Friday, January 21, 2011

Wither AOL? (Death of Journalism)

Once the dial-up Internet Company, AOL has fallen on hard times.  Can it re-invent itself for the digital age?  A name-change might be a good starting point!

In a recent posting I made, a referenced an article written by a staff member of AOL which appeared to be fairly carefully and thoughtfully written.  AOL?  Yea, that AOL.  What's going on?

In a recent New Yorker Article, it was reported that the new head of AOL has hired over 900 Journalists (cheap to hire, as everyone else is laying them off!) in an effort to make AOL a "content provider" again.

It is an interesting strategy, as the one thing the Internet and the media in general lacks, is really good content.  Most reporting today is of the same format, as I have noted before.  Either they re-barf wire stories, or they report a sound bite, cut to a "local reporter" (located three countries away from the scene of the event) who essentially repeats the same sound bite.

A small plane crashes in New Jersey.  All we are told is the name of the town it happened in, and given some blurry shots of broken Cessna bits, taken from a helicopter.  What kind of plane was it?  Where was it departing from?  Flying to?  Who was on it?  Who owned it?  Basic facts are missing, even if they are "irrelevant" to the average viewer.  And these basic facts can be found online, from the N-number on the empannage of the plane.

It takes just as much time and column space to report facts as it does to gloss over them.  Just as it costs just as much to build ugly cars as nice-looking ones.  But the American Media and GM don't seem to get either concept.  They prefer to sell bland and inoffensive, as if de-contenting was a good thing.

Why is this?  I blame the S.I. Newhouse School of journalism (urinalism, I call it) at Syracuse University.  That school, and schools like it, have churned out an army of generic and interchangeable and largely useless "journalism majors" who create the same product over and over again, as if from an ice mold.

When I was at S.U., I had a chance to write an article for the school newspaper, The Daily Orange, which is one of the few daily school newspapers in the country - which is fitting for a school with an "acclaimed" journalism school.

What was interesting to me was that the Editors, trained in the Newhouse way, were more interested in maintaining a rigid style format rather than actual factual reporting.  "Punch it up with quotes!" the editor said.  I was told to quote various persons in the report or essentially make-up quotes of what they "in essence" had said - a common journalistic practice these days.  Messy or detailed facts were left out - as was any potential controversy.  Facts bore readers, I was told, and controversy causes problems for the paper.  So crank up the bland - like a meal at Shoney's.

The article I wrote was about a Student Leadership retreat I went on, where the Dean of Students defended the recent "exoneration", by the school, of a convicted rapist on the Football team.  The raped student was grilled at length by a school kangaroo court and then allowed to transfer to another school.  The football player was then given a good slap-on-the-back and told to "go get 'em" at next week's game.  As the Dean of Students explicitly said to me, "Mr. Bell, what you fail to realize is how much money the football program brings to the school!"

Oh, so rape is OK, them.  Even I'm not that misogynistic!

Pretty serious stuff, and to me, an eye-opener as to how Universities and "non-professional" college athletics really works.  I wrote a pretty hard-hitting article on the topic, but once it was edited down by the staff of the Daily Orange it was reduced to "Student Leaders Meet at Retreat to Discuss Current Events" with the rape case (which was significant enough to make the CBS Evening News) was reduced to a sentence along the lines of "Student Leaders also discussed the recent controversies on campus."

Who wants to read that drivel?  Not me.  Is it "news"?  Hardly, other than it mentions some events in the vaguest terms, only in passing.  It does not inform, educate, or otherwise stimulate the reader.  And it avoids controversy at all costs.

And that is why Americans are turning away from "news" as it is traditionally presented and going instead to shows which present nothing but controversy.  They are so fact-starved, they will listen to anyone purporting to present facts - even Glenn Beck and his infamous chalk-board of lies.

