AOL's Brewing Conflict: Brand Versus Journalism

Last Updated Mar 26, 2011 4:24 AM EDT

Two weeks after AOL laid off 900 employees (and an untold count of freelance writers and editors), CEO Tim Armstrong yesterday sent an internal memo that targeted the company's media sites. He wrote that AOL would eliminate 30 of its separate sites, folding them into others, to simplify its portfolio of media properties. Why have both SlashFood and HuffPost Food, HuffPost Travel and AOL Travel, TV Squad and AOL TV?

But a deeper story in the memo, which BNET acquired from anonymous sources, is not consolidation and simplification so much as the continued strategic clash between brand and journalism at the media company.

Although AOL has emphasized the J-word in recent press releases that announce newly hired big-name name writers and editors, if you read between the lines of Armstrong's memo, you see his focus on the "content business" and the brands that will appeal consumers. This illuminates the ongoing conflict between business-as-journalism and journalism-as-business. If Armstrong can't find a way to embrace and accommodate both views in an organic and natural way, he will fail in what he wants to accomplish.

We say journalism, you say brand
When I previously wrote about the apparent ascendancy of brand over journalism at the company, Huffington Post Media Group senior vice president of media relations Mario Ruiz emailed me to disagree. In a statement, he wrote of "the commitment of Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong to execute the plans they've spoken about both internally and publicly about investing in journalism as the backbone of The Huffington Post Media Group."

Having spoken with Ruiz, I am sure that he believes this. Arianna Huffington has also publicly spoken of the need to focus on original reporting. But what ultimately drives a business is the intent and direction of the CEO. And Armstrong's memo, like his previous ones, is revealing. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Roughly 60 days after agreeing to terms on The Huffington Post deal, we are ready to play offense on the future of our content business with the full integration of The Huffington Post and our AOL Media properties. Brands are how consumers navigate the world and we are continuing to build our portfolio of significant brands for the digital age. AOL is a global and trusted brand and today we are announcing some changes to our brand portfolio that will allow us to significantly scale our reach and our impact.

Our consumers are already seeing meaningful examples of the value in the integration of AOL and The Huffington Post - we've cross-pollinated content across our properties, incorporated HuffPost's social sharing tools on AOL, added Devil ads to HuffPost, and added AOL brands to the HuffPost nav bar. Most importantly, we have started to work together as one passionate team, committed to building best-in-class brands for our users.

Get through the roughly 800 words of buzzword tone in the full memo and you see "brand" appear 35 times. "Content" shows up 7 times. "Journalism"? Once, in the second to last sentence:
--and today is the start of the next AOL chapter, a chapter that will be filled with great content and journalism, great advertising, and great partnerships with the most talented people and companies in the world.
Armstrong treats content, journalism, and advertising as equals. Perhaps they must be in a sense as he attempts to pull AOL out of an increasingly bad financial situation. Unfortunately, those who find motivation in the quality of what they create, and the journalists that AOL hires likely fall into that category, see the world differently. They think in terms of stories, scoops, obligations to readers, and ethics... not brands.

Clash of world views
This is an illustration of one dialog in Plato's Republic in which Socrates contrasts the art of medicine and the art of making money from medicine. Each has different goals and makes different choices. The two seem incompatible. And yet, a company must weld both views for a strong business. Ignore the quality of what you create and you lose customers. Fail to tend to fiscal viability and you are out of business before you can satisfy anyone.

In every internal communication I've seen Armstrong send insiders, he completely identifies with the salesman and marketer. AOL will judge media sites as brands. It will build and sell brands. Here are four points that Armstrong emphasized:

  1. We have combined and integrated a number of destinations with a goal of having the best brands win. AOL will be strengthened as a consumer offering for our users.
  2. This is about doubling down on our commitment to building dynamic, best-in-class brands. We will invest in and support brands that build new audiences and drive UVs [unique visitors], revenue, grow important partnerships, and most importantly -- are loved by our consumers.
  3. Brand decisions are driven by data -- for the last year we have been measuring key brand metrics -- including UVs, category size, engagement, awareness, etc., allowing us to better understand the complete health of each brand within our portfolio.
  4. We remain focused on revenue -- the sales leadership team, sales operations and revenue management teams helped inform the final decisions around our brand portfolio. We looked not only at current revenue by brand but also the important audiences and categories for our customers.
In this view, journalism is, at most, a means to a brand and, eventually, profit. Perhaps that is one reason why traditionally trained journalists have had such trouble adapting to new media companies often started by either technologists or advertising and marketing types. Each side has its outlook and neither relates what it says into the words and world of the other.

AOL has enormous potential. It has some talented employees. But this bifurcated view of what it should be -- AOL's a brand company! No, it's a journalism company! -- will defeat Armstrong's ambitions as certainly as the 1980s ouster of Steve Jobs, and his passion for perfect product, from Apple (AAPL) led to that company's near demise. Without the emphasis on what you do and how you do it, there is no brand, just a lot of empty advertising talk. And without marketing and sales, there are a lot of pink slips.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.