But Will HuffPo Play in Peoria?
posted at 2:38 pm on February 8, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
The news that AOL has bought Huffington Post for $315 million is zorching around the infosphere at warp speed. Team HuffPo is to assume editorial supervision of AOL’s news and opinion content, and like Ed and others on the right, I’m skeptical. I think AOL has just laid another egg.
HuffPo certainly comes to the job with a well-known bias. No one expects “balanced” analysis or commentary at the flagship website. As Drudge and Townhall and Hot Air are known to be right-wing, HuffPo is known to be left. And HuffPo isn’t left in the way, say, Slate or The Atlantic’s online site is, with a certain circumspection and mellow human maturity. It’s the kind of site a lot of its readership will age out of, because of its essential humorlessness, its unrelenting adhan to indignation, and its chronic lack of perspective. It looks precisely as partisan and cranky to the right as Rush Limbaugh’s website looks to the left.
I agree with Ed’s suggestion that overlaying the HuffPo sensibility on AOL content will send subscribers scurrying for the competition. When it comes to packaging national and global news for a general audience – an audience that exists not because of the news content but because of the Internet service – think USA Today and the network morning shows. Think bland, treacly, top-40-ish: think the things HuffPo is not.
Media Research Center’s Tim Graham assembled this report on HuffPo’s history of immature, shock-value snark. But beyond that general pattern, HuffPo has an eye-opening penchant for anti-Israel bias and a bizarre tolerance for unmitigated hatred of Jews from its reader-commenters. To see just how unmitigated the hatred is, visit the compendium of examples in this report by Huff Watch from February 2010 (scroll down for the full effect, and be warned about the language). I can’t reproduce the comments here, nor would you want me to. But they were moderated – reviewed and accepted for posting on the site – by HuffPo.
An editorial perspective that accepts such vile postings, while kicking dissenting voices off the site (as many a Hot Air commenter has experienced), is not organized to be successful in brokering news and opinion for Middle America. It’s somewhat odd that AOL wanted to establish so close a connection to it – but, as Tom Blumer observes at Pajamas today, AOL’s track record was spotty to begin with.
There’s another interesting aspect of the AOL purchase, laid out by blogger Yid with Lid. One of the AOL properties of which HuffPo will have editorial supervision is Patch.com, where interested bloggers contribute to local community websites. The Yid (Jeff Dunetz) points out that Arianna Huffington has already targeted Patch.com, with its promise of a narrow but deep local focus, as a means of affecting the 2012 election.
This is a superb point and something that bears close watching. My own opinion, after visiting a number of the existing Patch.com sites, is that Patch.com may well be the shoals on which HuffPo founders. There’s charm and interest in the Patch.com sites today, the kind that come from general appeal and an upbeat vibe coupled with local photos and local names. People write about the best places to go for day hikes; they post pictures of beloved dead trees and of rescue cats needing good homes. If something weird happens at a school, they provide ungrammatical on-site reports with amateur photos of parents standing around across the street, waiting for school authorities to tell them something. The local advertising is sweetly primitive: “Christian handyman, reasonable rates, call Phil.” “Animal Chiropractor. Anything with a spine!” “Suzy’s handmade quilts. Thursdays 10-2.” “Model airplane club meets at the bandstand 2nd Sat each month. 8 AM. Come fly with us.”
By some lights an Onion satire waiting to happen, Patch.com can’t be HuffPo-ized. People don’t want a general-interest community website with the HuffPo vibe. No matter who or where you are, the angry, crazy people are somewhere else – they’re not you. That’s not your life, that’s politics and world news, and your back yard is a whole separate thing, a place where you’re happy and you want more reasons to be.
Patch.com, the idea, is a sound concept, but I don’t think HuffPo can run it successfully. Non-combative kindliness, generosity of spirit, tolerance, sympathy and sentiment – these things can’t be simulated or tactically deployed. People will recognize it immediately if they’re not genuine. They’ll detect the unflattering, top-lit twilight descending over “community news” presented in a systematically biased manner – and they’ll give up on the websites.
Some things don’t translate. HuffPo’s audience is self-selecting and happy with the product. But the editorial energumen won’t play in Peoria.
Update: Yid with Lid has an update today on Arianna Huffington’s intentions with Patch.com, which she characterizes as “Jeffersonian.” He mentions that a regular columnist for AOL’s Politics Daily is leaving, basically to avoid the left-wing editorial bias of the new management.
For visitors to the Huff Watch website, I also recommend viewing the introductory summary for the 2010 report linked above, which is a good read with some additional, conveniently placed links.