On a recent Sunday afternoon, Arianna Huffington, the 61-year-old editorial director of the newly merged AOL–Huffington Post, gathers a group of children around her on a white rug, reading a series of stories. Her outfit—tuxedo jacket, sensible pants, hair lightened to the color of Donald Trump’s and with a similarly distinctive swirl—is a little more formal than the event, a spa open to the public, calls for today, but in every other way this “oasis,” as she puts it, is a reflection of Huffington’s habits: a “cell-phone check” at a concierge desk (a sign encourages guests to “give your phone a boost while you unplug inside”), blue yoga mats rolled up in a bin (“I do yoga every morning”), a chef making smoothies with names like You’ve Got the Beet, and a buffet with Greek yogurt—“the best in the world,” she explains, pushing it forward. “Eat. My mother used to say if you didn’t eat every twenty minutes, there was something wrong with you.”
Even the books that Huffington has selected for her reading session mirror her adult concerns—there’s Goodnight Moon; Stop Snoring, Bernard!;and a heap of others on the theme of sleep, a topic on which she can hold forth at length (and, indeed, she encourages her writers to file stories on sleep, such as “What Your Sleep Position Says About You” and “The Lost Art of Dreaming”). “Since I moved from L.A., I find the noise of New York City is great during the day, but it’s difficult to disconnect,” she says. “Sometimes, I have to sleep with my Bose headphones on.” She’s never taken sleeping pills and conks out on planes as long as she has “my kit, my socks, my music, which comes from MTV founder Tom Freston—he has made me the best playlist, which gives me so much joy.”
Huffington turns her considerable charisma on the children at her feet. “Who likes to nap?” she asks. “You know, in the AOL–Huffington Post offices we have two nap rooms, and grown-up people like me can even go in in the middle of the day and take a nap, and then they can come out recharged and ready to play hard.”
The kids look confused.
“Tell me, why do you like to go to sleep?” she says, turning to a curly-headed kid in a sweatshirt.
“Because I can dream that I’m in a magical land,” he says.
“And what’s in that magical land?” asks Huffington.
“Fantastic,” she says, smiling widely. “I think we should all do that tonight—dream of a magical land with happy stuff.”
For Huffington, who, on the one hand, serves as a glittery Earth Mother and, on the other, is the world’s best bullshit artist, with stagehands and pulleys at work in conversation (although, oddly, she remains intensely enjoyable to be around), AOL is in some respects a “magical land.” The company has allowed her access to corporate funding for the Huffington Post website, and she seems to believe her new perch will recast her from a protean self-reinventionist—at various times a Greek immigrant, New York socialite, New Age proponent, political wife, California gubernatorial candidate, and on and on—into something more solid: the Rupert Murdoch of the digital age, helming the world’s most influential “Internet newspaper,” as the Huffington Post is called.
The domination of news is clearly her goal, even news as defined as a mix of aggregation, original content, and unapologetic linkbait (stories like “What Time Does the Super Bowl Start?” or “Sex With Animals Can Lead to Penis Cancer: Study”), but in a way journalism is a cover for her larger gifts, which are as a cultural magician. Would Rupert Murdoch lock eyes with a reporter and say that, in addition to sleep, “I think that the next big thing is going to be disconnecting,” as Huffington does? “We need to create a ‘GPS for the soul’ app, one that will let us know when we’re off course,” she says. “This will be a bigger and bigger part of our lives in the future, I think.”
The squirming kids are soon quieted by the rhythmic purr of her voice going up and down, down and up, as she reads a couple of books in rapid succession, then announces, “Who wants to come with me to get a blueberry smoothie?” A small cup in hand, she drifts to a massage room, where an assistant hands out aromatherapy patches (“Put it on your skin, and it will transform your day”), and lumpen figures relax under billowing white curtains. “You know, I set up an oasis once before, at the Democratic convention in 2008,” says Huffington. “We had some bloggers come by, and Charlie Rose, for yoga and mini-facials. But it was nothing like this!” She laughs. “No, no. Back then I didn’t have the budget.”
