AOL Set To Expand Content Play But For Whose Benefit?




Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong be interviewed by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Innovation Days event during Internet Week in New York City. It was interesting to listen to Armstrong because he is an engaging guy. He comes off as very passionate about AOL and its efforts to re-establish itself as a leading brand in the Internet space. He talks about all of the things that people want to hear when it comes to the Internet and content generation.

It just so happens that this talk comes on the heels of AOL’s announcement that it is hiring hundreds of journalists to add to its current 500 staffers on the content side plus the 40,000 free lancers that are out there creating content about who knows what and God knows what.

FastCompany wonders aloud what all this means for ‘journalism’

Words like these, from AOL’s president of global advertising Jeff Levick don’t help: “We have insights into our audience, and can produce content they want, which leads to engagement, which leads to what advertisers want.” Content that ultimately snares the consumer, by hook or by crook, for the benefit of the advertisers? Doesn’t sound like journalism to us.

As with all things on the Internet, this story / announcement is ultimately about revenue. You can talk all day about hiring journalists. Armstrong during his talk proclaimed that the average new hire has 8.8 years of experience as a journalist. He also spoke about how they are sending people into the field to cover stories like a, gulp, real news organization would. This all sounds great but ultimately is this just a way to generate what Armstrong deemed “super networks” of content that will look to corral consumers into a pen and so that advertisers can whack this ‘captive audience’ with marketing messages?

The question is who wins and loses in this. Pure journalists are crying foul because the quality of this content is being questioned regardless of what credentials are being thrown around in talks. Marketers probably don’t care so much about quality as long as the audience is there.

AdAge reported on the announcement yesterday that David Eun, recently appointed president of AOL’s media and studios division claimed

“Our mission at this company is to be the world’s largest producer of high-quality content, period,” he said. “The content driving our traffic is home-grown, and 80% of it is now produced by folks on the AOL payroll.”

All of this talk and gathering of ‘content weaponry’ by AOL and competitors like Yahoo with its purchase of Associated Content and the independent player Demand Media makes for some interesting decisions coming up for marketers and advertisers.

The push is clearly to generate content that will be used to fill the void left by failing newspapers and traditional media as a whole. Who will be the winners and losers? Depends on which camp you want to believe. For the mass content producers the winner is both the content starved consumer and the advertisers that want to reach them. There are plenty of people, however, who are bemoaning this movement away from traditional journalism as the beginning of the end of quality and integrity first for journalism as a whole.

If Mr. Armstrong has anything to say about it one big winner will be AOL who is looking to get into the “great big pile of cash that is moving online”. When you hear it like that you wonder what is first: journalism or just plain old capitalism.

What do you think?

  • Troy

    Most paper publications have an advertising to content ratio of 40%+. Said advertising has had and will continue to have a direct effect on most rags’ editorial content. So while AOL looking to tie ad revenue to content may not be a good thing, it certainly isn’t a new thing. “Pure journalists” are crying foul simply because they are afraid but I’d be willing to bet $20 that more than half of investigative paper journalists have had stories squashed by their editors because it conflicted with advertising.