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April 8, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: AOL’s purge, aggregation v. original reporting, and a Times pay plan defense

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Arianna’s AOL thins its ranks: Some weeks are just like this: The three biggest stories were the Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post vs. the New York Times. I’ll try to tackle them one at a time, starting with HuffPo (and AOL), then covering its battle with the Times, then going to the Times’ paywall. Clear as mud? All right then.

While we might have thought HuffPo would have been absorbed into “the AOL Way” when it was bought last month, but as the Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Vascellaro reported, it seems the reverse is happening: Arianna Huffington is doing away with parts of AOL’s content farm-ish strategy and remaking it in her own image. That may seem to be a good thing, but there’s a less happy side, too: Job cuts. By this week, they had hit freelancers in just about every content area at AOL — business and finance (though some will apparently be hired into full-time jobs), TV, and movies. (In the latter case, the executive asked laid-off stringers to continue writing for free, then got fired herself.)

All these cuts weren’t exactly unexpected, but that didn’t make them popular, of course. Laid-off freelancer Carter Maness described his frustration at the way AOL handled the move, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici wondered if the laid-off writers might have a case for termination without notice under New York law. Others are chafing under Huffington’s labor conditions, too: In the Los Angeles Times, Michael Walker compared the Newspaper Guild’s boycott of HuffPo with the 1979 Comedy Store strike. Bercovici criticized the comparison, arguing that the work of HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers is of relatively little value to the site.

TechCrunch’s Paul Carr (also part of the AOL empire) couldn’t muster much sympathy. The value of writing for the Huffington Post, he said, is greater than the sacrifice of writing for free. Carr also asserted that most of the laid-off writers weren’t producing much of value anyway. “A mass cull of non-talent is exactly what Arianna Huffington needed to do to assert her editorial authority over Aol’s content,” he wrote. Meanwhile, the American Journalism Review took a look at some of the real talent that’s left — the (paid) reporters who have left prestigious news outlets to write for HuffPo.

The aggregation-original reporting showdown: Ever since this passive-aggressive column by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, the Times and the Huffington Post have been engaging in an odd little tiff with the general theme of “aggregation vs. original reporting.” Both sides kept up the fight this week, in the form of an April Fool’s paywall announcement by Huffington and a nasty interview of Huffington in the New York Times Magazine. Reuters’ Felix Salmon also documented the Times’ refusal to credit (or link to) HuffPo when writing about a few government documents it leaked.

Several observers attempted to make some sense of this conflict, and the Times didn’t come out well in any of those analyses. Salmon said the Times is lashing out because it’s feeling threatened by HuffPo, and New York’s Chris Rovsar argued that in order to sell its paid-content plan, the Times is “turning Arianna Huffington into a straw man, using a caricature of her standards to better frame their own.” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis tried to lay out exactly what the Times thinks is wrong with HuffPo: It’s not actually content, but instead conversation and aggregation, which is a) worthless, and b) cheating.

Aaron Bady made a deeper version of Rovsar’s point, drawing on a paper presented last weekend by CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson, who argued that while the lines between “aggregating” and “original reporting” are talked about as if they’re clear, they are pretty blurry and unstable. Bady then concluded that both Keller and Huffington are trying to stake out their status as the center of Real Journalism by painting the other as being less than real. The Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles argued that all reporting is aggregation, though Anderson was skeptical.

Defending the Times’ meter: As Bady noted, the Times has a huge incentive to defend its journalistic turf right now — a newly instituted plan to begin charging for its online content. Times execs addressed some of the conversation (and criticism) swirling around its pay system in a panel at Columbia University (audio here). Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. disputed reports that the paper spent $40 million to develop the plan, and paidContent’s Staci Kramer reported that the number is actually closer to $25 million — including about a third of the company’s 2010 capital investment.

In the discussion, Sulzberger also ridiculed the idea that the Times’ pay system is too complex, sarcastically comparing it to print subscription plans. He also likened getting around the pay plan online to stealing a paper from the newsstand, as he’s described it in the past. (The Columbia Journalism Review also has a couple of notes about Sulzberger’s comments about possible threats from HuffPo and the Wall Street Journal.)

Another news organization entered into the Times meter-beating space late last week: The Atlantic Wire, with a daily summary of what from the Times is most worth reading. The Lab’s Megan Garber explained why she thinks it’s more of a “respectful tribute” to the Times than the stereotypical parasitic aggregation. And media analyst Ken Doctor broke down the Times’ free-subscription partnership with the carmaker Lincoln.

SB Nation’s gain is AOL’s loss: The sports blog network SB Nation made the week’s most intriguing personnel move when it snapped up much of the team behind the popular tech blog Engadget to make its own move into the world of gadget/tech blogging. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer talked to SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff about why the move into tech makes sense (advertisers are looking for “young, tech-savvy, affluent males” — the same demographic targeted by sports blogs).

Of course, this story, too, ties into AOL, as Engadget is an AOL blog, and Bankoff is the guy who brought it into the AOL fold back in 2005. The New York Times’ David Carr, who broke the story, used the defections as a cautionary tale for AOL, concluding that “AOL has found a way to acquire what it cannot build, but it still hasn’t found a way to hang on to what it has.”

Outgoing Engadget editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky hinted at his beef with AOL in his post announcing the move, saying SB Nation believes in new media’s potential as an “antidote to big publishing houses and SEO spam.” And while Arianna Huffington is helping AOL move away from the “AOL Way” that the Engadget folks disliked so much, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted that her strategy is new and internal suspicions about it are likely to be high. Meanwhile, Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson argued that readers don’t care who’s in charge of Engadget.

Reading roundup: Other stuff happened outside the AOL/Huffington Post/New York Times bubble — honest! Here’s a quick overview:

— The University of Texas held its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida blogged the heck out of it, producing 16 posts on the conference’s panels and speakers. A few posts to check out in particular: Former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller’s reasons for optimism about journalism, poor use of Twitter by mainstream media outlets, and lessons on audience engagement. I also summarized the conference’s main themes.

— Some paid-content notes: British advertising magnate Sir Martin Sorrell argued for the media to charge for news online (alongside government subsidy), but GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram thought his idea was terrible. Elsewhere, the San Francisco Chronicle is jumping on the paid-content train, and the AP’s Jonathan Stray proposed an open-API paid syndication system between content creators and aggregators.

— For the sports-media crowd: Dallas Mavericks owner and former Yahoo mogul Mark Cuban tried to parse out what media sources should and shouldn’t be allowed in locker rooms. Dan Shanoff of Quickish broke down Cuban’s points, and Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports’ Hardball talk issued a defense of paid bloggers and reporters in general.

— The local content network Examiner.com is often seen as one of the web’s “content farms,” but it took a couple of steps toward higher quality this week, producing a white paper that analyzed their quality issues and proposed pay incentives based on quality guidelines, and adding several respected media folks to its advisory board.

— If you’re wondering how The Daily is doing, it’s tough to find solid information, since News Corp. is keeping it close to the vest. But the Lab’s Josh Benton find a nifty way to guesstimate its engagement by measuring in-app tweets. Here’s the resulting data, in two fascinating posts.

POSTED     April 8, 2011, 10 a.m.
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