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.”
The core of Huffington’s storytelling, and the ancient wellspring of her New Agey religiosity, is her Greek identity. To many, Huffington may seem impossibly exotic—the accent, the Cambridge pedigree, the compulsive socializing leavened by political pursuits—but she is a common character in the Greek-American community, easily spotted at Manhattan’s Upper East Side Cathedral: a wealthy, brassy, middle-aged Greek woman with lightened hair styled into a helmet and wrists heavy with diamond jewelry, perhaps overeducated at a good university but then expected by her family to lead a traditional Greek lifestyle, left to pour energy and considerable intellect into church-based philanthropy and the fierce, almost tribal protection of her brood. That Huffington was able to escape this trap and become a professional sensation is to her credit, but she is still a proud Greek, one who would never express misgivings about the country to outsiders. “In Greece, if you go to Syntagma Square [the center of the protests], it’s just amazing—people coming together, discussing even mundane things like what the system will be for clearing trash,” she says. “When I’m in Athens, I stop by the square during the day and after dinner. It feels very much like what Athenian democracy must have been in the fifth century.”
For Huffington, like many Greeks, any wealth that she generates is shared with her family across generations, and she lived with her mother, who taught her yoga, meditation, and social grace as a teenager and whom she calls her “hero,” until her death a decade ago. Today, she lives in a modern floor-through in Chelsea with her sister Agapi, an author (with whom, she has said, “secrets are shared with absolute trust and tears shed in total vulnerability”), and intermittent visits from her two redheaded daughters, both of whom are undergraduates at Yale: Isabella, a painter studying modern Greek—“the language is her s’agapo [passionate love],” says Huffington—and Christina, an aspiring journalist. Huffington is known for hosting events constantly at her home in Brentwood (people like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban show up early, with expectant, eager faces, as if this were the passport to intellectual seriousness), but she hasn’t done much hosting at home in New York except for a happy hour for her AOL employees at the beginning of her tenure, where employees pinned on name tags. She’s looking to buy a place, but this apartment, a rental designed by Charles Gwathmey, has been fine for her. The public rooms, with their stainless-steel countertops and taupe couches in front of glass coffee tables, are neat, but a series of bedrooms are lived-in, and in one of her daughters’ rooms, orchids wilt on a dresser and delicate pieces of clothing are strewn on the bed like silly string.
Huffington puts on a kettle for tea (her cooking skills do not extend much further), as Christina bounces into the kitchen with a handbag slung over a shoulder. “She has most of my bags in New Haven now,” says Huffington, laughing. “And I think that’s my sweater.” Christina is off to work on a paper for an English class—“a literary analysis of a cookbook”—and Huffington gives her a kind of awed smile, as if everything she does tickles her. “I lost my first baby at 6 months, a stillbirth. Who knows why I lost it, but I was working so much,” she says, a pained look crossing her face. “Christina is my eldest. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who is not exactly your average woman having kids, told me that the next time I became pregnant, I should become like a cow. So at the end, I waited day after day for Christina to come at the Bel Air hotel. When I got into contractions, I was walking around in my muumuu trying to have gravity do its work, and Nancy Reagan was having lunch there.” She pours the tea. “I’m the opposite of a Tiger Mom,” she says. “My younger daughter always says she has to call Dad to tell him she got A’s, because I say, ‘Great, but if you get C’s too, fantastic.’ To me, a mother’s unconditional love is the most important thing you can give to a child.”
It’s a feat—Huffington’s characteristic gift—to aggregate childbirth, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Tiger Moms, a cow, Nancy Reagan, and unconditional love into one surprisingly intimate, seamless skein, and it makes spending time with Huffington a pleasure, even if interviews with her can be stultifying. There are no mistakes with Huffington when she knows she’s speaking on the record. She sticks to talking points in every conversation, and in a backstage greenroom at an event, I watched her solemnly concentrate on a series of blue notecards as a group of media folks gossiped about the events of the day, never raising her eyes.
