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AOL, Huffington Post, and the future of journalism

Posted by Jesse Singal  February 7, 2011 04:28 PM

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AOL's purchase of Huffington Post has brought with it rampant speculation about what the merger will mean, in part because of the unease many feel about Arianna Huffington's wildly popular site. It is often bashed as a scandal- and search-engine-optimization-obsessed, soulless media enterprise that doesn't pay most of its contributors, and there's some merit to this critique (take this example of brilliantly executed SEO manipulation). But at the same time, the site does have something like an editorial vision, and has in recent years hired talented reporters like Ryan Grim and Arhur Delaney, producing substantive journalism as a result.

It's AOL, in fact, that is probably more deserving the corporate-machine label. A week ago Business Insider leaked the company's "master plan," a document that it is using to guide editors in their attempts to ramp up the site's traffic.

Here's the gist:

* AOL tells its editors to decide what topics to cover based on four considerations: traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turn-around time.

* AOL asks its editors to decide whether to produce content based on "the profitability consideration."

* The documents reveal that AOL is, when the story calls for it, willing to boost traffic by 5 to 10% with search ads and other "paid media."

* AOL site leaders are expected to have eight ideas for packages that could generate at least $1 million in revenue on hand at all times.

* In-house AOL staffers are expected to write five to 10 stories per day.

* AOL knows its sites are too dependent on traffic from, and it wants its editors to fix the problem by posting more frequently, with more emphasis on getting pageviews.

The document itself is worth a look — an endless array of flow charts and boxes and text. It reads almost like a satirical take on what it takes to produce a bland, flavorless thing called "content," and journalistic significance and quality does not appear to be one of AOL's primary concerns. While people often say the same thing about HuffPo, which does commonly slide into lowest-common-denominator territory, it has shown that it's willing to invest in quality journalism and commentary.

So with Huffington taking over day-to-day editorial operations of the AOL/HuffPo behemoth, the question becomes whether she can graft some sort of personality or soul onto AOL, or whether the endless pressure to produce page views at the expense of quality and tone will win out and further adulterate both brands.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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