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AOL logo AOL
Key links:
Primary website:
aol.com
Primary Twitter:
@aol

AOL, formerly known as America Online, is a web portal, online content producer, and Internet service provider.

AOL owns about 80 websites under various brands, including the tech blogs Engadget and Techcrunch, the financial site DailyFinance and the sports blog network Fanhouse, the tech review site gdgt, and the Huffington Post, as well as the mapping service Mapquest and Weblogs Inc., the blogging network founded by Jason Calacanis. AOL also cofounded the popular celebrity news site TMZ, though that site is now owned by Warner Brothers.

AOL was founded in 1983 and reached prominence in the 1990s as a major web portal and provider of dial-up Internet service.

In 2000, AOL merged with Time Warner in the largest merger in American business history. The merger ultimately failed, and AOL spun off from Time Warner to become an independent company again in December 2009.

AOL’s traditional business of dial-up Internet service has declined over the past decade, and its traffic as a web portal has decreased, as well. It has fewer than a quarter of the 20,000-plus employees it had in 2004. Its web traffic still remains strong as compared to traditional news organizations, although its dial-up business still drives most of the company’s profit. In 2012, it sold more than 800 of its patents to Microsoft for about $1 billion.

AOL bought the social network Bebo in 2008 for $850 million and sold it two years later for less than $10 million. In 2013, it also bought the web video company Adap.TV for $405 million and launched a subscription-bundling service called Gathr. It bought the personalization company Gravity the following year.

As part of a spinoff from Time Warner, AOL began a push toward original content in 2009 and rebranded itself as “Aol.” later that year.

AOL had one of the web’s largest news sites, with 40 million uniques in April 2011, though AOL News was folded into the Huffington Post later that year.

In early 2009, it launched the political news blog Politics Daily, which quickly became one of the largest political sites on the web. In 2010, it announced plans to hire hundreds of journalists to add to its 500 full-time editorial employees and thousands of freelancers and to group its 80 sites into 17 larger networks. After the purchase of the Huffington Post, AOL was estimated to have an editorial staff of as many as 1,300 as of June 2011. Politics Daily was shuttered in 2011 when AOL acquired Huffington Post, and the domain now simply forwards to Huffington Post’s politics page.

In early 2011, a source leaked a 58-slide PowerPoint deck titled “The AOL Way,” which detailed the company’s strategic direction of driving down the cost of its editorial content while boosting page views and boosting ad rates with fewer, higher profile ad slots. The strategy was widely criticized and was prompted a string of high-profile defections from Engadget.

In May 2011, AOL announced it would launch AOL Industry, a group of business-to-business sites devoted to energy, defense, and government. (It was sold to Breaking Media in February 2013.) Later in 2011, it launched a daily magazine for the iPad called Editions and a video hosting site for publishers called Editors Room.

AOL’s videos were kept off YouTube until October 2012, when the company reached a deal to create YouTube channels for each of its sub-brands.

Patch

Main article: Patch

In 2009 AOL purchased Patch, a network of local news sites staffed by local reporters and community contributors. The move was the beginning of AOL’s move into producing news and other content, which would later include the purchase of Outside.in and The Huffington Post. After the acquisition, the company has pledged to dramatically grow the network and invest, adding an estimated $75 million into the company in 2010. After years of losses, AOL sold a majority stake in Patch to the investment firm Hale Global in 2014, retaining a minority share.

Outside.in

Main article: Outside.in

Outside.in is an aggregator of maps and local news that was purchased by AOL in March 2011 for a sum believed to be under $10 million. Under AOL’s plans Outside.in, which was founded in 2006 in Brooklyn, will be integrated into the existing network of Patch sites to create additional local content.

Seed

Seed was proposed in 2009 by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong as a way to coordinate work by thousands of freelance contributors, who would be assigned articles based on search terms and paid based on traffic as part of an algorithm-based system similar to the model of Demand Media and other large-scale online content producers. (It acquired the online video company StudioNow for a similar purpose with web video.) The plans were generally met with skepticism by media critics.

Seed was launched in December 2009, and former New York Times reporter Saul Hansell was hired that month as Seed’s first employee. He issued his first call for freelance writers shortly afterward.

In May 2011, Seed was folded into AOL’s Advertising.com group as a “B2B” product. Four months later, it was reported to be defunct.

Through Seed, AOL tried to interview every one of the 2,000 bands playing at the South by Southwest festival in March 2010. The project’s site and freelance arrangements ran into some difficulty, though hundreds of interviews were published.

Like other freelance-driven online content companies, Seed has been criticized for giving low pay to its contributors.

The Huffington Post

Main article: The Huffington Post

In early 2011 AOL purchased The Huffington Post for $315 million in cash and stock, furthering Armstrong’s vision of reshaping the company into a news and content titan. Huffington was named president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, which now included all of AOL’s editorial properties, including Engadget, TechCrunch, and Patch. In May 2011, the Huffington Post officially absorbed AOL News. Huffington’s oversight was reduced to solely the Huffington Post in 2012, though that site had absorbed numerous other AOL brands by that point.

After the acquisition, AOL laid off about 200 employees and many freelancers under Huffington’s leadership.

Peers, allies, & competitors:
Recent Nieman Lab coverage:
Feb. 18, 2014 / Caroline O'Donovan
In Connecticut, the Independent Media Network tries to succeed where Patch couldn’t — AOL’s Patch was perhaps the most noteworthy attempt to network local online news. It was built around hundreds of locally focused sites, yes, but it relied on a common technology back end and a shared ad sales staf...
Jan. 29, 2014 / Ken Doctor
The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a news site — You’d think the new digital printing presses were minting money. Just within the last month, all kinds of details have emerged about the construction of new, digital, high-quality-aiming national news organizations...
Jan. 17, 2014 / Mark Coddington
This Week in Review: Net neutrality on life support, and Google and Facebook nab startups — The end of net neutrality?: Net neutrality was dealt its most severe blow in recent history this week as a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction to re...
Dec. 20, 2013 / Mark Coddington
This Week in Review: A judge deals the NSA a blow, and breaking down Patch’s fatal flaws — A legal blow to NSA spying: After months of criticism and protests, the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance program received a more formal blow this week with a ruling by a federal judge that the program a...
Aug. 23, 2013 / Mark Coddington
This Week in Review: Censorship in the U.K., and Al Jazeera America’s promise and problems — Censorship and surveillance in the U.K.: The ongoing concerns about government surveillance and intimidation of journalists escalated this week thanks to two disturbing events in the U.K. involving The Guardian. In the f...

Recently around the web, from Mediagazer:

Primary author: Mark Coddington. Main text last updated: January 23, 2014.
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