Huffington Post Sale Shows New Generation of Leaders Emerging

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Today’s announcement that the Huffington Post has been sold to AOL represents more than just another startup-makes-good story.

Sure, its founders, including my former boss Ken Lerer, are walking away with $315 million, which is certainly a nice payday for a 6-year-old investment. But more importantly, it ushers in an era in which we’ll begin to see an entirely new set of leaders in the news media world.

Some of the old guard may certainly survive to remain leaders in this new era, brands like The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Time and NPR. If they do, though, it seems to me they’ll need to evolve well beyond offering up existing content on the web and on mobile devices. The Huffington Post, with its mix of aggregated news content and well-known bloggers, brings a new twist to news media that clearly has found an audience.

Actually, it’s surprising to me that none of the traditional leaders in news have followed the Huffington Post’s lead and adopted a model that includes more bloggers from outside their journalist ranks. Maybe the deal announced today will push them in that direction. Maybe not.

The important point to my mind is the news media ecosystem is starting to demonstrate who the fittest are, and this gives us a clue about where the rest need to go. New, we can watch with interest to see if they get there.

Newspapers, TV News Need Better Presentation

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I just can’t explain it. In an article I read this morning, Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, has some critical words for the Huffington Post and other news aggregators.

“Though they purport to be a new form of journalism, these aggregators are primarily parasites living off journalism produced by others,” said Downie, who edited the Washington Post for 17 years until 2008 and is now the paper’s vice-president at large.

Now, hang on a second. The reason the Huffington Post — which I happen to like and read almost every day — is so popular is because it uses the same content everyone else has? If so, why aren’t the folks who create this content in the first place equally successful?

The problem isn’t the news-gathering process. It’s the process of presenting the news. Let me explain.

Newswriting is boring. Staid. Old-fashioned. Dull. In fact, it’s downright snooze producing.

TV news? Same. Anchors and reporters in suits and ties, standing outside buildings where news happened hours ago telling us what has already occurred.

These journalism models were successful in another era — an era when there weren’t competitors that were doing anything differently. But today, we have all sorts of voices presenting the news in interesting ways.

In case Downie missed this fact, the Huffington Post has all manner of bloggers who provide original opinions on the news of the day. It does run wire-service news and photos, but doesn’t The Washington Post do the same? Seems a little hypocritical to me…

One thing Downie said that I completely agree with is the following:

“The best journalism being produced now –- thanks to the same forces of change that have so disrupted the old order -– is arguably better than ever.”

“Journalists can gather news and information much more widely and deeply on the internet. They can update and supplement their reporting continuously on blogs and social media – and they can have their reporting enriched and fact-checked by their audiences.”

Indeed, the news reporting that is taking place today is superior to what we had just a decade ago. It is faster and more complete. The only problem: It is being written and presented in a style that has changed little in the past 30 years.

I really think before news executives go out and criticize the new generation of online news providers, they ought to take a look at their own houses. Are the “parasites” to blame for their woes — or their own, staid products?