Fleeing Executives Point to a Deep Divide at AOL

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The tech world leaned forward on Wednesday evening when Michael Arrington — the TechCrunch founder who boisterously departed AOL after a spat with Arianna Huffington — warned on Twitter of "some very bad news about AOL." For most observers of the AOL soap opera, the news that broke about an hour after Arrington's ominous tweet was something of a letdown: "[AOL's President of Commerce and Applications] Brad Garlinghouse Is Quitting AOL," Arrington tweeted next. On Thursday, Jeff Bercovici at Forbes put it into perspective with some simple math: over half of AOL's top executives have left the company in the past six months. The departure of Garlinghouse, who ran AOL's Silicon Valley office, also pointed at some deep-seated problems at the company. Bercovici explains:

Garlinghouse’s departure is especially noteworthy for a couple reasons. One has to do with why and how he did it: According to the Business Insider, Garlinghouse is "frustrated that AOL has been reduced to playing defense and is not paying attention to some of the great product work his team was doing." Om Malik says Garlinghouse felt his division, which includes mobile products, was losing out in a corporate battle for resources to the media side, meaning the Huffington Post and Patch.

The extent of the media division's internal dominance is unclear, but even with more resources, there are signs of shuffling at Huffington Post Media Group, too. On Tuesday, Bercovici also reported that HuffPost's long-time chief technology officer and "tech wizard" Paul Berry was taking a step back from day-to-day operations. In noting the other recent executive departures, Bercovici added, "Despite rumors that this actually represents a stealth exit for Berry, the spokesman insists he will remain with the Huffington Post Media Group as a full-time employee." Without knowing much about Berry's new role, the step back is noteworthy as Berry was widely considered to be an MVP, one of HuffPost's "chief assets," to borrow a phrase from Peter Kafka at AllThingsD.

The movement in the upper echelons of staff also supports the thesis that AOL is still struggling with the HuffPost integration. Before news of Garlinghouse's departure, Capital New York's Joe Pompeo published a sprawling retrospective report on the progress of the merger. The piece is largely complimentary of HuffPost, especially Tim O'Brien and Peter Goodman, both of whom HuffPost poached from The New York Times about a year ago, but it's smacks of apprehension when discussing the bigger picture:

Almost nine months later, the professionalization of The Huffington Post is still very much a work in progress. A mammoth undertaking before the AOL deal was a glimmer in Huffington's eye, the merger only made it bigger. On one hand, the merger provided The Huffington Post with a massive infusion of capital with which to become a respected and highly competitive journalism operation. On the other hand, it created a herculean task: To dismantle and reassemble both organizations into a coherent whole.

The nugget in Pompeo's piece addresses the is easy to miss though. In recounting a company wide meeting, he highlights a moment that speaks volumes of a split within the Huffington Post itself, a dissonance between the tech and editorial teams about the site's  basic principles. Describing the end of a pep talk from Goodman, Pompeo writes:

The upshot, according to insiders familiar with the meeting, was that traffic is not the most important thing, and that page views should be earned by producing content that is trustworthy and compelling, not merely sensational.

But then Huffington Post’s chief technology officer, Paul Berry, who was running late, and had therefore missed Goodman’s speech, showed up and put in his two cents: Traffic is the most important thing.

He explained that if a story gets a lot of page views that means it’s good: Quality and clicks correlate directly. Goodman listened from the sidelines without interrupting. It was awkward.

It's been easy to take swipes at AOL over the past six months. With the company's stock struggling, analysts have been speculating all year that the company might need to dismantle itself and sell of the parts in order to survive. Bercovici, a former AOL employee himself, nevertheless writes about the recent executive moves in a seriously foreboding tone, especially Berry's. "If all the innovation is supposedly taking place on the media side," he writes, "but the guy driving that innovation is pulling back, what does that mean?" We'll have to wait and see.

(Disclosure: I worked as an editor for the Huffington Post beginning in early 2009 and left at end of 2010, before the AOL merger.)

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