Big Surprise Here: AOL Is Bungling Its HuffPo Integration

Last Updated May 26, 2011 4:10 PM EDT

Some long-time Huffington Post (AOL) staffers have headed off into the editorial sunset. Style page editor Anya Strzemien went to XOJane.com. Business editor Ryan McCarthy will head to Reuters. And former managing editor Jai Singh is now editor-in-chief at Yahoo (YHOO), a place where more people seem intent on leaving than arriving.

According to Glynnis MacNicol in Business Insider, some current staff and/or dearly departed have bad-mouthed the organization's changes since AOL acquired the site and Arianna Huffington became the doyenne of editorial. Adjectives describing the current atmosphere include "brutal" and "awful."

None of this is particularly surprising. Young New Media staffers from a successful start-up go to work for a Big Corporation that then hired them new bosses from Old Media. It's enough to make you think that no one appreciated how they had reinvented news!

More seriously, mergers and acquisitions always require significant work to make two cultures get along. AOL management, however, has shown itself tone-deaf to personnel issues over the last few months and distracted by the need to make more money fast to pay for this desperate move to remain relevant.

Business is a four letter word
No acquisition is easy. One of the more difficult tasks is taking people who used to be in charge of an area and effectively demoting them, even if their title, pay, and benefits remain the same. Many long-standing HuffPo staffers are on their first or second job. Credit for helping to reshape an industry is a heady thing at any age, and finding yourself working for The Man can be a letdown, especially when, as is true for a number of HuffPo vets, your job and a political cause -- creating the progressive equivalent of the Drudge Report -- were one in the same.

Hiring people from such mainstream media organizations as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek only complicated matters. These were from the very organizations that Huffington sharply criticized as having the "disorder of attention deficit disorder" in a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in 2008:

She advocated for media with a point of view, but one that doesn't "sell independence for access" or protect those who they favor. She said her site, The Huffington Post, has expanded to become an online newspaper and prides itself on breaking news, just like the old media does.
It's tough when the very people your organization has dismissed as selling out are suddenly your bosses.

Zagged instead of zigged
HuffPo and AOL should have seen this coming and defused the predictable conflicts early. But, if MacNicol's report is correct, they leaned into the punch instead:

One person we spoke to noted that the shift in power structure was immediately noticeable. When the newly formed Huffington Post Media Group moved into Aol HQ at Broadway and 9th we're told all the glass offices were given to newly hired New York Times reporters while the HuffPo employees -- "the people who made the $315 million for her" -- remained on the open floor.

Another insider, however, tells us the set up was intended to keep the office layout for HuffPost people similar to the open seating "news room" configuration at the former SoHo office.

Either way the role the New York Times appears to be playing in the new HuffPo Media Group can't be understated. By the sounds of it there are three competing cultures at HuffPo now: Aol, HuffPo, and the New York Times.

Given that HuffPo has hired journalists from a number of major traditional media outlets, it does seem odd that the complaints only mention the New York Times. (What, does Howard Fineman not even rate a cubicle?) You can also see that journalists used to a certain degree of respect and deference wouldn't have joined HuffPo to relive their cub reporter pasts.

However, this isn't an incident in isolation:

Company executives could badly use help in addressing a cultural divide and creating processes that will work for the new organization. And that is about as likely to happen as Huffington hiring Matt Drudge.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.