Tag Archives: AOL

Ezra Klein and the problem with top-down control

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein

This commentary was published earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)

We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.

What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.

So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.

Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?

The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.

Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.

More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.

Globe cuts Your Town staffing in half

Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 8.38.56 AMGlobe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.

Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.

The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.

Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.

Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?

(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)

Salvaging something from the rubble of Patch

If you haven’t heard AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong’s nauseating conference call with Patch employees — complete with the mid-call firing of Patch creative director Abel Lenz, who had the audacity to take the great man’s photo — then by all means avail yourself of the opportunity. (Via Jim Romenesko, who has been diligently tracking the story of Patch’s woes.)

The end seems to be near for Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal websites, which never had a business model that made sense. Given that Patch is failing in precisely the way it was predicted to fail (see, for instance, this archive of Patch articles at Business Insider), Friday’s conference call was a time for Armstrong to show some decency and humility — not to strut around like a ’roided-up rooster.

The cuts Armstrong announced were devastating — over the next week, hundreds of employees will be laid off and around 400 Patch sites will be closed or somehow partnered with other sites, according to Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch. That’s nearly half of Patch’s 900 or so sites.

At this point, the most merciful thing Armstrong could do is shut down the whole thing and help the hard-working local editors become owner-operators. I suspect many of these sites could be viable if the corporate bureaucracy AOL has laid on top of them were removed.

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent online news site in western New York, makes a compelling case at NetNewsCheck that the economies of scale AOL promised not only haven’t materialized, but that putting together a vast network of hyperlocal site actually costs more than launching independents. The problems, he writes, include enormous tech investments and highly paid supervisors at corporate headquarters:

Armstrong chased scale: IT infrastructure scales, server farms scale, message systems scale, cloud computing scales. But local news does not scale.

Widget makers understand scale. The most expensive widget is the first one. Each new widget is comparatively pennies on the dollar.

In the news business, the first story costs just as much as the third or the 30th or the last. Online, it’s possible to get more production out of a single reporter, but time is not elastic. At the end of the day comes the end of the day.

What Armstrong should have done, Owens adds, is fund independent start-ups — an idea that AOL could still pursue, writes City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis at his blog, Buzz Machine. Jarvis  offers this advice to Armstrong:

Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it.

Whether AOL steps or not, at least one other funding source for converting Patches into independent news sites has emerged. Over the weekend Debbie Galant, co-founder of the pioneering hyperlocal site Baristanet and now the director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University, announced on Twitter that her program was ready to offer grants and training to New Jersey Patch employees who lose their jobs. (There are 89 Patch sites in New Jersey, according to Patch’s online listings.)

As I found in “The Wired City,” hyperlocal online news is alive and well, with a variety of nonprofit and for-profit sites thriving. But as Owens says, local doesn’t scale. Independence and grassroots control are keys. Chain ownership was deadly to the newspaper business, and it was never a good idea for online news, either.

If the demise of Patch can lead to something better, then let’s get started.

AOL would be profitable without Patch

Talk about burying the lede. The New York Times today reports on the latest regarding AOL’s long, slow slide into oblivion. Near the end is this:

Other ideas include closing Patch, AOL’s local news initiative that has reporters in 850 towns. Eliminating the money-losing service would free $160 million and lift AOL into profitability.

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong insists he’s not going to abandon his strategy of transforming the service into a profitable content-provider. But the Huffington Post side of things brings in so many more visitors, with fewer employees, that you really have to wonder how long he and his shareholders can resist the urge to close Patch.

Not to repeat myself (OK, to repeat myself), but I don’t wish Patch ill. Given that it is hiring young and some not-so-young journalists, I’d like to see it find a profitable place in the local-news media ecosystem. But it’s never been clear how Patch can make money. Business Insider has been especially withering, but its negative outlook is hardly unique.

Indies fight back against Patch

Thirty independent community news sites have banded together to tell the world, in effect, “We are not Patch.” The project, called Authentically Local, includes such well-known sites as Baristanet, based in Montclair, N.J., The Batavian, of Batavia, N.Y., and the New Haven Independent.

In a statement posted online, Baristanet founder and editor Debbie Galant says:

The Authentically Local campaign seeks to illuminate the difference between authentic local businesses and those that are just cashing in — before every town in America becomes one giant strip mall. This is not just about us, the owned-and-operated sites that write about place. It’s about place.

The alliance includes both for-profit and non-profit sites. Its motto, “local doesn’t scale,” appears to be aimed squarely at AOL’s Patch.com sites, a network of hyperlocal sites that are a key part of AOL’s efforts to reinvent itself.

