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Huffington Post and AOL: When Independence Goes Mainstream

February 7, 2011

So where do you draw the line? At what point does a company lose the independent label? The music industry has gotten around this question by turning indie into a massive, all-encompassing genre that is more a declaration of style than a description of musical sound. There are indie artists signed to major labels, and yes, I know that’s an oxymoron. It’s what independent music fans call selling out, and it’s not a good thing.

I see the same thing happening with the Huffington Post and AOL merger. Independent media may soon be a type of journalism, instead of a description of the company’s financial position. It will be a term that harkens to the company’s history and not their present.

One journalism student in my class this morning talked angrily about the acquisition. To him, Huffington was selling out. I think it’s easy to see it that way. AOL is the larger company, the bigger brand, the owner of many smaller media services. The Huffington Post is the underdog. The little company making a big splash.

The difference is that AOL is shrinking, while Huffington has been growing. AOL has been cutting jobs and losing money the past few years as they try to reestablish who they are. AOL has been working on a content network, and they need the Huffington Post’s growth to take the next step forward.

So why’d Huffington agree to help out? Yeah, $315 million is a lot of cash, but there’s more to it. In Huffington’s personal blog post about the acquisition she mentions five things she wants to happen at The Huffington Post this year:

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…

Besides money, AOL is giving her just those things. They have the infrastructure set up already to do those things, and they’re giving Huffington control of the castle by making her Editor-in-Chief.

So both parties are getting something that they want. Huffington gets money and tools, while AOL gets growth and someone who knows how to manage their journalism resources so that they may actually succeed and not bleed the company dry. But what about readers? Why am I not afraid that The Huffington Post will lose their journalistic integrity to AOL’s demands and wishes?

To answer, I want to look at another acquisition AOL made in the past six months, TechCrunch.

TechCrunch was a technology blog startup focusing on editorials and opinions, the latest gadgets and new media startups when AOL acquired them. Like their most recent partnership, AOL promised TechCrunch infrastructure. They promised to handle the technical side of the blog for the company. What did AOL get? Content. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong just wanted TechCrunch to keep doing what they’d been doing. He even made it clear that, if the blog felt they should critique AOL, they should. It was a bold promise, but it’s one that’s been

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