Huffington’s life has always been about weaving the ordinary stuff of life into a bigger story, hoovering up ideas and phrases and people and sometimes whole companies, then putting them back together in the service of a greater good—the greater good looking a lot like a certain Greek-accented, feminine dynamo. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Steve Jobs was in some sense an aggregator, too, and look what he created. Right now, the story is about the merger between AOL and the Huffington Post, but the reality is that Huffington is subsuming AOL media into her personal brand—which may very well be best for everybody. Though AOL’s content business (in the past, a sleepy homepage leading to news and lifestyle sections, as a way to ensnare its subscriber base as they dodder over to their e-mail) is only 20 percent of its total revenue, the company now employs 1,300 journalists (1,000 of these work for its local service, Patch)—more than most publishers, except the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Reuters. AOL’s CEO of nearly three years, Tim Armstrong, has been committed to growing this part of the business. Forty years old, six foot four, and with Clark Kent looks, Armstrong, the captain of his lacrosse team at Connecticut College and Greenwich dad of three, is one of the golden boys of the online-ad age. A great go-to-market guy full of marketing mumbo-jumbo to coach AOL through what he calls its “transformational agenda,” Armstrong made the decision to buy the Huffington Post for its huge and growing number of visitors, but also for the patina of glamour that Huffington is able to give to AOL, for her Hollywood network of the rich and famous.
And Huffington is in many ways an ideal partner, with a remarkable openness and, unlike most people of her age, wealth, and power, a genuine interest in what young people, including bloggers, have to say. She will give out her e-mail to anyone, responding to as many messages as she can. At a recent TimesCenter event, I heard her announce her personal e-mail to a large crowd, encouraging them to write with opinions on health care and the deficit, because “hearing what you have to say gives me the most joy.” Whether this is a natural gift or born of her years in the seventies spent studying New Age methods like neurolinguistic programming, the car salesman’s trick of light trance, she is a truly gifted listener. Even those former employees who are not fans—the type who call her a “stepmother that you just want to love but can’t because you know she’s pure evil”—say that her warmth feels genuine, even if their logical brain tells them it is not.
Spin, however, may be Huffington’s most impressive quality. The AOL ads that flooded the screens in the back of taxis since 2010 are not the only reason that the company has buzz; both she and Armstrong have been good at ignoring AOL’s falling stock price, which is down almost 38 percent this year, though ad sales were up 8 percent last quarter. AOL’s core business is still based on dial-up subscriptions, which are, clearly, completely doomed. In 2002, AOL had 35 million subscribers; today, it has about 3 million, and every year it loses about 30 percent of its base. Shockingly, a majority of those 3 million reportedly have cable or DSL and don’t realize that they don’t have to pay AOL for a subscription. And yet AOL with Armstrong and Huffington is a machine—even with the negative headwinds, the tech world is still curious about what they’re going to announce the next Monday. They launch new Patch sites in primary states like South Carolina, and suddenly “AOL has a local election strategy going into 2012.”
For Huffington, everything has a story, even her name, which is actually Ariadne—Greek Orthodox priests will not baptize a child who does not bear the name of a saint, so her mother added “Anna” as a middle name—and she doesn’t mind thinking of herself as the mythological Ariadne, the King of Crete’s daughter who saved Theseus by handing him a thread to help him find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur (half-bull, half-man). “I love this myth,” she says. “It’s not about helping someone succeed, but also about guiding through the maze of life, of confusion and chaos—as, editorially, what we are trying to do is put order on the chaos of the information.”
Huffington’s own thread has seemed to follow a similarly circuitous path, from right to left and now seeming to bend back, making the Huffington Post’s political leanings a bit more red-state-friendly for the AOL culture—though one could argue that, in fact, she’s never been that far left. She’s not anti-capitalist (just anti-looting), and she also lacks the left’s faith in the government’s ability to run things. Huffington says now that she is disappointed in Obama and could even see herself voting Republican in the next presidential election. “To me,” she says, “the issues are more important than the party.” She pauses. “Trust me, I realize how hard it is to change the system, but Obama has demonstrated only the fierce urgency of sometime later, and at the same time the middle class is under assault”—she smiles—“which is of course the topic of my last book.”