AOL's purchase of Huffington Post is a fascinating case study of old and new media feeding off one another in a strange orgy of mutual cannibalism - legacy eats innovator eats legacy; pay eats no pay eats pay. It seems so incongruous, and yet so dirty natural as to be inevitable.
Here is Arianna Huffington, maven of the progressive blogosphere and mistress of the skimpy or nonexistent paycheck, and AOL, a company mostly associated with dial-up Internet and a panicky but paid-for venture into local news, making common cause to take on the likes of Yahoo News and NewsBeast (the royal marriage of the money-losing Newsweek and Tina Brown's mostly paid-in-exposure Daily Beast).
On one hand, we have once mighty media companies struggling to survive on a model of paid news staff who generate original content and, on the other, surging media companies that have learned to harness the power of ideological branding, agenda journalism and exposure-as-compensation to drive enormous traffic, though without the ad dollars to match. Given the triumphalist social media chatter, one would think the likes of HuffPo and the Daily Beast would leave their crippled ancestors to die upon the banks of the primordial swamp; instead the oldster companies have swallowed their offspring to serve as a sort of mitochondrial life force.
Which raises the obvious question: Will most or all of the writers and bloggers working for these hybrid media empires get paid? Even Dan Gillmor thinks they should.
And some writers do. Before Huffington Post and the Daily Beast got gobbled up, they'd hired veteran journalists from the likes of Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post to invigorate their journo credentials and gain seats at the pundits' tables. Howard Kurtz, who worked at the Washington Post, which sold off Newsweek, has gone to the Daily Beast. Howard Fineman, who worked at Newsweek, which merged with the Daily Beast, is now senior politics editor at Huffington Post.
This feels like the kind of viral cross-contamination that has to happen for online media to move forward, though the evolution/mutation is far from over.
In strictly business terms, AOL-HuffPo has a built in advantage over NewsBeast. Huffington Post is more popular than Daily Beast and AOL has a large stable of news sites, such as TechCrunch and the relatively new Patch network, both giving AOL a foot in the niche/hyperlocal markets. These sites now fall under Arianna's editorial guidance. She's proven extremely adept at managing a single brand, her own, but can she manage multiple brands with different editorial missions? Or does everything AOL go The Huffington Way?