Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The AOL Way

“Double the taxes! Triple the taxes! Squeeze every last drop out of those insolent – musical – peasants!”
Prince John, from Disney’s Robin Hood

What I find interesting about all the Internet blather about “The AOL Way,” a leaked document that outlines how the gigantic content company plans to increase the amount of content it produces while optimizing its use and discoverability through search engine optimization is that the reactions to it are pretty much summed up in one paragraph written by Anthony Ha over at
Not surprisingly, this document has provoked a lot of comments from the VentureBeat editorial team. A couple of writers are dancing a happy dance that we’re not working at AOL or an organization with similarly straitlaced guidelines. But my boss Owen Thomas reports that he’s taking copious notes.
Both reactions are easily understandable and demonstrate some of the difficulties that many media companies are facing as they either try to shift their focus from print to online, or are trying to build a profitable online enterprise in conjunction with or independent from any print operation.

In a nutshell, AOL’s “way” includes increasing the number of articles their in-house writers write, from what number I don’t know to 5 to ten “quality” posts per day. Find me any newspaper or magazine writer willing to churn through that much copy in a day and you’ll be presenting me with a very short list – and thus the exultation on the part of Ha and his cohorts that they’re not currently employed by AOL.

But looking at how AOL wants to optimize its content and ensure profitability for whatever is produced – to the point that they won’t authorize an article that’ll cost $250 to produce if it can’t produce at least $500 in income – combined with a drive to push in-house writers and freelancers to think more along the lines of current topics, revenue potential with each story, and the potential to drag in more eyeballs with each and every story and you can see why Ha’s boss is taking “copious notes” from the document.

All of this number-crunching, of course, is going to scare the hell out of the average writer. When a story has to be pitched – and pitched quickly – with not only editorial considerations in mind but also revenue considerations and a ballpark estimate on how many eyeballs the story will attract – and it can’t be just a number pulled out of a hat; AOL has fancy algorithms they’ll churn any story idea through to ensure the numbers are right – writers are going to be thrust out of their zones of comfort and, likely, zones of ability. They’ll regard such efforts – well, most of them, some might rise to the challenge – as akin to Disney’s Prince John squeezing the peasants for more money just because he can.

Dan Mitchell, writing at, has a more scathing assessment of “The AOL Way”:
[T]he company seems to care far more about appealing to search engines than it cares about appealing to readers, and that it is desperate. So desperate that it's instructing editorial managers to increase traffic by eye-popping amounts in a very short period of time.

"The AOL Way" sounds a lot like "The Bloomberg Way" – the set of heuristics the business-news service has operated from for years. But the similarities stop with the title. While Bloomberg has a reputation for its highly disciplined and demanding (some would say despotic) approach, "The Bloomberg Way" is mainly aimed at producing high-quality business journalism. "The AOL Way" is mainly about ramping up volume and, largely through technological manipulation, squeezing out as much profit as possible from each "piece of content," regardless of its quality.
His criticism may be a little harsh, focusing too much on the drive for numbers and not for the “quality/integrity” that AOL also mentions in the document. He points out that Bloomberg uses a similar approach, albeit one that focuses on quality business journalism. There’s nothing to say AOL couldn’t take a similar approach. Then again, he quotes a New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta that criticizes AOL’s current content as “piffle.” Then again, AOL is investing heavily in citizen journalism, at the same time the crown prince and the court jester of our new anyone-can-publish Internet Age.

But consider what most people go to their local papers for: chicken-dinner journalism. That means they want the basics, they want to know when the fire department is holding their chicken-dinner fundraiser, what the scores were from the local high school games, who is dead, who crossed lines with the police, and such. A lot of the rest of what goes into your average paper goes through a story pitch, but it’s hit and miss as to whether readers will read any of it at all. I’m reminded of the “megaturds” that Dave Barry writes about: the stories that editors and publishers love because they win journalism awards, not because their readers love them.

So the idea of inventing a successful process that gauges the expected profitability and appeal of each story pitched in balance with the writer’s desire to do the story has got to be attractive to editors. Editors can immediately turn to the numbers to show writers that they’ve got to do what they’re being asked, because what they’re being asked to do is going to help them earn their paychecks.

As both a writer and an editor, I can see the advantages and disadvantages to what AOL wants to do.

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