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The conversation: Predicting the future of journalism through the lens of the AOL-HuffPo merger

February 9, 2011 |  5:20 pm

Arianna HuffingtonOp-Ed columnist Tim Rutten takes a dismal look at the AOL/Huffington Post merger in Wednesday’s Opinion pages. But his critique also casts a wider net to assess the current state of Web-driven journalism, where there’s too much emphasis on frequency, speed and maximizing search terms over reporting and storytelling. He writes:

The media-saturated environment in which we live has been called "the information age" when, in fact, it's the data age. Information is data arranged in an intelligible order. Journalism is information collected and analyzed in ways people actually can use. Though AOL and the Huffington Post claim to have staked their future on giving visitors to their sites online journalism, what they actually provide is "content," which is what journalism becomes when it's adulterated into a mere commodity.

But maybe this AOL/HuffPo merger won't work:

I'd be surprised if this combination soared. History is against them. Mergers don’t usually pan out unless one person is clearly in charge and sets an agenda for both of the operations. -- Jon Friedman, MarketWatch

AOL dilutes the news:

AOL has turned its back on the professional, balanced approach taken over the last two years (ironically, in a move away from blogging). Flooding Patch and AOL with thousands of amateurs will undoubtedly dilute the reach, attention, and credibility of the professional writers and journalists that remain with the site. The terms of the deal almost guarantees that AOL/HuffPo will have to cut its investment in paid writing as well. -- Ed Morrissey, Hot Air

It's possible, though, that AOL's money can pay for better journalism:

If, with AOL's resources, she is able to hire more, if she and her team are able to produce more serious content and if they can identify some of those “different ways to save investigative journalism,” it is possible to imagine that the AOL–Huffington Post deal could mark a turning point in the debate about the future of journalism. That's a lot of "ifs…" -- John Nichols, The Nation

Nah, says Gawker Media's Nick Denton. This merger does nothing good for the HuffPo brand:

Denton insists he has no intention of ever selling Gawker, and he seems not-so-secretly pleased to see his opponents cashing out: "AOL has gathered so many of our rivals —  Huffington Post, Engadget, Techcrunch — in one place. The question: Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?" -- Dan Lyons, The Daily Beast

It's not enough to depend on Google Trends to build traffic. There's a point of diminishing return:

I don't blame Armstrong or Huffington for pursuing this strategy. Making a living off the news is hard, and if they've figured out a way to fool search engines into pushing visitors their way, I salute them. But there's a long-term problem with their strategy: They won't be able to fool the computers forever. -- Farhad Manjoo, Slate

When the SEO magic stops working, they'll have to change their strategy:

Ultimately, I think those content farms may be the death of HuffPo's main competitive advantage.  Either Google will get much better at filtering out the spam, or people will start looking for other ways to get information, because for more and more searches, SEO is making Google useless.  They'll go to websites like Consumer Reports or Amazon to get information on appliances, and get more news and information through Facebook and Twitter.  That doesn't mean that HuffPo can't survive and thrive, of course.  But it seems likely to me that sometime in the next few years, its business model will require a total overhaul.  AOL's track record does not make me confident that it can provide the management support, or expertise, to deliver that overhaul. -- Megan McArdle, The Atlantic

Which could inspire a new, new media that indulges an audience that favors writing over search terms:

Our guess? Eventually we'll witness the pendulum swing back towards longer, more in-depth content, especially given that hand-held, portable devices like smart phones and the iPad allow people to access content nearly everywhere – even asthere remains a place and a necessity for quick news blurbs created and curated to attract as many pairs of eyes as possible. But as readers grow wiser, savvier and increasingly jaded with time, they will be more discerning of the news sources they visit and more aware of SEO trickery or sources that offer quantity over quality … perhaps to the extent that they will be willing to pay for better, longer, more quality content on the web and mobile devices. -- Alex Alvarez, Mediaite

And when that day comes, Arianna Huffington will be the first to embrace it:

Huffington deserves every one of those millions she'll be paid by AOL for creating this online sensation. She was once derided as "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus" because of her many well-connected friends, but Huffington has earned her place as one of the extraordinary personalities of our time: an entrepreneur and writer who is always chasing the next big idea, wherever it is on the ideological spectrum. -- Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

RELATED:

Google to Paul: Drop Dead

AOL ♥ HuffPo. The loser? Journalism

AOL-Huffington Post marriage: Really, it's not political

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Arianna Huffington, author, syndicated columnist and co-founder and editor-in-chief of the the Huffington Post. Credit: Darren Calabrese / AP Photo/ The Canadian Press

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