The announcement last night that Huffington Post is being bought by AOL has already generated a cyber-boatload of analysis, criticism, and speculation – mostly speculation.
I have long had an ambivalent view of HuffPo. While it gives opportunities to some progressives voices who are often shut out of the broader media, it also hosts some reactionary conservatives whose views are unproductive and dishonest. They have also taken a lot of heat for their gossipy celebrity content which I simply ignore.
AOL, although independent from TimeWarner for a little over a year, is still a giant corporation with many of the same principals and shareholders as prior to the separation. And therein lies my pessimism about the future of the HuffPo/AOL alliance.
The last thing independent media needs is more consolidation. By forming ever larger organizations, they fall into the same traps that Big Media always face. Their business mission ends up suppressing whatever aspirations they have for incisive journalism. They pander to advertisers and seek out stories that titillate rather than educate.
Arianna Huffington is predictably excited about the new arrangement. Why wouldn’t she be? The deal puts a value of over $300 million on her six year old venture. And she will become the head of all of AOL’s media properties. But she should be careful. She is also going to have a board of directors to which she will have to answer. And the obligation to appeal to a much broader audience could result in a dilution of any personality. Like other big news enterprises, she will have to cater to the lowest common denominator.
That’s why independence in the media is so precious. It allows for diversity of opinion and is the single best way to produce reporting that challenges the status quo, rattles societies gatekeepers, and enhances accountability. Those are the things we lose as media enterprises get more bloated and reliant on corporate infrastructure.
The combined AOL/HuffPo is still not as big as Fox or Comcast/NBC, and if they struggle mightily they may be able retain some independent identity. But on the whole this is not a promising development, and it is contrary to the direction that media should be heading.