Jacob Heilbrunn

The AOL-Huffington Post Merger

Arianna Huffington is now officially one of the biggest media stars in America. AOL's purchase of the Huffington Post for $315 million ratifies her importance. It's an amazing feat for a woman who began on the right side of the political ledger, ended up on the left, and has created a major media organization almost singlehandedly. The web is clearly far from done in shaking up the media landscape. Whether or not Huffington succeeds in solidifying the success of her website, she has already established herself as a major media presence. One thing is clear: you underestimate Huffington at your peril.

Her task now will be to transform the Huffington Post, where I've occasionally contributed, into the New York Times of the web, which is clearly her goal. Huffington has been on a hiring spree. Among her recent hires is Newsweek's Howard Fineman and she'll hardly stop there. She might also hire foreign correspondents. In any case, she's branching out into a variety of fields, ranging from food to sex advice.

The real risk is for AOL. It needs the Huffington Post more than the Huffington Post needs it. What is it getting for its money? The real question about most internet sites is whether they can create an actual revenue stream. Success, at this point, is counted in terms of breaking even.

But if anyone can pull it off, apparently Huffington can. A Greek immigrant to England, she studied at Cambridge and wrote her first book called the Female Woman at age twenty-two. It decried the feminist movement. She herself was something of a femme fatale. She dated the columnist Bernard Levin and went on to write books about Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. She also married Michael Huffington, an oil heir, in 1985. The wedding party was thrown by Ann Getty. Divorce followed. Huffington turned out to be gay. Arianna herself morphed into a liberal. But she didn't really hit the big time until the Huffington Post became a wild success, thanks largely to the Bush administration.

It will be interesting to see if the Huffington Post now begins to publicize some more conservative voices as well. If the website is to grow, it will have to continue to turn itself into a slightly racier version of the New York Times or the Washington Post. For the old media the portents remain grim. The Los Angeles Times still doesn't have a buyer. Newsweek is on the ropes. Subscriptions to the Washington Post keep going down. AOL has to hope that its $315 million isn't simply an act of faith, but an investment in the future, which is here now.

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