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The Controversial Huffington Post-AOL Merger: 7 Questions That Matter

The Huffington Post-AOL merger was quite a shock, and raises a number of questions about the future of journalism.

News that the Huffington Post had been bought by AOL, a company with more than $2.5 billion in revenue, for $315 million, almost all in cash, was quite a shock -- to the chattering classes, to millions of HuffPo's readers and to commenters. It was also a shock to the site's thousands of bloggers, who have been providing free content for the privilege of being part of the public discourse and promoting their efforts at a place they knew to be independent and welcoming of strong opinions.

Initially, the sale was understood in the media as an amazing accomplishment for Arianna Huffington and her partner Ken Lehrer, who together started the Huffington Post six years ago with a modest investment, and saw it grow via a potent combination of personality branding, aggressive content, and the mastering of the social networking and search engine optimization tools that have come to rule the web.  

The sense was/is that Huffington is quite the marvel; Slate media critic Jack Shafer called her a "first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent and media visionary."  But then a second reaction set in: outrage that Huffington had partly profited from the unpaid labor of bloggers, along with concerns that the new partnership would be very bad for journalism and hence a vibrant democracy. 

Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten led the second wave of critics by saying that "to grasp the HuffPo business model, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates." He continued, "The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy's industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers."

Harsh, yes, and not altogether fair. Nobody coerced the bloggers, and the Huffington Post has a robust staff of well-established quality journalists and editors.

But the fact that the Huffington Post has come to dwarf most of the giants of traditional journalism, with a product that often has little to do with journalism, is a tough pill to swallow for the shrinking journalism profession. The deeply reported, long-form investigative piece is having a hard time getting the light of day amidst the overwhelming plethora of cheap content, with headlines designed to attract the mechanical mind of the search engine.

So the sale of HuffPo to AOL has set off a giant debate, not only about the future of journalism and the Internet, but the consequences of huge financial takeaways and the impact of the deal on politics and change. One of the major themes among critics is the question, asked by Washington Post's Dana Milbank: "Did Arianna Huffington just sell out her fellow progressives?"

He adds, "In the literal sense, she undoubtedly has...a large pile of cash going to Huffington herself means this powerful liberal voice is formally joining the 'corporate media' its writers have long disparaged."

And also sold out "in the ideological sense and committed the Huffington Post to joining the mainstream media -- the evil 'MSM' of 'HuffPo' blogger ire. Announcing the deal, she and her new boss went out of their way to say that the new Huffington Post would emphasize things other than the liberal politics on which the brand was built."

Here's what AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong had to say about that: "Arianna has the same interest we do, which is serving consumers' needs and going beyond the just straight political needs of people."

Of course, this may be overstated, because one of the roles of the Huffington Post is to bring quality political journalism to its giant audience.

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