Controversy sells, which is why talk radio and "controversial" news shows have high ratings and why the bland Newhouse style of reporting and writing is rapidly going out of business (hello, CNN!).  I am not saying that all news stories need to be controversial - in the Fox News sense, where you just make shit up - but that gutting content on the altar of blandness is one sure way to lose your audience.

Young people watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, not only because it is funny, but because it is not bland.  Stewart is not afraid to include factual information in his broadcasts, and not "dumb it down" for the audience.  In fact, his jokes are usually about how the media dumbs down the news so badly!  Again, people are so fact-starved that they look to a comedy show for information, because they ain't getting it from the nightly news!

The New Yorker article is interesting, but one thing does give me pause.  The New Yorker tends to write articles about their advertisers - a lot.  Las Vegas has lots of ads in the magazine, and even special advertisement inserts.  And during the last year or so, they have done a number of fluff pieces about various aspects of Las Vegas - from the food, to the casinos, to the architecture, to the Real Estate situation.  It is like reading Road and Track, where "car of the year" goes to the advertiser with the most pages.

And not surprisingly, the New Yorker has been running a series of full-page ads for AOL, positing this-or-that celebrity as an "AOL Original" - although I doubt Alec Baldwin is dialing up on his 56K modem anymore.

For that and other reasons, I am letting my New Yorker subscription expire this year.  I am finding the material less and less interesting and more and more blatantly of the baiting variety - just promos for the advertisers.

As for AOL, I applaud their efforts, but would suggest than a name-change is in order.  You can't think of AOL without the scream of a 56K modem in the background, or the image of newbies stumbling around the Internet (AOLamers as they were known).  And the pure chutzpah of the company and hubris also stick in your mind, as well as their rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

And of course, their odious "negative option" billing practices - sometimes referred to as "AOL style" billing, come to mind.  You would try to cancel your account and they would keep charging you in perpetuity.  Nice folks!

Heck, the name even sounds like a Twitter abbreviation for "AsshOLe".

Let's face it, AOL, as a brand name, has more negatives that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin combined.  If ever there was a case for re-branding, AOL is it.  Even the name is so regressive - "American On Line" - it reeks of Prodigy for God's sake.

Oh, well, perhaps it is time already for a little 1980's nostalgia - after all, they just released a sequel to the Disney Tron movie.  Remember going down to the "Mall" to see that?  Wait, I'd better stop at Sears, first, and get my Guardsman radials rotated.

Seriously dudes, you need to think about re-branding!

But keep up the good work on the writing.  American needs more content - desperately.

UPDATE:  February 1, 2011

One of AOL's purchases, back in the day when it had money, was Mapquest, which was the premiere mapping and directions service.

I say was, for two reasons.

First, when you search on Google, it steers you to Googlemaps, which tends to direct traffic away from Mapquest.

Second, Mapquest has screwed the pooch, as HTML programmers are wont to do ("I'm bored today, let's tinker with the user interface just to make it more confusing for everyone").  Googlemaps is easier to use.  Mapquest seems to be determined to drive away its audience - into the waiting arms of Google.

This does not bode well for AOL.

The New Yorker article does mention some criticism of AOL's new journalistic model - that writers are being pushed to write articles that are "Optimized" for Search Engines.  The idea is to put a lot of keywords early in the article so it pops up first on Google.

I note from my blog traffic that if you use a popular phrase, such as "how long do hot tubs last?" a number of times, (My #1 article) it pops up on top of the Google search parade.

So while I appreciate that to a writer, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) may seem an anathema, it is how we find data these days online.  We don't have a Dewey Decimal System.  Of course, keywords or labels help as well.

The New Yorker article also notes that a lion's share of AOL income is from subscribers who pay every month for dial-up service, not realizing that they don't need to pay for it if they have DSL or cable modem.  Once these remaining geezers wise up or die off, their income stream could evaporate quickly.

Again, I applaud the effort to create better content.  However, I scratch my head as to how they plan on making a business model out of it.