Huffington’s brought the same rigor to the story of her life—it’s one of the world’s great yarns, probably the best ever spun by a woman in the media business (Barbara Walters and even Oprah have nothing on Huffington). She grew up middle class in Athens, the daughter of an unfaithful journalist, who was once incarcerated in a Nazi camp and divorced her mother by the time Huffington was a teenager. Her mother focused on making a better life, even moving to London so that Huffington could take entrance exams to Cambridge. There, Huffington was determined to excel, particularly in the debate society, eventually managing the extraordinary feat of becoming the president despite her accent and an evolving command of English. A publisher plucked her out of school to produce a set of counterintuitive essays on the women’s-rights movement (she came out against feminism, which must have been hard to pull off in 1973). The Female Woman, an example of a lifelong tin ear for titles, became a sensation, and she set off on a round-the-world book tour, followed by a large contract for a biography of Maria Callas (later, she was accused of plagiarism, settling a suit for “low five figures”) and another of Picasso (another author made a similar accusation, calling Huffington an “intellectual kleptomaniac”). Both books sold well.
Huffington assumed that she would soon be married. She directed a lot of energy toward wooing her first love, a columnist for the London Times, but he was a depressive who preferred cats to people. (“I love the detachment of cats,” he once wrote. “No cat ever gave its entire heart to a human being.”) At 30, after realizing the relationship was doomed, she moved to New York. It was the early eighties, she was living on the Upper East Side (“in an apartment with a gigantic foyer and bathrooms the size of ottomans,” she says), and she was quickly called a “socialite” by the press, a name she says she earned: “Lunches at Le Cirque, dances at the Metropolitan Museum, weekends in the Hamptons, and intimate black-tie dinners for 36.” Huffington tired of the social whirl after a few years, regarding striving New Yorkers as “hungry souls desperate to see their photographs in W or Town & Country—thus assuring them of new invitations in the morning … an addiction that hounded them, occasionally to their graves.”
Huffington’s counterpoint to this lifestyle was her longtime guru, John-Roger, a Mormon from Utah who fell into a nine-day coma in the sixties during routine surgery for a kidney stone, after which he found that a new personality (John) had taken over his old one (Roger). With a background in neurolinguistic programming and all manner of New Age frippery like walking on hot coals with Tony Robbins, Huffington began to think of herself as a guru as well, setting forth a simple, benign message in a self-help book she wrote in 1994: Each individual, she said, has a responsibility to rise above our “baby bawlings and mewlings” and connect with the good, compassionate side of ourselves, otherwise known as the soul or our “fourth instinct” (the first three are survival, power, and the sexual urge). “Worry is a form of atheism,” she has explained. “And so is most fear.” (Maureen Orth, in an explosive 1994 Vanity Fair story about Huffington, claimed that she received consulting payments, as much as $10,000 at one time, from John-Roger, perhaps in return for introducing him to her famous friends; Huffington denied this and, in fact, tells me that she tithes 10 percent of her income today to various charities, including those run by John-Roger.)
AOL had nothing to believe in for a decade, so it made sense to believe in Arianna, with her hypnotic power.
In the mid-eighties, Ann Getty introduced Arianna to the shy but handsome Texas oil heir Michael Huffington, and the two were quickly married. The couple moved to Santa Barbara, California, where they spent over $5 million so that he could become a congressman, then another $27.5 million to unseat Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein, losing by two points. (Michael Huffington, who was largely thought to be a paper doll dressed by his wife, gave few interviews during the campaigns.) Even as a Republican, Arianna didn’t go in for the dumb groupthink of David Broder and Sally Quinn or turn into a wealthy center-right Washington wife like Georgette Mosbacher—that was all too boring for her. She appeared on Newt Gingrich’s arm during the Contract With America days, but dumped him as his star began to fall, explaining that she was becoming disillusioned with the party. When asked about her switch to the Democratic Party, she says that she’s always been a social liberal and fiscal conservative.
