Ever since AOL bought the Huffington Post in February, 2011, I've been regularly asked if I've seen any change. For the longest time I said no, it was still largely the same. But that's no longer true. Over the past year there have been some small, but noticeable difference, and within the past 2-3 months the changes have been significant. As the site expanded in some interesting ways (including starting its HuffPost Live division, and numerous local and international sections), it has unquestionably become far more corporate and protective, becoming less willing to be as out front as it was when it created its brand.
This isn't to mean it's become worse or better, that's personal taste. But it's definitely different.
Once upon a time, bloggers on the Huffington Post published their pieces directly. It was fast and fluid and gave the site a jump on major media for content and interaction. Now, every piece has to be approved first by an editor before it can be posted. Such a change is very reasonable, it's just slowed the process, which can now be sluggish in the otherwise immediacy of the Internet. It now, for instance, includes having to wait for the Blog Team to fix a typo, rather than authors quickly making the correction themselves. Again, understandable, but a heavy-handed and turtle-slow way of handling things for the speed-eating online world, especially if a story is breaking. Yet even something this simple has now changed with an added corporate layer: within the past month, when sending in a typo request, one as simple as changing verb tense, you today get back a reply that "We'll send this to an editor for approval." Correcting typos has now been removed from the basic responsibilities of the Blog Team.
Indeed, far-more notable controls have been added in recent months.
Now, for example, before a piece be be posted, a window pops up requiring the writer to check a box, accepting the rules and conditions of the Huffington Post. It's a small matter, and s nothing wrong with making sure all bloggers accept the rules --- but a) that check-box never existed before, and b) more to the point, it clearly suggests the new, corporate structure. After all, such rules already exist on each blogger's private page, noting that "you agree that the terms set out below," Requiring it be done manually every single time seems far more like a corporate lawyer has gotten involved to invoke a layer of protective overkill.
Mostly, though, within the post few months, it's been clear that what is "acceptable" for publication content has changed -- drastically. Up until recently, speaking just personally, I'd say that about 98% of what I've written for the Huffington Post (over 700 pieces) have been made Featured Articles. But in the last month alone, I've had two articles not just "not Featured," but refused publication, period.
Both were harsh. But both were even-handed, fair, and well-documented, and also, I believed, on important subjects. And both, I'm certain would have been posted pre-AOL, even if it meant in slightly edited form.
The first was an admittedly blistering piece here about Sarah Palin. While I thoroughly disagree with the decision to not even post it on my own, personal section, regardless of not being Featured, I can at least understand why policies might have changed to take that action -- it was extremely harsh. Yet the article give reasons and evidence and hyperlinks to back up all its assertions, It was supportable and defensible. More to the point: even if one is understanding of the publication's position to not post it, less-understandable is that it was never offered to be rewritten, something always done pre-AOL. The problematic passage would simply be changed, and the harsh article would be published, just slightly less-biting. But the voice was there. Mind you, much of this is just a guess -- no reason was given why it was blocked. And that's a change, too, from the earlier openness and transparency.
What points far more to the changes in policy, though, is my article here last Wednesday, which is far more inexplicable. That's because I truly have zero idea why it wasn't published. Not even a reasonable guess.
Again, the article was very critical – though I've been writing exceedingly critical articles for seven years on the Huffington Post. This new article took a columnist from the Chicago Tribune to task for what was just a clear, right-wing meltdown rant against Barack Obama, the columnist spending the last 24 paragraphs calling the president a liar. I dissected the piece and connected it to right wing media in general. And it was rejected.
It wasn't pushed down to just their local Chicago page. It wasn't simply buried in my blog section alone. Just flat turned down. I wish I could tell you why. But I sent numerous emails to a wide range of staff and editors simply asking what the problem was with the article so that I don’t repeat the issue -- and each time, I also kept offering to rewrite it. But I got zero answers.
None of this was the procedure before AOL took over. There was always a good, open rapport with editors. I liked and respected the people I dealt with. I still do -- they're just having to deal with corporate changes imposed on them. (Okay, I'm not crazy about not getting replies to questions. But who knows, even that might be policy today.)
To be clear, none of this is personal. I have an outlet right here and several other place to publish what I write. And I know others who've had pieces blocked, as well -- one of which seemed inoffensive in any way, written by a successful author having to do just with interpersonal relations -- though it did criticize a TV show.
The issue is not me being blocked, or others. That's any publication's right. The issue too isn't that readers are unaware of what's being blocked -- readers of everything never have a clue what policies are in place behind the scenes, where such things always reside. The larger matter at play is that, in doing so, the ground is being ceded to the far right.
The Huffington Post is a leading voice of liberal opinion. And at times an impressive one. However, in allowing conservative media to, for one example, call the President of the United States a Nazi, socialist, Kenyan, terrorist traitor, or to spend 24 paragraphs of a column calling the president a liar -- and to not allow refutation or response, then you are leaving the demeaning slurs to go unanswered. And as a result, they become the standard on which discussion starts.
To be clear, the Huffington Post still provides sharp and critical commentary. It still is a good outlet for a good range of thought. Often a very good outlet. If they still don't unfortunately pay for bloggers, that's unfortunate, but a decision everyone there makes whether to write or not. It's a strong, important news and information site, and looks to get even stronger. But...its policies have clearly changed since AOL took the company over. All things change. And when a corporation pays $400 million to buy something, you have to expect them to put their imprint on it. And you have to expect them to protect what is now a massive investment. That's understandable, and it's understandable that they'll make changes. It's just that these changes seem far more corporate and much more carefully and unnecessarily protective than I think are in the site's and readers' best interests. Whether those changes are for the better or not, that's another matter and in the eye of the beholder. Their opinion, no doubt, is very different.
But now, when people ask if the Huffington Post has changed after being bought by AOL, the answer is, "Yes."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor