Two Don't-Miss Dead-Tree Pieces on AOL's Downturn and Arianna's Upturn
I usually don’t have a lot of time to get through big, long thumbsuckers in magazines anymore–what can I say? I can hardly keep up with my Twitter feed–but here are two worth a look.
First, a Fast Company piece on the disaster at AOL (this is, for anyone who follows the company, nothing new), called “Dead Man Walking” by David Case.
The phrase, the origins of which is not mentioned in the piece, was applied by pundits to AOL in the early 1990s, when it looked like the Internet was going to make closed online services like AOL obsolete.
It did not turn out that way, of course, as AOL became–for a time, at least–the most powerful player in the digital arena, before imploding right after its disastrous merger with Time Warner (TWX).
After a bit of resurgence under Jon Miller (who was fired for his efforts), AOL is on the ropes again, this article contends–and which BoomTown has been saying for a while now. There are copious examples of this sorry trend in the piece, one more painful than the next.
If you don’t want to slog through it, here’s the money quote:
Eight years removed from the Time Warner merger and more than four years after AOL was expunged from the public company’s official name–an eternity in our evolving Internet age–AOL has been unable to find a way to innovate out of its troubled past. Yes, AOL has been plagued by internecine battles with its corporate parent and by a dial-up subscription-revenue model that could not possibly survive in the modern era. But it has also failed to exploit a wealth of formidable assets, including a ubiquitous brand, millions of regular users, the Web’s dominant instant-messaging service, the iconic MapQuest and Moviefone, the most popular finance site, a top celebrity-gossip site in TMZ, an innovative video search engine in Truveo, and deep television and music offerings… what emerges is a tale of failure on multiple fronts: short-term thinking, bad technology, bungled product development, a dramatic miscalculation of what drives page views on its own site, and a risk-averse culture more prone to imitation than innovation. ‘Pretty much everything we worked on,’ says a former AOL manager, ‘executives pointed to someone else’s product and said, “We want that.” ‘
Most interesting, though, is its look at the growth of Arianna Huffington’s online phenom, the Huffington Post (which we wrote about last week here, in fact), as part of the problem for newspapers. (We borrowed this very funny illustration from the article, which kind of says it all.)
And that is basically: They are dull and Arianna is not.
Here’s the money quote:
Though [the] Huffington [Post] has a news staff (it is tiny, but the hope is to expand in the future), the vast majority of the stories that it features originate elsewhere, whether in print, on television, or on someone’s video camera or cellphone. The editors link to whatever they believe to be the best story on a given topic. Then they repurpose it with a catchy, often liberal-leaning headline and provide a comment section beneath it, where readers can chime in. Surrounding the news articles are the highly opinionated posts of an apparently endless army of both celebrity (Nora Ephron, Larry David) and non-celebrity bloggers–more than eighteen hundred so far. The bloggers are not paid. The overall effect may appear chaotic and confusing, but, [HuffPo Co-Founder Kenny] Lerer argues, ‘this new way of thinking about, and presenting, the news, is transforming news as much as CNN did 30 years ago.’ Arianna Huffington and her partners believe that their model points to where the news business is heading. ‘People love to talk about the death of newspapers, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I think that’s ridiculous,’ she says. ‘Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.’
Since we have been hugging online for a while now, Arianna just made us feel all warm and fuzzy.