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AOL trumps mainstream media with Huffington Post deal

Pete Cashmore
AOL is now well positioned to embrace the future of online news, Pete Cashmore says.
AOL is now well positioned to embrace the future of online news, Pete Cashmore says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • AOL's $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post is a bold bet on the Web's potential
  • Once thought to be a dying dial-up business, AOL now may help define the future of news
  • Huffington Post is just behind The New York Times in terms of Web traffic
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(CNN) -- With its $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post this week, a company best known for distributing free CDs has succeeded where mainstream media outlets failed: Spotting the potential of one of the Web's fastest growing media brands.

AOL, widely thought to be the imminent victim of a dying Internet dial-up business, now owns a property that may help define the future of news.

How big is The Huffington Post, exactly? A recent report from The Street put the upstart media company just behind The New York Times in terms of web traffic -- and set to overtake The Gray Lady. The Times started in 1851; The Huffington Post began in 2005.

Perhaps it's The Huffington Post's relative youth that's stimulated such derision among media executives. Rapidly changing markets are easily dismissed as fads until it's too late.

Is it pride, perhaps, that's prevented many of the leading media brands from experimenting with aggregation, populist content and a blogging community that may at times appear amateurish?

Is it a fear of the unknown, or of irreparably damaging a brand built up over decades (and in some cases, more than a century)? Or a compulsion to serve up the news we need to know, rather than the news we want?

Perhaps it's simply that the news media, comforted for years by the defensibility of its distribution channels -- ordinary citizens couldn't afford a printing press or start a television channel -- has been slow to mobilize in response to the threat of a million niche blogs and thousands of new ways to discover, parse, aggregate and reorganize the news.

Whatever the cause, the market has spoken. The Huffington Post and rivals like Gawker Media are racking up the page views as older -- and supposedly wiser -- brands find this rapid growth evasive.

But the signal is clear and startling. A $315 million Web property is no longer a blog. It's a fully fledged modern media company. The effect, I think, will be to shock the news media into action.

Not only will we see a rapid consolidation of the industry as the old guard seeks to buy or merge its way into this emergent online market (see also: the Newsweek-Daily Beast merger), but we'll see increased investment in those upstarts that choose to go it alone.

Most of all, I hope we'll see a news industry more willing to embrace risk, experimentation and occasional failures -- or face losing the war to a former dial-up provider with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pete Cashmore.

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