The most interesting media mergers are the ones you never see coming. Yesterday’s news that AOL is buying the news and opinion website The Huffington Post for $315 million and turning it into the centerpiece of the combined company was a big one.
We all know AOL’s long and arduous journey: Once the king of dial-up Internet access (which it technically still is, but that’s a title you don’t want), it had the power to buy the world’s largest media company in Time Warner and turn the whole shebang into a poorly-run disaster. At the end of 2009 it broke away from Time Warner in a spin-off and has transformed itself into an Internet content company.
I was never one to sing the praises of AOL in the past, but since it gave up on distribution in favor of content I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. I’ve worked in the Internet content industry my entire career and to see a company with such significant reach try to make the phrase “Content is King” relevant again warms my writer’s heart. (“Commodity Data is King” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, or job security.) Not to mention, a lot of AOL’s content is pretty darn good.
But it hasn’t been easy going for AOL lately. Even though it has about 112 million US visitors a month, it lacks a focused brand identity given all its disparate content brands and advertising revenue fell 26% in 2010. By pairing with The Huffington Post, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong gets a brand that can help with all of those problems. The Huffington Post gets about 25 million visitors a month, had its first profitable year in 2010 and it definitely has an identity as a strong Web voice for the political left. As part of the deal, all AOL content will be housed under a new division called The Huffington Post Media Group, with liberal commentator Arianna Huffington as President and Editor-in-Chief.
Therein lies what some think is a problem for the company. Will an unabashedly liberal media company (which AOL will certainly become), with a content strategy run by an outspoken commentator like Huffington be too much of a turnoff to potential visitors? Maybe so, but who cares? In the age of Fox News and hyper partisanship, trying to be everything to everyone gets you nowhere fast (just ask CNN).
These days, you’re better off targeting a certain audience and speaking to it. Roger Ailes of Fox News understands this better than anyone and the new AOL could offer a potent counterweight to the powerful television voice on the right. The reach of the new AOL is pretty massive, with 117 million US visitors and 270 million global visitors per month. And its content will encompass topics from across a broad spectrum, all the way down to local news.
If things go well, in a few years maybe AOL might decide to launch a cable network of its own to take on Fox. I can see it.