The Huffington Post, which began in 2005 with a meager $1 million investment and has grown into one of the most heavily visited news Web sites in the country, is being acquired by AOL in a deal that creates an unlikely pairing of two online media giants.
The two companies completed the sale Sunday evening and announced the deal just after midnight on Monday. AOL will pay $315 million, $300 million of it in cash and the rest in stock. It will be the company’s largest acquisition since it was separated fromTime Warner in 2009.
The deal will allow AOL to greatly expand its news gathering and original content creation, areas that its chief executive, Tim Armstrong, views as vital to reversing a decade-long decline.
Arianna Huffington, the cable talk show pundit, author and doyenne of the political left, will take control of all of AOL’s editorial content as president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. The arrangement will give her oversight not only of AOL’s national, local and financial news operations, but also of the company’s other media enterprises like MapQuest and Moviefone.
By handing so much control over to Ms. Huffington and making her a public face of the company, AOL, which has been seen as apolitical, risks losing its nonpartisan image. Ms. Huffington said her politics would have no bearing on how she ran the new business.
The deal has the potential to create an enterprise that could reach more than 100 million visitors in the United States each month. For The Huffington Post, which began as a liberal blog with a small staff but now draws some 25 million visitors every month, the sale represents an opportunity to reach new audiences. For AOL, which has been looking for ways to bring in new revenue as its dial-up Internet access business declines, the millions of Huffington Post readers represent millions in potential advertising dollars.
“This is a statement that the company is making investments, and in this case a bold investment, that fits right into our strategy,” Mr. Armstrong said in an interview Sunday. “I think this is going to be a situation where 1 plus 1 equals 11.”
Ms. Huffington and Mr. Armstrong began discussing the possibility of a sale only last month. They came to know each other well after they both attended a media conference in November and quickly discovered, as Ms. Huffington put it, “we were practically finishing each other’s sentences.” She added: “It was really amazing how aligned our visions were.”
One of The Huffington Post’s strengths has been creating an online community of readers with tens of millions of people. Their ability to leave comments on Huffington Post news articles and blog posts and to share them on Twitterand Facebook has been a major reason the site attracts so many readers. It is routine for articles to draw thousands of comments each and be cross-linked across multiple social networks.
Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Huffington say that AOL’s local news initiative, Patch, and its citizen journalist venture, Seed, stand to thrive when paired with the reader engagement tools of The Huffington Post.
AOL’s own news Web sites like Politics Daily and Daily Finance are likely to disappear when the deal is completed, and many of the writers who work for those sites will become Huffington Post writers, according to people with knowledge of the deal, who asked not to be identified discussing plans that are still being worked out.
Although AOL is publicly traded, The Huffington Post is a private company and does not disclose its financial data. But Ms. Huffington, who co-founded the site with Kenneth Lerer in 2005, said it had its first profitable year in 2010 and was poised to continue growing. . Huffington Post executives estimate that the Web site will generate $60 million in revenue this year, compared with $31 million last year.
The sale means a huge payout for Huffington Post investors and holders of its stock and options, who stand to profit earlier than if the company had waited to grow large enough for an initial public offering.
While Huffington Post has been growing — it now employs more than 200 people, a threefold increase in just the last few years — AOL has been shrinking. Last year it eliminated close to 2,500 positions, roughly a third of its staff. Although its most recent earnings estimates beat Wall Street expectations, revenues for the fourth quarter were down 26 percent from a year earlier as dial-up customers continued to disappear. Ad revenue, which is seen as the company’s main business going forward, was down 29 percent from the year before.
Since 2009, the company has untangled itself from its ill-fated merger with Time Warner, a legacy media company with print magazines, a film studio and television channels. AOL, not fully a media company, not fully a technology company, never melded with its corporate partner.
As its own company, AOL has emphasized editorial content, a strategy that is intended to keep it competitive in an Internet marketplace dominated by Google. AOL is betting that it can sell, alongside that content, local advertising and display advertising, areas that Google does not dominate.
Last year, AOL acquired the influential technology news blog TechCrunch for $25 million to supplement its technology coverage, which already included the blog Engadget.
While AOL has invested heavily in creating content through enterprises like Patch, the initiative meant to fill the void in areas where struggling local newspapers have cut back on reporting, much of their writing and news gathering is not up to the standards of what consumers get from their traditional news sources.
The Huffington Post, too, has faced criticism over its content, much of which is aggregated from other news sources. But it has started to invest more in original reporting and writing, hiring experienced journalists from The New York Times, Newsweek and other traditional media outlets. By acquiring The Huffington Post’s reporting resources, AOL hopes to counter the perception that it is a farm for subpar content.
“The reason AOL is acquiring The Huffington Post is because we are absolutely passionate, big believers in the future of the Internet, big believers in the future of content,” Mr. Armstrong said.
In that sense, the deal carries a risk for The Huffington Post, which has had none of AOL’s troubles and is widely viewed as a business success with its own unique voice and identity. Now that it is to become part of a large corporate entity, what becomes of that unique character is an open question.
“The potential is great; it’s almost overwhelming,” said Howard Fineman, The Huffington Post’s senior political editor. “But the key will be to engage people who really want to be engaged, and make it hospitable to them, draw them in and expand the sense of community without losing them at the same time.”
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times