn’t happen - Hefner and Harris are still only engaged. But that’s a good metaphor for something that did happen on the frontier of technology and media, when AOL purchased the Huffington Post.

AOL is ancient in the technology world, having been founded in 1989. By contrast, HuffPo is a spry youngster, born in 2005. (In fact, Hefner is 3.5 times Harris’s age; AOL is 4.6 times older than HuffPo, but only 3.6 times older if you start the clock with the adoption of the America Online monicker in 1989.)

Now the older company’s money has attracted the younger into a union. But despite the age difference, the two companies’ attitudes (about sex/SEO) may not actually be that different.

(Another similarity: In both the situations, no one would be surprised if the older partner died tomorrow.)

As part of AOL’s $350 million purchase of the Huffington Post, HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington will get a lot of money and become AOL’s editorial director. AOL hopes to revitalize its fading fortunes and add more content on which to sell advertising as it tries to shift away from its access provider business.

Slightly profitable, the Huffington Post is known principally for three things: left-leaning political news, aggregating (or “stealing”) other sites’ news stories, and link-bait slideshows and articles designed to shoot to the top of search engine results.

Slate’s Jack Shafer points out a recent example of HuffPo’s skill at the last:

If you Googled the query, “What time does the Super Bowl start,” the first return was a HuffPo “article” titled “What Time Does The Superbowl Start?” And lest the search engines miss the germ of what was clearly a trending question, the first three paragraphs of the HuffPo posting read:

Are you wondering, “what time does the Superbowl start?”> It’s a common search query, as is “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011,” according to Google Trends the evening before the Super Bowl.

It’s easily answered too. Super Bowl 2011 will take place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

So I’m not sympathetic to the arguments of people like Dan Lyons, who worries about how the Huffington Post will fare inside the AOL corporate behemoth:

The other problem is that AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, is a sales guy. He ran sales at Google before he came to AOL in 2009. Nothing wrong with sales guys, except when they start telling people how to do journalism. Sales guys deal in numbers. But journalism is about words. Sales guys live in a world where everything can be measured and analyzed. Their version of journalism is to focus on things like “keyword density” and search-engine optimization.

Journalists live in a world of story-telling, and where the value of a story, its power to resonate, is something they know by instinct. Some people have better instincts than others. Some people can improve their instincts over time. The other part of storytelling is not the material itself but how you present it. Some can spin a better tale out of the same material than others.

But no great storyteller has ever been someone who started out by thinking about traffic numbers and search engine keywords.

I don’t read the Huffington Post, so I can’t comment as an expert about its content. But it seems to me that a site capable of shamelessly turning out Shafer’s example (and he emphasizes it’s just an example, if an exceptionally well done one, of HuffPo’s search engine optimization) doesn’t have much to fear about going to work for a company with a focus on numbers and traffic.

What about the other side of the equation? Can Arianna Huffington and her stable of talent revive AOL? It’s important to realize that while AOL’s past - and a major part of its present - is based on selling dial-up internet access (often to people who don’t need it), it’s banking heavily on advertising for its future. And to sell advertising you need content to attract the eyeballs advertisers are paying for. So AOL has invested in properties like, a “hyper-local” news site that aims to provide comprehensive news coverage of individual towns, suburbs and urban neighborhoods. I applied for a job at before accepting my current Journal position, and it’s an intriguing setup. Moreover, there’s a real niche for - big daily and small weekly newspapers aren’t providing that amount of hyper-local coverage.

But from AOL’s perspective, the value of isn’t so much in how it can inform its readers. It’s the is creating a massive library of inexpensive content, relevant to people’s lives, that they can then sell advertising for - and hopefully for more money than content farms like Demand Media get.

The Huffington Post creates a certain amount of content itself. But its real genius is how it repackages other people’s content in a way to make it highly visible. Some of this is journalistically shady, but some is just smart practices - making it easier for people to find, navigate and interact with your content.

Felix Salmon examines this by comparing two stories: the New York Times’ breaking news about Keith Olberman joining CurrentTV, and HuffPo’s story, repurposed (with links) from the Times story:


(Credit: Felix Salmon)

The result of HuffPo’s image-heavy, link-heavy, social media-heavy design?

The NYT post is up to 93 comments, but the HuffPo post is still miles ahead: 2,088 comments, 1,392 likes on Facebook, 340 Facebook shares, 89 tweets, and 52 emails. All of which figures are easily visible in a colorful box at the top of the story.

If the Huffington Post’s tech people can bring some of their savvy to AOL, it could benefit. I’m not sure those HuffPo people will do any damage to the journalistic integrity of AOL’s original content that AOL wasn’t already intent on doing anyway.

Will it be enough to save AOL? Possibly. As a kid growing up I was a heavy-duty AOL user. Today all that’s left of that is my use of AOL Instant Messenger - and even there I don’t use AOL’s own program, but rather the third-party chat client Adium. AOL might similarly survive as a pared down version of its current self (which is already a shadow of when its valuation was high enough to infamously buy Time Warner). Will I care? Only insofar as AOL has an effect on my business, journalism.

Every so often I get teased about the state of print journalism, which has of course been on the decline for years or decades. But despite shrinking revenues, new competition and rising costs, I’m sanguine. There will always be a market for written journalism. It may not be written on dead trees for much long, but I don’t care whether I write for print or the Web as long as I get paid (and read).

Of course, that’s the rub. So far, online advertising hasn’t been a suitable replacement for print advertising. Advertisers just won’t pay as much for an online banner as they will for a three-column display ad. In the long run, this will settle itself out - advertisers want to reach customers, and they’ll pay to advertise where the readers are. But in the long run we’re all dead.

So I’ve got a vested interest in someone figuring out how to make online journalism work. HuffPo has a model, of sorts, that works on the financial side (though its journalism side is somewhat wanting from my staid perspective). AOL is trying on several fronts to find its own models that work. If this inter-generational marriage of online media companies can find a way to make online journalism pay on a large scale, I’ll lead a toast for them at the reception.