Marriage wasn’t a panacea for Huffington, as the relationship ended in divorce, with her husband later publicly revealing that he was bisexual. “Arianna is probably the only woman in America who insists that her husband wasn’t gay before he met her,” says a friend. She does not want to remarry, and doesn’t seem to care much about love, which she may see as an obstacle to achieving her own dreams. Huffington loves to be around her girlfriends, and in fact one of her tricks is befriending the wives of rich and powerful men: Wendi Murdoch (Rupert’s wife), Kathy Freston (Tom’s wife), and Willow Bay (Bob Iger’s wife) are in her inner circle. Her best friend, though, is David Geffen, and the two have long been dates for each other at Hollywood events—he’s a fun gossip, self-effacing, and the only guy at the party without an agenda. Behind the scenes, Huffington will occasionally plot with him, but her influence in national politics on fund-raising, even in Los Angeles, is negligible. Her power is entirely based on her life in public.
AOL had nothing to believe in for a decade, so it made sense to believe in Arianna, with her narrative abilities and her hypnotic, cult-leader power. The corporate history of the company, of course, is particularly fraught. It was always predicated on a weedy premise: that one needed AOL, with its diskettes crammed in mailboxes like so many Crate & Barrel catalogues, to get online. With Steve Case, the Hawaiian-born AOL chief nicknamed “Vanilla Man,” at the helm, making enormous ad deals and taking pieces of companies like eBay, the price went up and up.
That, of course, set the stage for the most boneheaded acquisition in history, in which Time Warner, eager for a stake in the new-media universe, took 45 percent of a merged company that valued it at $83 billion and AOL at $164 billion—at the very top of the market. Time Warner has been trying to live down the acquisition ever since, and AOL has limped along with its blue-haired subscribers, a relic of a bubble that long ago burst.
The two companies could not co-exist, that much was clear, and by 2003, Time Warner axed AOL from its name, trying to put as much distance between them as possible. The obvious path out, linking AOL to Time Warner Cable so that AOL could move subscribers to broadband primarily, was rebuffed because Time Warner was already ramping up Road Runner service and didn’t want to be had twice. AOL could see the future of the web by now with broadband, platforms, and social media—everyone could—but it was marooned. “The culture of AOL became a restructuring every 90 days, a fire drill to do a new project, and then a change of mind and a rush for the next project,” says a former employee. “Nobody had a North Star. The narrative was always ‘We’re about to be successful.’ ”
Time Warner struggled to find a buyer for the company, but suitors were hard to come by. By 2009, it hit upon the idea of hiring Armstrong as CEO, the fifth head of the company in a decade. He had started his career by establishing a small local paper in Boston, a kind of tip sheet for recent graduates, but at a presentation for Mosaic’s first browser at MIT, he became an Internet convert on the spot. In 2000, he was offered a job by Google’s co-founders as the U.S. sales chief for the company, which he accepted on the condition that he didn’t have to move from New York. For years, he ran Google’s advertising department out of his 900-square-foot apartment on 86th Street and Columbus Avenue, holding meetings at a Starbucks. He eventually built a direct-sales force of over 2,000, amassing what is thought to be a $500 million personal fortune in the process.
Armstrong has said that he didn’t have a specific vision for AOL when he was appointed, choosing to embark on a listening tour of employees in sixteen cities. Other tech companies were focused on killer apps, but AOL didn’t have any technological special sauce. The path out of the wilderness, he decided, was content, a grand journalistic experiment, in fact. Local journalism is a kind of white whale of the industry, but he believed he had the answers with Patch’s local service, a side project he had personally developed.
