It was just after midnight on February 7 when the email arrived from Tim Armstrong telling the AOL staff that the company had just agreed to buy the Huffington Post. I couldn’t restrain my excitement.
“This absolutely is brilliant,” I wrote to a friend at AOL. “Huffpost has so much that we need. A true understanding of how editorial voice can drive readership mixed with great analytics and so much more.” It was a perfect fit with AOL’s strengths—breadth of topics, powerful technology and a leading advertising network that can help pay for the sort of great journalism that I knew that both Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington want to provide. After a year spent working largely on the mechanics and organization of AOL’s complex turnaround, I saw that now we would be able to take the offence again, informing and entertaining a vast audience in ways no other company could. This was why I came to AOL at the end of 2009.
Today, I am delighted to say that Arianna has offered me a new role that will let me work elbow-to-elbow with the editors and engineers who have made the Huffington Post into the Edison laboratory of journalism innovation. My title will be big news editor. That’s named after the Huffington Post’s Big News feature, pages devoted particular topics--John Boehner or Johnny Depp or the foreclosure crisis. My job is to help look after those pages and the others around the entire network of the Huffington Post Media Group, as AOL’s publishing unit is now called, that pull together information on a given event, person, product, idea, place or product.
From Moviefone to Engadget, we already have information about a lot of what people are interested in. Don’t expect a big bang from the big news department though. The Huffington Post team operates on a very fast tempo. So we will be making lots of small changes very quickly to all these pages that should soon add up to big improvements. One area that we are going to dive into first is the pages that we have connected to the 2012 election, one of the core topics for the Huffington Post.
What about Seed, AOL’s freelance network that I had been running? Seed is in fact thriving and will continue stronger than ever as part of AOL’s Advertising.com group, which is devoted to providing the best tools to online publishers and marketers. Seed and its sister company, StudioNow, can make high-quality articles, photographs and videos in a very cost effective way.
I am very proud of what we achieved at Seed over the last year. And I’m just as proud of what we didn’t do. Despite our reputation as “hellish scheme” dedicated to “slapdash, disposable content churned out en masse,” we didn’t pollute the Web with millions of articles that would be embarrassing even in a high school newspaper. Rather, we worked on ways to respect our creators and our audience by creating formats that delivered lively, useful and reliable information that writers can produce efficiently. You can see the results in articles like these: What Is Christine O'Donnell's Religion?, Giardia in Dogs: What You Need to Know as a Dog Owner, and Jack Daniel's Drinks: 4 Drink Ideas From a Bartender.
What you can’t see is all the work our Nashville-based engineering team put into building an entirely new platform for Seed that will enable us to create, assign and edit innovative, high quality projects very quickly. Nor can you see the incredibly talented group of editors who joined me at Seed, including Lance Gould, our project editor, Anna Wahrman, the production manager, and Gordon Hurd, who built our copy editing network (and sadly has moved on to another opportunity). Lance, Anna and Neel Chopdekar, the AOL vice president who is the real father of Seed, are refining this technology to serve advertising and publishing clients. And when appropriate, one client will be the Huffington Post Media Group itself.
For me, this isn’t really as big of a switch as it may appear. When I first talked to Tim Armstrong about the possibility of joining AOL, he described a vision of having a page about everything in the world that people are interested in, every prescription drug, every make of watch, ever college campus. It’s an audacious goal, one that flows from Tim’s experience at Google. But Tim, unlike Larry and Sergey, doesn’t see this as a task just for engineers. He understands how a human being--with insight, curiosity and skill—can make any page more interesting and more useful than if it was just made by a machine. From the start, Seed was not a cynical attempt to cash in on the dark arts of search engine optimization. Our goal was to deploy many thousands of people to help create the smartest page on everything people care about.
As big news editor, I’m devoted to exactly the same mission. The mix of topics of topics will shift to include more politics, national affairs and breaking news. And we are very interested in finding ways for the Huffington Post’s vast community of commenters and bloggers to contribute their passion and expertise to the pages we build. We will also use both our growing stable of talented journalists and our portfolio of very interesting search and text analysis technology to enhance the pages. And any time we can serve our audience best by using a freelance writer, we’ve got the Seed network at our disposal as well.
Now, even more than that night in February, I am convinced that the big news about the combination of AOL and the Huffington Post is how we have all the pieces needed to thrive and innovate even in the very harsh environment of Internet news.