Arianna Huffington at MapQuest party on "frivolous" blogger suit, "useful" Drudge design
Internet years are like dog years, which makes fifteen-year-old MapQuest more like 105. But this old dog can learn directions home if you believe Arianna Huffington, now a player in the old-money empire of AOL, which owns the company headquartered in LoDo. She talked about an absurd range of topics at our request.
Huffington, whose current title is president and EIC of the Huffington Post Media Group, was in Denver Monday night for what felt like a re-launch of the company, which by many accounts has been overshadowed like Alderaan by the Death Star that is Google Maps. But the tie-less execs in the roomy MapQuest offices (naturally, there was a DJ, playing Kanye and Jay-Z) at 1555 Blake Street stress thatthey are thinking like a start-up instead of a pre-bubble-burst dot.com company.
Latest Word sat down with Huffington while she sipped a virgin "Pin Drop" (mint, cucumber, honeydew and passionfruit juice) along with Jon Brod, president of AOL Ventures, and Christian Dwyer, MapQuest's Denver-based general manager.
The following is our interview with the trio, where you can glean a bit about AOL's corporate strategy, HuffPo expansion and why MapQuest is "alive, simple and intelligent" in 2011. And video, more and more video.
Westword: Where do you see the Huffington Post a year from now?
Arianna Huffington: All the AOL sites, including MapQuest, are under the Huffington Post Media Group. We are doubling down on all the sites we are growing. We are adding a lot of video to everything we're doing. We're putting a tremendous emphasis on local. Around Patch and around different sites -- like the Huffington Post is already in Denver, as well as Chicago, L.A. and New York.
WW: Where do you want to expand next?
AH: We're looking at San Francisco. They have a lot of Patches. We're putting MapQuest into everything we're doing, whether it's food or art or architecture. Everything you need to know when you go on a trip. We can also offer editorial content to people when they search for restaurants, amusement parks, art galleries on their vacations.
WW: Do you think that the bloggers who blogged for free for Huffington Post deserve any sort compensation in the wake of AOL's acquisition of Huffington Post?
AH: The Huffington Post and AOL are two things: a journalistic enterprise that pays great wages and benefits, and they're a platform. And as a platform, we are basically inviting people who want to blog and who clear the bar of quality, to blog and use that platform to disseminate their ideas, their books, their movies.
WW: Would you consider the lawsuit frivolous?
AH: Yes, definitely frivolous. But it is also contrary to what the Internet is about. Because that's a lawsuit that could be had against Facebook and Yelp. And the New York Times has free bloggers. There's no site online where people don't occasionally blog for free.
WW: How do you explain (conservative-leaning news aggregator and, some say, the reason HuffPo was created) Drudge Report's longevity? A lot of people call it the ugliest site on the Internet, yet it's still around and incredibly successful.
AH: It's very simple: It's one page. At a glance, you can see the news, and that's incredibly useful.
WW: This was submitted by two people on the Internet, and it's embarrassing to ask, but...how do you keep your hair so bouncy?
Hearing President of AOL Ventures Jon Brod talk about his plans for the company can either inspire or strike fear into journalists. Terms like "integration" and "cross-platform promotion" are corporate-speak for the calculated construction of an online news empire that has what tools-focused Google doesn't: content creation. AOL isn't for techies or social-media experts. It's for everyone else, tens of millions of people.
WW: Five years from now, where do you see the AOL properties compared to where they are today?
Jon Brod: The mission of AOL is to be the largest producer, distributor and monetizer of high-quality content at scale.
WW: So more properties?
JB: I wouldn't say more. Within that mission, we're really focused on the "80-80-80 strategy." That means roughly 80 percent of commerce is done locally, roughly 80 percent is done by women and roughly 80 percent has an influencer in the purchase path. So influencers and celebrities are very big for us.
And underlying all those things is video. We believe you'll see from us in the next five years a tripling-down on the 80-80-80 strategy, with video very much a platform that enables all of that.
WW: Can you summarize what your time has been like since the acquisition of Patch?
JB: Patch has been unbelievable. We're now in over 800 communities and over nineteen states. It's really about digitizing towns and communities. We built it from the ground up for the express purpose of a community news/information program.
We hired over 1,000 people last year, including over 800 journalists. You're going to start to see us integrating the blogging platform of Huffington Post and commenting platform into Patch, so you'll start to see more blogging, more aggregation, in addition to the professional journalism that is very much Patch's mainstay. And further, it gives us additional opportunities to cross-promote properties. You'll start to see more content from Patch that's promoted on sites like MapQuest, sites like AOL.com and the Huffington Post local sites.
WW: What's your favorite AOL blog?
JB: I'm a sucker for Engadget. I love tech, I love gadgets.
WW: Three adjectives to describe MapQuest in 2011?
JB: Innovative, forward-thinking, and kickass.
Christian Dwyer is an energetic exec who seems determined to bring back MapQuest -- who recognized that the map service needed to change or die. Part of that is "big ideas," a point Dwyer stresses hard.
WW: How has MapQuest changed?
Christian Dwyer: Over the last year and a half, we've been really focused on building a culture where people can think big. To be curious and challenged. Where people can think large about new ideas and new visions. For the last fifteen years, we've been helping people get directions to where they want to go to. That was pretty innovative fifteen years ago. And then, over time, we got acquired by AOL and things kind of slowed down. But as Tim Armstrong came back on board, he asked this company to think big and bold and stop thinking small.
WW: Where do you see MapQuest a year from now?
CD: We'll very clearly have integrated all the local content from the Huffington Post Media group into MapQuest to help people make better decisions about where they want to go. AOL Travel has these rich city and travel guides; we want to be more about planning. Today, we're really good about getting you there -- but we want to help people better search for and discover the places they want to get to.
WW: Three adjectives to describe MapQuest in 2011?
CD: Alive, intelligent and simple. Simple: The user experience needs to be dead-on. It needs to be clean, crisp. We got too cluttered in the past, because we were afraid to change. Trying to fill in the white space on the page. That's the wrong strategy. It needs to be simple.
Intelligent: It's about providing relevant experiences for consumers. Things about you, things you either declare or we know about you.
WW: What's your favorite example for MapQuest's open API?
CD: There's this really cool one...called OOB, "Out of Bounds." It's a golf site. I'm not even a golfer, because it's so helpful and practical. They've done a terrific job of weaving in all the content from all the golf courses -- start times and everything else. It's a really cool, practical app.
More from our Media archive: "Arianna Huffington's sale of Huffington Post to AOL not expected to impact HuffPo Denver."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.