Armstrong began replacing management and set up an algorithm-based content system called Seed, but the company still seemed to be lurching around with no clear strategy, and hemorrhaging money. Within a year, AOL needed to fire 2,500 employees.
Then Armstrong reshuffled his editorial team, bringing in a former management guy at Google to remake AOL’s content business . Alongside a former McKinsey consultant, he implemented a vision of journalism as widgets. “They literally didn’t believe in the concept of editors, thought they were an unnecessary expense,” says a source. At one point, there was a corporate goal of producing 100,000 pieces of content a month.
Soon, the team was shown the highway, and Armstrong announced that he was buying the Huffington Post—essentially, he wanted to replace the central brain of AOL media, one that wasn’t working well, with one that was. HuffPo, started in 2005 as the left’s answer to the Drudge Report and composed largely of unpaid posts from celebrities and other name brands, had turned to news aggregation, becoming an online tabloid that was a kind of cousin of The Daily Show. It was one of the web’s biggest successes: Its metrics kept going up and up, with over 100,000 comments a day, bringing the total to over 100 million comments since founding.
“For our macro, go-forward AOL corporate strategy and the future of where we think the Internet’s going, the Huffington Post was a plug-in that fit multiple strategy points for us,” says Armstrong, speaking in the patois of his industry. He mentions the brand’s power with commerce, women, and influencers. “Brands are the invisible hand of the urbanization of the web,” he says. “It goes back to Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations—these brands are helping people live better and more enjoyable lives.”
Huffington was interested in selling her company, even if her board was not. “Our plan until we heard from Tim was to continue growing HuffPo and do an IPO,” she says. “But I felt this was an incredible opportunity to accelerate the plan.”
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.
While her ethics were clearly correct on this question, there were some in the business community who were unimpressed. Even her friend Barry Diller said, “You buy this company because it is absolutely the voice of a single person—primarily; there are some other people working for him—but it’s Michael Arrington’s voice. And you know when you buy it that voice is biased and mean, and capable of saying anything, and is playing 100 different games.” He pauses. “And then somebody calls you up and says, ‘I’m the editor-in-chief, and you can’t let him do that because he’s now in a conflict of interest,’ and instead of saying, ‘Shut up and go back to your room’ … So now they own this thing which has no voice. Congratulations. What a good piece of business.”
“You know, Barry sent me a very classy apology about that,” Huffington has said. “And what he said is that he did not have all the facts.”
Underneath Huffington’s smiling Earth Mother exterior, there can be a hardness. She sometimes could be heard saying things like “I’m disappointed in you—you’re weak” to employees. She can cry easily if she doesn’t get her way. Within a day of an argument, though, she disperses hugs and laughter again, explaining that she’s sorry to cause stress. After a staffer in her style department quit, she called the department into a conference room: “I want to go around the table and have everybody in here tell me what brings you the most joy,” she said. One person said, “Jackets”; another said, “Danish street style.” Armstrong eventually began to put up a fight about some of the site closures, but he was worried about confronting Huffington directly. According to a source, he even asked Desiree Gruber, a fearless publicist who represents Heidi Klum (AOL has recently done a deal with Klum for digital content and a new TV show), to accompany him to a meeting with Huffington about the fashion site Stylelist—a strong female to have his back against an even stronger one.
Armstrong is right to seek reinforcements, because Huffington has just about absorbed AOL—these days, you can barely see its outline. They have launched 21 new sections since the merger, like HuffPo Gay Voices and HuffPo Weddings. “What’s next, HuffPo Kickboxing?” Huffington jokes. “Maybe HuffPo HuffPo. That would be quite a site.” She’s launching in France soon, and it has been rumored that Anne Sinclair, the wife of DSK, will be running the operation. “I’m doing a science site now, called Talk Nerdy to Me, with video of a sexy, fun scientist—Bill Maher’s [ex-]girlfriend!” Some think Huffington’s title may soon catch up with her role. “I truly believe that Arianna is going to run AOL in the near future,” says Paul Carr, a technology blogger formerly with TechCrunch. “The AOL board is going to walk in one day, and she’s going to be sitting there, and they’re not going to know quite how it happened.”
