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Can Huffington Post Management Scale To Run AOL?

AOL Moviefone editor-in-chief Patricia Chui was fired yesterday, according to Kara Swisher at All Thing Digital. BNET sources confirmed the rumor. Ostensibly, Chui lost her job over saying the wrong thing at the wrong time: getting into a public urination contest with TechCrunch, the high-profile tech site that AOL bought last fall and then telling her section's freelance writers that most will stop getting checks but were "invited" to write for free.

While Chui has temporarily become the narrative, the real story is the public difficulty AOL has with remaking itself in the image of Arianna Huffington. Restructuring a business is always tough. People have to change habits, many associated with the previous regime find themselves on the street, and those who arrive have an agenda to prove their worth.

Huffington wants to bring a management style she used with an editorial staff of under 150. But now there are nearly 1300. What works in a small business rarely scales to a much larger organization. And when a company can't even clearly communicate its policies, it's a bad sign ... particularly when the company is in the communications business.

The Chui chronicles
To set the stage for what happened, here's a recap of the Moviefone-TechCrunch spat:

  1. Alexia Tsotsis at TechCrunch wrote a critique about the social media campaign for an upcoming Jake Gyllenhaal movie called Source Code.
  2. Summit Entertainment, which produced the movie, contacted Moviefone because its executives found the Tsotsis piece "snarky."
  3. Someone from Moviefone wrote Tsotsis asking if it were possible for her to tone down the snark at all. Outrage being mother to easily-written blog posts, Tsotsis publicly attacked AOL on TechCrunch and apparently added some bolding in the original email without indicating that it was hers.
  4. Chui defended the Moviefone staffer and the site's own editorial integrity in a public blog post.
  5. TechCrunch's Paul Carr addressed the situation in another public blog post, writing that Tsotsis was "unsurprisingly outraged," but that she should have addressed Moviefone, not the entirety of AOL. Oh, and adding that Chui should either "resign in shame" or be fired.
Before stomping in the next mud puddleat AOL, let's take a quick sanity break. Do people who write about movies -- not just movie criticism -- find themselves beholden to the studios? Yup, and anyone who has worked in the media for any extended time knows that. Should Moviefone have suggested that a writer at another site consider altering a story to make a studio happy? Nope. Has TechCrunch, which often mentions ethics in its stories, had its own ethical lapses, like failing to mention its own conflicts of interests? Yup.

But the Holier Than Thou Hell Hounds were off the leash, and in public, no less. It was the sort of spat that should never have moved beyond the walls of the company, and that alone says plenty about the current state of the organization. Although Arianna Huffington was already in charge, the inclination of both sides to see themselves as separate from a company undoubtedly predated her. Still, it was a huge cultural issue for AOL.

It depends on the meaning of free
There were already tensions over the AOL-HuffPo hook-up. Top editors from Engadget left the company. And starting with the initial meetings, many freelancers found AOL's plans impossible to follow, according to my sources. Communications were confused, contradictory, and unclear.

And then, on April 4th, Business Insider ran a note from a former AOL business freelancer, who complained about a "schizophrenic" process of transition between freelance and staff work, and who also wrote, "But we have been invited to continue contributing for free."

Many in the media, particularly freelancers, went nuts. The story played into every fear about Huffington wanting free work. Suddenly it was damage control time. AOL business-and-finance editor Peter Goodman emailed a response to BI. But while he emphasized that AOL was transitioning from freelance to staff work, he never said anywhere that freelancers had not been invited to continue contributing for free. When I contacted AOL about freelancers being asked to continue offering free contributions, the company pointed to Goodman's piece as its official response.

Hoo boy. And then the next day, Chui sent a status message to her freelancers that landed in the inbox of BetaBeat, including the following:

You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system; and though I know that for many of you this will not be an option financially, I strongly encourage you to consider it if you'd like to keep writing for us, because we value all of your voices and input.
Really, Chui should have had a clue from the previous day's fiasco. And yet, remember, Goodman never refuted the point that AOL had invited freelancers to keep writing for free. Chui's follow-up email that she never meant to say that they were being asked to write for free sounded like someone taking dictation in hopes of keeping her job.

Unscaled management
Although AOL has been working hard to spin all this as Chui's misunderstanding of what was clear in the company, let's get real. The same message goes from two different editors to two different sets of freelancers. Either the official line was to invite freebies from former freelancers, at least until the public fire bath, or internal communications are so garbled that two high-ranking editors could walk away with the identical impression. However, AOL wanted to cover its corporate posterior, and so Chui walked the plank.

Mixed messages have been common at AOL. First, there was the "AOL Way" â€" CEO Tim Armstrong's media-as-directed-by-SEO-metric approach. Then, immediately after, came the Huffington Post acquisition and the "we do journalism" message. But there is considerable conflict between journalism and brand marketing in the organization. People are getting their wires crossed? It would be surprising if they didn't, given the circumstances and existing culture.

And that brings us back to Arianna Huffington's preferred management style. The Wall Street Journal quotes her as saying that good management principles are the same at any size company:

You develop connections and relationships. Then you send quick emails or pick up the phone or meet with people and it's constant.
But that isn't true. A manager needs formal mechanisms to ensure that the right message accurately arrives at everyone's desk. Eventually, the personal control approach -- running things as though the organization was still a 2005 start-up -- breaks down. We're seeing the first signs of it. The question is whether Huffington and Armstrong will recognize the problem and correct it.

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Image: morgueFile user cohdra.
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