Recently Galant compared Patch to Wal-Mart, saying, “The profits are going to a corporation. And so it’s difficult. It makes us understand what the local merchants are dealing with on a regular basis, for different local hardware stores to be competing against Home Depot. It’s basically the same thing.”

Patch has emerged as a real hiring engine for journalists at a time when the news business continues to shrink. So I’d like to see both Patch and the independents thrive. To the extent that Patch poses a threat to the indies, I hope Authentically Local helps them compete on a level field.

Will HuffPo prove to be AOL’s MySpace?

Click for full cartoon at Politico

Does AOL have a MySpace problem?

You may recall that MySpace was a social-media phenomenon when Rupert Murdoch bought it back in 2005 for $580 million. It wasn’t long, though, before Facebook zoomed past it, rendering Murdoch’s new toy all but worthless. The site is now for sale. A large part of it may have been that Facebook was simply better technologically. But surely some of MySpace’s lost cachét was due to a perception among users that anything owned by Murdoch wasn’t cool anymore.

Which brings us to AOL and the Huffington Post. When AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong forked over $315 million for HuffPo, he no doubt thought he was acquiring, among other things, an army of unpaid bloggers. But not so fast.

AdBusters reports that there’s a boycott under way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.

Follow it on Twitter at #huffpuff.

Two old Boston Phoenix friends have weighed in as well.

Al Giordano writes that he cross-posted 26 of his stories on HuffPo between 2007 and 2009. He stopped, he says, because he “grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated.” Now he’s removed his posts, replacing them with this:

(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield – Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)

On Facebook, Barry Crimmins adds:

What Ariana Huffington sold for $315 mil was a lot of bloggers who work for free and all the eyeballs they attract to HuffPo. Feeling exploited? Stop working for free for HuffPo and stop providing HuffPo with the value of your visits. Believe me, there will be alternatives. True alternatives.

Dan Gillmor says that, at the very least, Huffington ought to start paying people.

It’s hard to know to what extent HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers fit into Armstrong’s plans. At the very least, though, it’s beginning to look like he did not get what he paid for. He could ask old Rupe about that.

A great day for the Huffington Post’s investors

Arianna Huffington

My theory as to why Arianna Huffington would sell her successful website to a troubled company like AOL is that her investors wanted to cash in and weren’t particularly interested about the future of the Huffington Post.

Writing for the Guardian, Graeme Wearden says the beneficiaries of Huffington’s $315 million deal will be three venture-capital firms and a few private investors. Wearden adds that “some shareholders must be sitting on very large returns, as the company has received just $37m of funding over the last six years.”

HuffPo’s business model has three prongs: paid, original journalism by the likes of Howard Fineman and Sam Stein; extreme aggregation that summarizes off-site content so thoroughly there’s really not much reason to click through; and free content from numerous bloggers.

I’m guessing that the latter two prongs will be endangered by the acquisition, as media companies take a new look at HuffPo’s aggregation practices and bloggers who were willing to write for free for a site that they saw as somehow theirs balk at doing it for a corporation like AOL.

Check out this piece by Mayhill Fowler, HuffPo’s star of the 2008 presidential campaign, explaining last September why she would no longer write for free. Although I still think Samuel Johnson put it best.

Perhaps skeptics like me will be proven wrong, but I don’t see what AOL brings to the table. Yes, it has acquired content sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, and its hyperlocal Patch sites are springing up everywhere. But I don’t understand how adding HuffPo creates the “synergies” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong is talking about.

Indeed, “synergy” has become a punchline from years past, with the ill-fated merger of AOL and Time Warner being a prime example.

Ken Auletta recently wrote a terrific story on AOL for the New Yorker, which, unfortunately, is not freely available online. Auletta portrayed AOL as a company that may be on the brink of financial collapse, and Armstrong as a smart, energetic leader whose content-heavy strategy may nevertheless prove to be flawed and outdated.

By far my favorite part of the story was the revelation that AOL still gets 80 percent of its profits from subscribers, and that perhaps 75 percent of them are older people who don’t realize they don’t need the $25-per-month service now that they have broadband. Not exactly a recipe for success.

With few exceptions, media sensations like the Huffington Post have their moments and then fade away. Arianna may prove she can defy gravity. But she has just made her job harder, not easier.

A few more thoughts on Patch.com

My Thursday posting of an e-mail from a Patch.com local editor who considers herself overworked and underappreciated brought an unusually strong reaction from Media Nation readers — many of them, no doubt, people who work for Patch or who are thinking about it. I received nearly 4,400 page views on Thursday, well over double the usual amount of traffic.