The future of AOL, though, is unclear: Though Armstrong maintains Patch will be successful (“It’s a risk worth taking”), it’s currently losing about $140 million a year, and there are weekly stories in the business press about AOL breaking up the company. Top managers are leaving, fed up with Huffington’s power. “With the Huffington Post, AOL has all the pieces in place to achieve Tim’s vision, except maybe one: time,” says Saul Hansell, a former New York Times journalist who was at AOL for two years before becoming an entrepreneur at Betaworks, a New York venture firm. “I worry that impatience, either from investors or management, will force them to change plans again before they can learn how to take advantage of what they’ve got now.”
Armstrong has also been the subject of rumors that have him leaving to run against Senator Gillibrand. (“I’ve never considered public office,” says Armstrong. “I’m running probably the most public turnaround in the U.S. today, and enjoying it.”) Or maybe AOL will figure out a way to merge with Yahoo, which would make sense in terms of increasing scale and saving money by reducing duplicative services, but seems unlikely, since AOL has only 14 percent of the market cap of Yahoo. Armstrong denies this—“The only plan we have is to execute a big, broad media vision on a go-forward basis”—but wouldn’t it be delicious if Huffington could run the media operation for both sites?
The other night, at the Skylight Soho event space, she held a massive event for about a thousand well-wishers, to honor what she called this year’s “game changers.” The Occupy Wall Street protesters, who heard that Governor Cuomo would be in attendance, amassed outside to protest his failure to reinstate the millionaire’s tax, but cops told them to go across the street (“Can’t someone go in there and ask Arianna if we can stay on her rich liberal sidewalk tonight?” one man complained). It’s a bit sticky for Huffington, but she finesses it. “I feel absolutely fine that we are honoring Andrew Cuomo, and at the same time I share some of the protesters’ concerns,” she says later. “You know, we are doing a series on members of the one percent supporting the 99 percent, because at the heart of every social movement there have been people who are not direct beneficiaries, ranging from Abraham Lincoln, who was not going to benefit from the Emancipation Proclamation, to white students in civil-rights protests.”
In addition to honorees like her girlfriends (Ron Meyer’s wife, Kelly; De Niro’s wife, Grace Hightower; casino king Steve Wynn’s ex-wife, Elaine—who, to her credit, says, “I think I’m less a game changer than a hood ornament”), Huffington has wangled not only Andrew Cuomo but also his father, Mario, to come to the event, and even Kim Kardashian. She’s very excited about meeting Kardashian, and her voice trembles a little as she announces that “this woman has 10 million followers on Twitter, and so many jobs that she’s a one-woman jobs program!” Some attendees made speeches—Brian Williams sniped a little at her, like most old-media people do, about “Le Huffington Post” in France being another way that she can make “plus d’argent” from those among us, like him, who make “la content”—and afterward, Huffington taped some interviews. “You’ve had such an extraordinary career: What is the one thing that stands for you?” she asked Gayle King, who smirked a little and said, “One thing that stands out in my extraordinary career, huh?” Huffington recalibrated. “In the future,” she asked, “is there something that sticks out that will give you more joy?” King instantly softened. It works every time.
With this kind of fairy dust, Huffington is sure to succeed. Even if Huffington Post doesn’t manage to save AOL, she has plausible deniability, because everyone will believe that AOL is to blame. At the same time, the way out for her is not clear. Even if AOL manages a big sale to a company like Google, it’s not necessarily a victory—she’ll have to build herself a new life.
Then again, she’s done it before. “Everything I want to do, everything I care about, everything I may care about tomorrow but I don’t know that I care about today, I can do at AOL,” she tells me. “This is my last incarnation.”
But who would believe her?