In an announcement that took employees and business associates alike by surprise, digital media entrepreneur and sleep guru Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington abruptly resigned Thursday morning as editor in chief of The Huffington Post, her eponymous, left-leaning news and aggregation site that she launched as a blog in 2005.
“I have a confession. I did not get a full night’s sleep last night,” the Athens-born Huffington, in her lilting Greek accent, quipped to a stunned crowd in her newsroom at the Manhattan headquarters of AOL, the formerly stand-alone online company which has owned HuffPost since 2011, and was itself acquired last “year by the telecommunications giant Verizon.
Hours earlier, the 66-year-old best-selling author of The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time had tweeted: “I thought HuffPost would be my last act. But I’ve decided to step down as HuffPost’s editor-in-chief to run my new venture, Thrive Global,” a health and lifestyle consulting business which calls itself a “corporate and consumer well-being and productivity platform.”
Huffington didn’t respond by deadline to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
Her decision to leave is especially startling because during Verizon’s $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL last year, she signed a contract to remain as HuffPost’s president and editor in chief until 2019.
This past June—as Verizon was closing in on a $4.8 billion deal to acquire AOL competitor Yahoo—she vowed to stay on as HuffPost’s editorial leader even though she was in the process of raising money for her new Thrive Global venture.
She told HuffPost staffers at the time, a mere two months ago, that her “primary focus will remain on The Huffington Post, with no change to my current role.”
But on Thursday, Huffington—who turned the surname of her ex-husband, former Republican congressman Michael Huffington of California, into a worldwide brand—left no doubt that she’s making a clean break from AOL, which in 2011 paid $315 million for HuffPost, $65 million more than Amazon’s Jeff Bezos paid for The Washington Post.
Huffington’s remarkable announcement Thursday—in which she acknowledged that no successor is waiting in the wings, and that HuffPost’s newsroom will be operated by a “leadership committee” until a new top editor is found—set off a round of industry speculation about her reasons for quitting.
One informed observer suggested that Huffington is starting Thrive Global—named for her 2014 handbook Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder —as a way of orchestrating a graceful exit from a corporate environment that was becoming increasingly uncongenial.
With Verizon’s deal to buy Yahoo, which includes Yahoo News, and corporate plans to somehow merge their operations with AOL and HuffPost, Huffington’s job would only have become trickier, more bureaucratic, and fraught with the sort of clashes that have impeded HuffPost’s integration over the past four years into the corporate culture of AOL. (HuffPost staffers, for instance, have kept their old business cards and email addresses, and seldom attend company-wide meetings, creating a sense among some AOL veterans that Huffington’s operation is separate and apart—a feeling, says a former colleague, that she did little to discourage.)
In addition, staff attrition has hampered some of HuffPost’s verticles, as more than 20 staffers have left in the past six months, says a company source.
And while HuffPost has operations in 15 countries in Europe and Asia, and plans to start a 16th outlet for Mexico next month, and has claimed up to 200 million in global unique visitors, its readership in the United States, according to comScore measures, has shown a steady decline since January 2015—with the traffic this past January down 16 percent year-to-year. May and June, meanwhile, were HuffPost’s lowest months of traffic since November 2013.
Meanwhile, at Thursday’s all-hands meeting, HuffPost’s latest chief executive officer, Jared Grusd, who was hired a year ago from Spotify to run the business side of Huffington’s site, gave an answer to a question about Yahoo News’s role which probably won’t enhance any prospects for cooperation.
Asked how HuffPost and Yahoo News would combine their resources, Grusd said it was an open question, and added: “Something to note about Yahoo News in particular is that Yahoo News is really predicated on aggregating content. They are not content creators. It’s not what happens in their DNA…They don’t have a specific voice and mission. They get tremendous scale. We have voice, we have vision, we have mission, and we will absolutely take advantage of the scale that Yahoo brings to the table.”
That is the sort of remark that is likely to raise hackles at Yahoo News, which has invested heavily in original content, hiring such prominent journalists as Katie Couric, Matt Bai, Daniel Klaidman, David Pogue, Michael Isikoff, and Megan Liberman, a New York Times veteran who is Yahoo News’s editor in chief.
Liberman didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a Yahoo News staffer, asking not to be named because this person is not authorized to speak for the news outlet, responded to Grusd this way: “Who is this guy? I’m not aware of any content he’s created. What he said is off-the-charts crazy. He obviously knows nothing about what Yahoo does. Aside from the fact that it’s totally impolitic, it’s not even close to the truth. Arianna must have been half-asleep when she handed off the reins to this clown.”
Huffington is also departing at a time when her long-standing, under-the-radar tensions with AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, have run their course.
It was love at first sight when they met more than five years and began their ardent courtship, but after the purchase of HuffPost, say sources, Armstrong became increasingly frustrated that the irrepressible Huffington couldn’t be managed. Huffington’s brief tenure as head of all AOL content, including such sites as MapQuest and TechCrunch, showed that she had little taste for being a down-in-the-weeds operational executive and was better at promoting the HuffPost brand, traveling the world as an ambassador, and forming outside business connections.
Despite their public admiration for each other, Armstrong’s team quietly blamed Huffington for planting the occasional news stories suggesting that she was attempting to find a buyer for HuffPost to take it away from AOL—an accusation she vigorously denied (while telling this reporter that, of course, there was always a great deal of interest in the property).
She successfully resisted Armstrong’s efforts to hire an executive to help him impose his rule on her fiefdom, says a source with knowledge of the situation.
“I think Tim and Arianna came to a détente,” says a former AOL executive. “Once he realized he couldn’t get rid of her, and once she realized she couldn’t sell Huffington Post, that was the moment for separate bedrooms. They stayed together for the sake of the kids.”
Perhaps significantly, despite releasing a memo praising Huffington Thursday as “an undisputed new media pioneer,” Armstrong didn’t speak at Thursday’s all-hands meeting. An AOL communications exec didn’t respond to messages.
At the all-hands meeting, where Huffington invited her 25-year-old painter-daughter Isabella to stand with her, she was by turns wistful and witty.
“The first call I got was from Sheryl Sandberg,” Huffington told her soon-to-be ex-employees, referring to Facebook’s famous chief operating officer and “Lean-In” sage. “She said, ‘You are jumping. You are not hedging. You’re going all in.’ And that’s exactly how it feels—almost like taking a deep breath and jumping.”
Huffington added: “It would have been easier to say I’m going to stay…in some capacity as chairman or adviser or editor emerita. The truth is the new leadership needs feel that they are all in, they are building HuffPost today and that I am not kind of there, hovering…Also, I need to feel that this is it.”
In a burst subversive nostalgia, Huffington noted that when she started HuffPost way back in 2005, “George W. Bush had just been inaugurated, and Hillary Clinton was attending Donald Trump’s wedding.”