They don’t make media barons the way they used to. Therefore it was especially sad to see Arianna Huffington, who was on the way to becoming the first baroness of the new media, sell out to AOL.
In America, one had hoped that she was following in the footsteps of William Randolph Hearst (many newspapers), Joseph Pulitzer (The World), Henry Luce (Time) and Katharine Graham (The Washington Post). In Britain, those who favored the right party were often made peers: Lord Beaverbrook (Daily Express); Lord Rothermere (Daily Mirror); and Churchill’s Irish buddy, Brendan Bracken (Financial Times).
None of these masters of their universes would have sold: They owned media to make money, to scale society, to dictate to politicians, to wield power over everything that interested them, and to have fun. A.J. Liebling’s declaration that the freedom of the press belonged those who owned the presses was not only agreeable to these magnates, but they also reveled in it.
Hearst tried to make himself president and his mistress, Marion Davies, a film star. In these he failed, but he was able to make a national figure of a young preacher: Billy Graham.
Luce, who was born in China, obsessed over the communist triumph there and sought out communism worldwide. He rewarded and punished with the use of his greatest weapon: the cover story.
Graham liked to drop in on world leaders for what she felt were state visits.
Beaverbrook tried to prop up the British Empire in honor of his native Canada: and Rothermere liked to prop up a vision of England of the kind projected in “Brideshead Revisited.”
Today there is a press baron who meets the high standards of global pretensions and influence, and who thinks newspapers are for the purpose advancing his agenda alone. He is, of course, Rupert Murdoch, and he shakes the earth when he walks in Australia, Britain and the United States. He has eclipsed the others by buying into television (Fox) and treating it as a partisan newspaper.
Even so, Huffington had promise. She has the obligatory ego and a fine sense of her own correctness, which has enabled her to switch from right to left — and now, it would seem, to the middle. She craves high office, having run for governor of California and lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger. She has shown a clear propensity for collecting influential friends, which began when she was the first woman, and the first Greek, to head the Cambridge Union.
And Huffington knows how to make money. She founded the Huffington Post, which is the first Internet publication to make money and to do so without a rich consort, like Slate, founded by Microsoft and now owned by The Washington Post, or The Daily Beast, now owned by billionaire Sidney Harman who, at age 92, wants to enjoy the non-economic benefits of journalism.
Huffington started the Huffington Post as a liberal counter to the conservative Drudge Report. Soon it was a success in its own right, and vastly different from the Drudge Report in scale and impact.
Although shapeless and lacking a clear mission, the Huffington Post pointed the way to the future: a pure Internet play that was breaking into profitability and creating a business model for the future. Now she has sold it for just $315 million and an amorphous job.
One had hoped that the Huffington Post, having broken with the pack in acceptance and revenue, was going to become the first Internet news thing that was going to accumulate enough wealth to do the expensive news coverage that is still done only by newspapers: cover wars and revolutions, business and finance, homemaking and education, and the machinations of politicians and their paymasters.
Alas she has sold out to AOL, which is dabbling in localized coverage, the Patches, and many rifle-shot national titles, like Politics Daily. The way they are going will lead to scattered effort, uneven quality and a managerial nightmare.
The newsletter industry learned all about the problems of too many titles: none made enough money to stand alone, and many were impossible to discipline. (This writer published newsletters for 33 years.)
Poor Arianna. The highest-flying Greek since Icarus, they say, has fallen to earth before she could become the first Colossus of the Internet.