I received several e-mails from current and former Patch folks, also insisting on anonymity, and wary about whether they wanted their words posted at all. I am not normally in the habit of publishing anonymous e-mails, and I’d just as soon Media Nation not turn into a forum for anonymous pro- and anti-Patch missives. But I can say that a few folks agreed with the anonymous e-mail and a few disputed it. One even asked that I pressure my source into giving up her identity so that other local editors will not be suspected. (Uh, no.)

What’s beyond dispute is that community journalism is hard work, and has never been particularly lucrative. In Greater Boston, what’s shaping up is a three-way battle involving Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites. Here’s what I’m hearing from folks who’ve been in touch with me:

  • Though no one is getting rich working for Patch, it offers better pay and benefits than its competitors. But that comes with an unusually heavy load of responsibilities, as outlined by my anonymous e-mailer. Local editors must manage every aspect of the site.
  • Many GateHouse journalists earn less than Patch editors. But though they also put in dauntingly long hours, editors and reporters don’t have as many non-journalistic responsibilities.
  • Correspondents for the Globe’s Your Town sites are freelancers, and receive no benefits at all.

I should note that nearly all Wicked Local content is repurposed from GateHouse’s newspapers, most of them weeklies. The Your Town sites combine online-only stories, an occasional Globe story and aggregation from other news sources (but not from Wicked Local). Patch is online-only.

I should also note that the Your Town/Wicked Local/Patch combination is far from the only game in community journalism. Medium-size dailies such as the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston, GateHouse’s own dailies west and south of Boston, and Rupert Murdoch’s (yes, believe it or not) Standard-Times of New Bedford and Cape Cod Times are among our most important sources of local news. Journalists at those papers tend to be more experienced and better paid, too.

There are two pieces of good news in all of this: there’s a lot of competition for local news in Greater Boston, and competition is good for readers; and, a year after the news business seemed to be collapsing, news outlets are hiring young reporters at a healthy clip in order to staff new hyperlocal sites.

Hard times working the Patch

Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz today writes about Patch.com, the AOL-owned network of hyperlocal news sites that is (excuse me) sprouting up around the country.

As I noted earlier, Diaz writes that Patch is up against considerable competition in Greater Boston, principally from GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local websites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites — both of which, unlike Patch, are tied to established newspapers.

There are already 13 Patch sites in Massachusetts, with more to come.

After I posted my earlier Patch item, I heard from a Patch local editor (LE, in Patch-speak) who described working conditions that sound pretty challenging. Granted, community journalists in general work very hard for not much money. But the LE who wrote to me suggested that Patch takes it to another level.

The LE who contacted me asked that her name not be used, but gave me permission to publish her e-mail. I have verified that she is who she says she is. I don’t consider this to be the last word, and I would welcome a response from Patch. The e-mail:

The working conditions for local editors at Patch sites raise the question of whether this model is sustainable or about whether this is the reality for journalists working in this new media age.

Basically, the job is 24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off — nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract. (Some regional editors do try to help; others don’t.) This time-off issue has become a major concern among local editors. You might hear about the 70-hour work weeks. Yes, 70 hours and more. It’s a start-up and all that, and I knew it would be hard work going in. But what is becoming distressing is this sense that I can’t get a break. I’ve worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I’ve never worked so much in my life.

Patch has a policy that it the local editor’s responsibility to find our nights/weekend/vacation replacements. And we must pay that person out of our freelance budgets. I’m just three months into this job, and I’ve heard from LEs around the country that this task of finding your replacement can be daunting, because it is hard to find qualified journalists who have that sort of time to do a vacation fill-in — who who will do it for what Patch pays its freelancers. I’ve been hearing that LEs who have been around longer, up to a year, are starting to question whether the job is worth it.

And, it’s not just being a reporter, but it’s also being a city editor/assignment editor/managing editor/copy editor, and it’s handling freelance payments (and freelance payment troubleshooting), doing videos, monitoring calender and event listings, doing some of our own marketing, and even HR. It seems the business model of this organization is to add tasks, traditionally handled by others in other organizations, to the plate of the local editors. More recently, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible, time-wise, to do the kind of enterprise journalism I would like.

Maybe I should be grateful I have a job and stop griping.

Follow-up: “A few more thoughts on Patch.com.”

Patching in to AOL’s Patch (II)

Old friend Mark Leccese, blogging at Boston.com, offers further thoughts on the competition among Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and Boston.com’s Your Town initiative.

Let me repeat: The most interesting local online journalism is taking place at the grassroots. And no one in Greater Boston does a better job of aggregating it than Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub. If you didn’t know that already, well, now you do.

(Disclosure: Media Nation is part of Gaffin’s Boston Blogs advertising network.)

Earlier item.