Reporting from New York — Elegantly clad in black lace, her famously copper hair now blond, Arianna Huffington was surrounded by friends and well-wishers as she arrived Saturday at a fundraising dinner for Columbia University's student newspaper. Everyone wanted to congratulate her on AOL's $315-million purchase of the Huffington Post.
"You're in the big show now," said David Stone, Columbia's executive vice president for communications.
Huffington gently shook her head, widened her eyes and replied, "It's all a little too much, isn't it?"
With Huffington, you could say, it's always been a little too much. The native of Greece has never taken a minimalist approach in her many New Worlds — Cambridge, New York, Washington, D.C., Montecito, Brentwood. She came with ambition, smarts, charm, letters of introduction and an unfailing sense of whom to cultivate for maximum success.
The best-selling polemicist, biographer and pundit, whose friends told her she was too old to start an Internet venture when she launched the Huffington Post six years ago, has now conquered a corner of cyberspace.
After several unprofitable years, Huffington's website — combining news from traditional journalism sources, unpaid blog posts, fluffy photo galleries and a smattering of original stories — says it turned a profit last year, and expects revenue to double to $60 million in 2011.
With about 25 million monthly visitors, the Huffington Post is one of the Web's most popular news sites. But how much that will help AOL transcend its dial-up roots, its ill-fated acquisition of Time Warner and its hemorrhaging bottom line is the subject of debate in the blogosphere and beyond. (Last year, AOL's ad revenue dropped 29%, said Chief Executive Tim Armstrong, and the company laid off a third of its workforce, which is now about 5,000. HuffPo employs 210.)
Huffington said she persuaded co-founder Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL Time Warner executive, and their board to sell to AOL even though it probably wasn't the most lucrative deal possible.
"I really convinced them that this was not the best price — because we could have gotten more — but the best home," she said.
The mostly cash deal, finalized at the Super Bowl, puts Huffington in charge of all editorial content for AOL, which includes Politics Daily, TechCrunch, FanHouse, PopEater and Patch — a network of about 800 hyper-local news sites — as well as MapQuest and Moviefone. Her challenge will be to inject some cachet into a faded Internet brand. She begins, in some sense, by just being herself.
At the Columbia dinner, Huffington was among equals in the top echelon of old media players. Her tablemates included Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson, a Rupert Murdoch protege who has criticized sites that aggregate. (She knocked his boss the other day, saying she couldn't understand why anyone would call an iPad news app "The Daily," as Murdoch has done. "The whole point of the Internet is that it's not daily," she said; it's "immediacy.")
Norman Pearlstine, Bloomberg's content chief, sat on Huffington's right, and Paul Steiger, chief executive of the nonprofit investigative venture ProPublica, introduced Huffington. He praised her "penetrating wit," noting that "she appeared on … 'Family Guy' and witheringly destroyed Brian the talking dog."
At 60, Huffington will have a real boss for the first time. It is unclear what portion of the sale price she will receive, or what her annual salary will be. She would not comment on reports that put her take at about $18 million with a salary of $4 million. She will answer to Armstrong, who headed ad sales for Google before arriving at AOL 20 months ago.
Huffington will be judged on her ability to make AOL's content "magical," which will then make its advertising "magical," Armstrong said, adding that "consumers are smart and know when they see magical experiences."
Huffington Post recently has been producing more original content. And AOL, particularly with Patch, has become one of the few expanding news operations.
But journalistic hearts were chilled this month when a leaked memo, "The AOL Way," was published by Business Insider. It emphasized search engine optimization and profitability, not journalism or the public interest, and said AOL staffers should produce five to 10 stories a day — basing their topics on traffic, revenue potential and turnaround time.
"I thought the leaked memo was horrifying," Huffington friend and DailyCaller.com blogger Mickey Kaus said in an e-mail. "… I don't buy the idea that journalists have to be coddled and well paid because they have some mystical intuition ordinary citizens lack. But the memo made AOL seem like a terrible place to work."
Armstrong was unfazed. The press may have reacted strongly to the memo, he said, but "Internet-based companies were saying 'This is how we do business every day.' "
Nor does one high-profile Huffington Post editor seem worried.