This isn’t journalism

AOL’s master plan for traffic and story generation leaked in early February before I was posting on this blog. But it made me angry so I wanted to come back to it now. You can see a lengthy powerpoint detailing the plan on Business Insider among other media outlets that picked up the story. It’s a brief textbook on how to run a content farm, which seems to be AOL’s plan for monetizing its web portal and the newly acquired Huffington Post.

Here’s the gameplan:

1. Pump out tons of stories at low cost using crappy in-house writers or commoditized freelancers paid in the low peanuts.
2. Write them to be incredibly search engine friendly and update frequently to make sure that you’ve chocked it full of keywords.
3. Write long-form journalistic pieces only when you can get them sponsored ahead of time by a high dollar advertiser.
4. Throw in some random (usually unrelated) because video ads generate higher CPMs

This isn’t journalism; it’s content farming with a better brand name than eHow. This is why I get annoyed when people on mediocre tech blogs like GigaOm write breathless blog posts about how the newspaper business model is dead because it can’t compete with the likes of Huffpo (now AOL). The NYT isn’t in the same business as Huffington Post. It’s in the business of actual, long-form journalism including investigative pieces on issues in the US and abroad. This isn’t Sam Stein journalism where you write a new article every day about something that happened at a Congressional committee hearing. These are pieces that get investigated for weeks or months, that require foreign correspondants, that uncover secret government programs like NSA wiretapping. AOL’s team of in-house writers doesn’t come close. It may be journalism according to the definition of the word in Webster’s dictionary, but it’s not the same activity that the New York Times does.

Provisioning a public good like this costs a lot of money. It requires huge staffs of writers and editors. It requires a willingness to let them run with a story even if it won’t pan out right away. It’s exactly the opposite of the “high-volume, low-cost” goal that AOL espouses in this

GigaOm is right; long-form journalism may not be a great business model. You can probably make more money by producing thousands of recycled, low-quality articles that are well optimized for Google search. But the NYT does something that produces significant social benefits (both for other media organizations and for the general public) that isn’t internalized in the price it received for its content. The success of Huffpo/AOL relative to the NYT or WSJ indicates a market failure, not the triumph of a superior product in a truly competitive market place. It suggests the need for government intervention to subsidize the public good that newspapers provide. Maybe a paywall will be enough – I’d gladly pay for NYT content instead of suffering through more SEO babble on the Huffpo.

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