Is AOL on a Mission to Save Journalism?

Last Updated Jul 30, 2009 1:47 PM EDT

When a friend forwarded that article from TechCrunch claiming AOL has 1,500 writer/bloggers on staff, and is planning on doubling or tripling that number over the coming year, I started thinking it might be time to dust off my old resume, eh?

After all, the list of names now employed by AOL includes a lot of experienced journalists, including old friends like the gifted political reporter and columnist, Walter Shapiro. But to me, AOL has always been easy to overlook in the new media industry, simply because it is just so...mainstream.

The company that used to be called America Online (now that Time-Warner has decided to spin it off is officially known as AOL LLC), has come a long way over the past quarter century since its founding as Control Video Corporation (CVC).

The new company's business strategy is laid out clearly in this week's 10-Q filing to the SEC. And, in fact, it really hasn't changed over the past three years. As the form reminds us, "In August 2006, AOL fundamentally shifted the primary strategic focus of its business from generating Subscription revenues to attracting and engaging Internet consumers and generating Advertising revenues. In connection with this shift, AOL began offering the vast majority of its content, products and services to consumers for free in an effort to attract and engage a broader group of consumers."

Since the high-profile hire of Tim Armstrong as CEO in April, Time-Warner has busied itself with laying the plans for the spin-off, including buying back the 5 percent stake Google held in AOL, for $283 million, and -- apparently -- hiring out-of-work journalists. Armstrong is trying to infuse an entrepreneurial spirit into AOL's hoary old corporate culture:

"AOL also aims to reorient its culture and reinvigorate the AOL brand by prioritizing the consumer experience and making greater use of data-driven insights. AOL also aims to encourage innovation through the entrepreneurial environment of AOL Ventures," is how the 10-Q puts it.

So, here is what we in journalism refer to as the "nut graf:"

"AOL seeks to be a global publisher of relevant and engaging online content by utilizing open and highly scalable publishing platforms and content management systems, as well as a leading online provider of consumer products and services." (Emphasis Added.)
It's also worth noting that Armstrong has also engineered the purchase of a company he invested in, Patch, last month. Patch specializes in providing "comprehensive local information and services for individual towns and communities." Sounds kinda like hyper-local, eh?

Meanwhile, it's not like these AOL content sites are light-weight entries. Check out Politics Daily, and the lede piece by the aforementioned Walter Shapiro today on health care reform. Content doesn't get any more mainstream (read: reliable, authoritative, professional) than this, folks, so if there is a still a mass media business model that's going to survive, look no further than AOL LLC.

(Thanks to Brent Harrison.)

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.