The big media news this morning was the AOL (AOL) acquisition of the Huffington Post. HuffPo had long been considered the diamond of the alternative media world. The only online newspaper site with more traffic than HuffPo is NYTimes.com.
Many argue that it may be too little, too late for AOL, but I’m not so sure. Content may not be King (platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter have proven that), but traffic can still be monetized. By adding HuffPo, along with Engadget and TechCrunch, AOL positions itself strongly in the upper and middle segments in terms of quality content, while it already covers the lower end with its Seed platform.
The acquisition strengthens their position in local news, augmenting their existing Patch platform. And, HuffPo gives AOL much greater potential reach for Wow, it’s daily deal/Groupon clone. And the large AOL sales force should be able to generate much higher revenues from the Huffington Post.
Key to the deal is Arianna, who will bring a clear voice to their disparate content properties. As Felix Salmon writes:
It’s smart, and bold, to put Arianna in charge of all AOL’s editorial content, since she is one of the precious few people who has managed to create a mass-market general-interest online publication which isn’t bland and which has an instantly identifiable personality. That’s a rare skill and one which AOL desperately needs to apply to its broad yet inchoate suite of websites.
Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis notes:
Content alone isn’t enough for Aol. It has content. Lots. What HuffPo and Arianna bring is a new cultural understanding of media that is built around the value of curation, the power of peers, the link economy, passion as an asset, and celebrity as a currency.
Yet analysts remain cautious about AOL. Macquarie’s Ben Schachter advises clients to “wait on the sidelines”, while Clayton Moran at the Benchmark Company notes that the $315m price tag is “more than 40% of the $802 million in cash that AOL had on hand at the end of last year. The acquisition price is a bit of a stretch.”
There are really only two major online content companies left – AOL and Yahoo. With this acquisition, AOL takes a big step forward. As Keith Rabois points out, with this acquisition, AOL becomes a more attractive acquirer for startups and entrepreneurs than Yahoo.
As newspapers experiment with moving content behind the paywall, it creates additional opportunity for free news sites. With a mix of topical, political and local content, AOL is positioning itself to fill any void. Of course, the proof will come in the months that follow. Will authors look to be paid? Will Patch integrate nicely with HuffPo? Lots of questions yet to be resolved, but this is a smart deal and it has a good chance for success.