International expansion, original reporting, expensive video production, growing local—she saw the chance to be at the head of the Internet’s next wave of content offerings before her, as long as she had AOL’s backing. For years, the Huffington Post board had been keeping her on a financial leash, and Huffington was ready to cast it off. “I started having conversations with my board about their bottom line, and they said, ‘We’re not going to do anything that doesn’t have a three in front of it,’ ” she says, smiling a little. “Frankly, I would have been happy to do it with a two in front of it! I had just landed in Davos when I got a call from Tim. And the number did have a three.”
The sale price, at $315 million, was highly speculative based on HuffPo’s current numbers. Huffington’s main business partner, Ken Lerer—the former AOL communication director, in fact, though he was pushed out during the Time Warner merger—made, reportedly, between $40 million and $60 million. According to a source, after the checks were written with AOL, he pulled his CEO, CFO, and most of the Huffington Post management team to his ventures, leaving AOL with Huffington, on her own. She did not put money into the website at the outset, and reportedly made $18 million.
Armstrong announced the deal to employees in an e-mail around midnight of Super Bowl day. What he thought he was getting was a model that would hypersocialize the news-reading process, one he could slap over the AOL properties to put page views through the roof. He may not have bargained for Arianna herself.
What Huffington wanted was a bit different from what Armstrong wanted—she was looking for a mogul-size legacy, maybe even something that could be passed along to her daughters. Their story was that Huffington was going to start creating premium content (and with it, gaining premium advertising dollars). Huffington quickly started adding to her stable of well-regarded Timesmen—some hired at salaries over $300,000. She had signed up for a blank-check experience, and in her new position, she wasn’t interested in hearing about belt-tightening, even if it meant that she was fundamentally changing the SEO-friendly aggregation model that made the Huffington Post a lean, successful operation.
In fact, Huffington’s five-year plan, she told employees, was to become a competitor with the New York Times. After all, HuffPo has more traffic than the Times and was recently found in a Comscore study to be the web’s most popular source of political news. The two companies have had some bouts of jousting: Last month, the Times sued AOL after Huffington named ex-Times staffer Lisa Belkin’s blog Parentlode—Belkin’s Times blog was called Motherlode. “We’re sticking with the name,” she says, “I’m not changing it,” and former Times editor Bill Keller has famously maligned HuffPo’s strategy of borrowing, calling aggregators “oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks.” “I thought that was amusing,” says Huffington of Keller’s comments. “I wasn’t hurt. I don’t have a thick skin; there are some things that hurt me. But the best way is to be like a child, the way an upset child will cry and then, five minutes later, have a big smile as though nothing happened. To be permeable is the most wonderful thing we can learn from children.”
Huffington ripped out the old AOL cubicles and replaced them with desks, creating a crowded bullpen of over 315 reporters on the company’s fifth floor, with a glass-walled office for herself. Her four assistants sit in the front (one for travel, one for phones, and two research assistants, one of whom helps edit her books). She called tons of meetings, greeting everyone with spreads of baklava and Greek cookies—“It was a Greek takeover!”—but soon began taking out layers of employees. She demanded a much higher level of productivity than AOL employees had been used to. “I was like, ‘Who is in those nap rooms?’ Because I want those jobs,” says a former employee.
Eventually, about 30 of AOL’s content sections, like Politics Daily and Slashfood, were “integrated” into the Huffington Post, rebranded as HuffPo Politics or HuffPo Food. Employees began saying that there was no merger after all—they just put the two companies together and shut one down, and the net effect was that the company only got larger by about 20 percent.
Huffington was unafraid of making waves, as demonstrated by a public argument over the future of TechCrunch this September. The site, helmed by Michael Arrington, an astute but self-important blogger who is considered the premier gatekeeper of tech news in Silicon Valley, was important to Armstrong, who negotiated AOL’s $30 million purchase of it in 2010. According to a source, Huffington was told about CrunchFund, the $20 million tech-venture fund that Arrington had planned (with a $10 million investment from AOL). But when the news broke about CrunchFund in the New York Times, with controversial quotes from both Armstrong, who explained that TechCrunch didn’t have to hew to traditional journalistic standards, and Arrington, who stirred the pot by adding, “I don’t claim to be a journalist; I hold myself to higher standards of transparency and disclosure,” Huffington, who was on a trip to Brazil at the time, became infuriated. “But you know, it all ended up where it needed to end up,” she says.
Where it ended up, of course, was a lot of embarrassing coverage in the business press about who was right and who was wrong, after which Huffington convinced Armstrong that Arrington needed to step down from his own media property, though she was happy to have him blog for TechCrunch from time to time—gratis, naturally. (Arrington called this a “public execution.”) “It’s so black and white, so simple,” purrs Huffington. “I don’t think there is any journalist on this or any other planet that wouldn’t question having someone run a V.C. fund and also being the editor of a site that is covering start-ups.” She also denies that there was a power struggle with Armstrong over Arrington’s fate. “That’s just not the case,” she says.