For many years it seems, AOL has been a brand in search of a business model. For a time it appeared to be stockpiling journalists and properties in order to become a go-to destination for online journalism. But when the "AOL Way" memo leaked in February, it showed a far different picture.
Instead of a company in search of quality online journalism, it was looking for quantity in terms of stories, hits per story, and video ... lots of video. The memo made AOL look silly and revealed some cracks in the company's foundation as key writers and editors left, layoffs continued, and some internal splits emerged.
Yet AOL made millionaires out of more than one journalism entrepreneur, including Michael Arrington, who scored $30 million for TechCrunch last fall. Arianna Huffington got $315 million for The Huffington Post in February. In fact, Huffington got more than just millions in her pocket; she also got to run the entire AOL content operation and a fancy new title: president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Still, even as she was poised to take over in March, there was discontent among the rank and file.
The week before Huffington officially took her position, AOL announced some major layoffs, giving 200 employees in the U.S. and another 700 employees in India their pink slips. The 200 employees in the U.S. will be replaced by people with similar positions at The Huffington Post, none of whom appear to have lost their jobs. Way to make friends and influence people, Arianna.
There were other signs that perhaps all was not right at Club AOL. In a case of interesting timing, Joshua Topolsky, the popular Engadget editor-in-chief, announced he was leaving 1 week before Huffington was to become his boss.
Of course, Topolsky didn't allude to his new boss or the "AOL Way" in his farewell blog post. He was cordial and kind, and he spoke of new challenges. You couldn't help but feel that the new regime and the new rules might have been lurking somewhere under the surface, even if he was too polite to come right out and say it. Former Engadget staffer Paul Miller (no relation) was not afraid to come out and say it, however. Writing in his personal blog of his departure after 5 years as part of the Engadget team, Miller came right out and called a spade a spade:
"As detailed in the ‘AOL Way,' and borne out in personal experience, AOL sees content as a commodity it can sell ads against. That might make good business sense (though I doubt it), but it doesn't promote good journalism or even good entertainment, and it doesn't allow an ambitious team like the one I know and love at Engadget to thrive."
There, he said it. But it wasn't just Engadget staffers who were unhappy with life under the AOL regime. Huffington's army of writers, most of whom wrote for free because they supported her mission, were less than thrilled at the idea of her cashing in and joining the AOL family. Bill Lasarow, editor of ArtScene, whose organization had contributed content to The Huffington Post over the years, made it clear he was angry at the sale and went so far as to publish a strike notice against AOL and The Huffington Post. "She boasts, by her count, a talent pool of about 9,000 free-of-charge contributors. And that has translated into over $300m. The company payroll for this? Zero," Lasarow wrote in The Guardian in early March.
TechCrunch never seemed like a good fit for AOL to me. Arrington has always been fiercely independent, even arrogant, so it probably wasn't a surprise when TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis wrote an angry post in March after AOL staffers asked her to tone down a piece she wrote at the SXSW conference. She wasn't pleased to say the least.
It's against this less than stellar backdrop that Huffington will have taken over in March, put in charge of an operation with barely any high-level management experience. Certainly running a single online publication by the seat of your pants is commendable, but has it really prepared her for what she is up against at a labyrinthine corporate behemoth such as AOL?
I guess we are about to find out because, ready or not Arianna, you're on! Let's hope you can help AOL find a better way.