AOL- Huffington Post Merger Shakes Up Online News
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now to a marriage of two online media giants that could shake up the world of online news. AOL earlier this week announced it was buying the website The Huffington Post. The move brings together an Internet access enterprise that's been struggling - that's AOL - with an online news platform that's been growing since its launch in 2005.
The Huffington Post started as a news blog with a small staff. Today it's one of America's 10 most visited news sites with some 25 million visitors a month. The deal cost AOL $350 million and put Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington in charge of all of AOL's news content. And this is how Arianna Huffington described the deal on PBS.
Ms. ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (The Huffington Post): It's a little bit for us as though we are getting off a fast-moving train and getting into a supersonic jet.
MARTIN: But where is that jet heading and who's riding on that jet? To try and talk about that, I'm joined now by Richard Prince, journalist and founder of the online magazine Journal-isms. It's aligned with the Maynard Institute and it focuses on issues of diversity in media.
Also with us, Tom Rosenstiel. He's the founder and director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. It also publishes the annual State of the Media report, and he's with us from his offices in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Founder, Journal-isms): Great to be here.
Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Founder, Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism): Thanks.
MARTIN: So Tom, start us off. For people who aren't familiar with Huffington Post, where does it fit into the media landscape? What does it do? Who reads it? Who works for it?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: It is the eighth-biggest news website in the country, but AOL is bigger. AOL is fourth and has at least 10 million more visitors a month than Huffington Post. Huffington Post is a hybrid of blogs - and it's many bloggers, not one or two - aggregation, so it functions sort of like Yahoo News, and some original content. Their audience is younger than AOL's, but actually - and interestingly - there's no difference in terms of the diversity of the audience in terms of race. And AOL's audience is more female - significantly more female than Huffington Post.
MARTIN: Before I turn to Richard, though, I wanted to ask about the fact that Huffington Post is perceived as a very liberal site and, in fact, intentionally so - intended in a way to sort of set up a counter-narrative to Fox News, which is, you know, right-leaning. And the deal's announcement drew nearly 7,000 comments on the website, with many people saying that this is a sell-out. They don't mean in a business sense. They mean sort of politically, a sell-out.
And I wanted to ask if you think that that's true, in terms of the politics of the site are likely to shift.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, it's interesting. They self-consciously design themselves, imagine themselves to be the left version of Drudge, of Matt Drudge's website. Drudge is mostly an aggregator. So he trolls the Web with a conservative outlook. Huffington Post trolls the Web with a liberal outlook. That presents problems for AOL, because it has always tried to perceive itself as a very much traditional kind of neutral aggregator of the Web, like Yahoo or Google News.
It also is interesting that Huffington - Arianna Huffington herself, she has made noises since the midterm elections that maybe she needs to shift more to the center politically. But her political identity is wrapped up with the political and ideological identity of Huffington Post. Her name is on it.
MARTIN: Richard Prince, talk about - so, you say that Huffington Post was founded with the idea of adding to diversity of voices politically, particularly in the online news space. How has it been perceived, and how is it faring in presenting a diversity of other voices in the diversity of its audience?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, I think Huffington Post has made itself on free labor of bloggers, and in that sense, they are rather diverse. There are plenty of people who are eager to be on there. And they contribute their opinion pieces, but these are not professional writers, by and large. They're not getting paid. So when you talk about journalists, you don't see that many. And my hope is that an organization like this, Huffington Post, as well as AOL, will start having journalists of color in key positions. We don't have that.
The American Society of News Editors takes a diversity survey every year in the news business. And they included the online world this year. Huffington Post and AOL both refuse to participate in this. They are starting now this new Global Black portion of the website with Sheila Johnson, the...
MARTIN: The co-founder of BET.
Mr. PRINCE: Exactly, exactly.
MARTIN: And it's supposed to be called Global Black, an African-American news section on the site.
Mr. PRINCE: Right. Right.
MARTIN: And I understand, also, is it also true that they're anticipating -they were anticipating a Hispanic site, Hispanic-oriented site, as well?
Mr. PRINCE: They have AOL Latino already. And they have AOL Black Voices, which they bought. So they're segmenting off this black and Hispanic market. But in terms of being right there in the center of things, helping influence the news flow or the content flow of the entire production, we don't see ourselves there.
MARTIN: But given that AOL already has Black Voices and the Huffington Post announced this creation of this online - this dedicated online space called Global Black in partnership with Sheila Johnson, what happens now? Are those considered duplicative, or what happens?
Mr. PRINCE: They don't - they say they don't yet. This is all happening so quickly. They haven't had a chance to decide what happens.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
We're talking about AOL's acquisition of the news and opinion website, The Huffington Post. We're particularly interested in what it means for the diversity of voices in the online news landscape. We're speaking with journalist and blogger Richard Prince. He's founder of the online publication Journal-isms, which focuses on diversity issues in the media, and also Tom Rosenstiel, founder and director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. That group also publishes this annual State of the Media report.
So, Tom Rosenstiel, if you'd sort of pick up the ball there. How diverse are these audiences now and the staffs now, from what we know?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Not unusually so. I mean, this is a problem that media has struggled with for a long time, and there have been - as Richard knows well -lots of noises about good intentions. But the news industry, by and large, has failed to meet its self-declared targets on diversity. And as news rooms are shrinking, it's very hard to diversify when you're cutting your staff by 30 percent, which is what the newspaper industry has done.
In the online world, authenticity is very important to online audiences because they have many choices of places they can go. It's very easy to navigate from one site to the other. So the idea that you're going to say this is AOL Hispanic and AOL Black, the fact that it's branded with AOL gives it a corporate identity that is going to - I think a lot of audiences will see as less organic and less authentic than a site that is actually developed by somebody or a group of people in a community, and it evolves from there.
MARTIN: You mentioned that the traditional media, you know, newspapers and magazines have been - broadcast entities have been shrinking. But the online media space, new media, how is that addressing the challenge of diversity? Is it better than traditional media, because it's new?
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: I think it's increased the voices that we hear talking about the news. But I don't think that it has compensated for the loss in the reportorial journalism, of people going out and covering things. The losses in old media there far outstrip the gains in new media. What we do have is the ability for citizens and bloggers to raise issues, talk about issues, reset the agenda, find stories that they think were missed or under covered by the mainstream press. That diversity, I think, is far more robust than it was 10 years ago.
MARTIN: Richard Prince, a final thought from you.
Mr. PRINCE: Well, you need to have, at least in the old media, in the traditional media, you do have people of color in charge of general interest publications, and you do not have that in the online world. The Daily Beast, for example, just to use one example. Right after the first of the year, they named the 50 smartest people of 2010. The only African-American on that list was Kanye West. Now, I doubt that if there had been a person of color in charge of that list, or in charge of the person who made up that list, that would've happened.
MARTIN: Richard Prince is a journalist and founder of the online publication Journal-isms, which focuses on diversity issues in the media. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Tom Rosenstiel is the founder and director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, and he joined us from his office, also in Washington. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Great to be here.
Mr. PRINCE: Thank you.