John Montorio Joins HuffPo: Journalism vs Churnalism Battle Rages On

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TechCrunch has learned that John Montorio has been named Culture and Entertainment Editor for Aol’s Huffington Post Media Group content division.

Montorio is a 30-year veteran of two of the country’s biggest newspapers – the New York Times and LA Times – but that’s not why his hiring is news-worthy. It’s news-worthy because it represents a dramatic shift in favour of real journalism within Aol.

Make no mistake there’s a battle raging for the soul of new media. Not the clichéd war between print and Web or between Silicon Valley and New York, but rather a series of internal battles being fought within nearly every publication. It’s the battle between  journalism and churnalism.

On on side are things like Demand Media, The Aol Way and the seduction of cheap hackery that is designed simply to generate easy page views and to help investors to sleep at night. On the other side is stodgy, snobby, old-school journalism which needs to find a new online home if it’s to survive the decade. The latter carries with it the seduction of everything Woodward and Bernstein – and is the only way to really build a media franchise that stands for something and can demand Vanity Fair-like ad premiums.

No company represents this tug of war more ably than our overlords at Aol, to the point where sometimes the battle rages within a single soldier. No sooner had ad sales guru turned CEO Tim Armstrong laid out his SEO-centric “Way”, and renamed the company’s media properties as “towns” ruled by “mayors” than he pulled an apparent 180, acquiring the Huffington Post and naming its founder Arianna Huffington as head of all content.

Huffington quickly did away with towns, mayors and publicly distanced herself from Armstrong’s obsession with metrics over reporting. She’s thinning the piecemeal freelancer ranks in favor of pedigreed full-time editors and promising that college graduate journalists will be mentored by seasoned old hands, not just stuck at a desk rewriting dreck with an SEO-optimized headline.

And while some commentators complained that the cull left some AOL properties with no editorial staff, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the journalism side of the house. Bluntly put: while a number of some great journalists were caught in the cross-fire, some of Aol’s content sites deserved to be decimated. Or worse.

Not even the dorky streets formerly known as TechTown are safe from fighting. The editors of Engadget are quitting en-slow-motion-masse, leaking all sorts of anti-Aol bile to Alley Insider as they go. Meanwhile at TechCrunch, we’ve explicitly been told the Aol Way doesn’t apply to us. Indeed, even though some TC writers – ahem – continue to throw bricks at Tim Armstrong’s content policies, we’ve never once had a memo asking us to curb or alter our editorial voice.

Most writers at TechCrunch and Huffington Post didn’t seek out a job in the middle of this war, we were sold into it. But Montorio is stepping into this fray of his own volition. What was he thinking? In the best traditions of old media, we picked up a landline phone and called him.

“It started with a wonderful conversation with Arianna,” he said, “if there’s such a thing as love at first sight on the telephone, we experienced it. We were of a single mind on so many things”.

So far, so Match.com testimonial. But surely Montorio will at least acknowledge that, to a lot of his former print colleagues, his move represents a step over to the dark side?

“I don’t know why old and new media view each other suspiciously,” he said. “We all have to stop talking about saving newspapers — the big question is how we’re going to save journalism. The Huffington Post is trying to build a great 21st century news organization.”

On SEO foundations?

“Content farming is about giving people what they want — great news organizations give the people what they need.  Trust me, over the past few years, advertisers have exercised tremendous influence over print journalism too… I’ve been in meetings where pressure from advertisers has directly affected editorial policy. Let’s just say, it’s very hard for print to shake its finger [at digital] and say ‘shame on you’. Online, though, there’s so much content that [SEO and journalism] can co-exist… with revenue from SEO paying for real journalism”.

Try telling that to Bill Keller. Just days before Montorio’s hiring, the New York Times’ Executive Editor wrote a blistering editorial about the Huffington Post and AOL’s decision to buy it, saying that “buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is [like a company] announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.“

Indeed while everyone we spoke to for this story was glowing in their praise for Montorio (the NY Times’ Dean Baquet called him “a wonderful journalist” while the paper’s Arthur Gelb counts him “among the very best editors I worked with during my decades as a masthead editor”), we were at least expecting to hear some measure of Keller-style cynicism towards his new employer. In fact we found a surprising enthusiasm amongst the crusty old media elites to embrace the HuffPo and what it represents…

“You have to be pretty stuck in the sand not to get [that blogs like HuffPo are the future]”, said Polk award-winning essayist Frank Rich, who worked with Montorio at the Times and who describes his new gig as “a huge coup for the Huffington Post.” Indeed, Rich credits his own decision to move from the New York Times to New York Magazine in part to the latter publication’s growing web presence. “The print version is increasingly an adjunct to the website” he said, predicting that print vs web will soon be “a distinction without a difference”.

What’s especially interesting about Montorio’s hiring is that, rather than directing hard news, he’ll be heading up entertainment and culture – areas which have traditionally been SEO cash cows. Frank Rich describes his former colleague a brilliant editor of “back of the book” [culture, entertainment, city diary] stuff… He’s wonderful at conceptualization – anyone can create a book section or a culture section – but he knows how to make it ‘pop’.”

Hiring someone with Montorio’s skills means one of two things for the Huffington Post: either a bold step away from Bieber-filled headlines towards quality coverage of the arts, culture and entertainment — or a train-wreck waiting to happen as Armstrong and the Aol bean counters try to force their “Lady Gaga pantsless in Paris” agenda. Isn’t Montorio concerned?

“An editor of mine once said that the worst hire you can make is someone who fits right in. What you want is people who when they get in the pool, they change the water temperature. I want to change the water temperature. Sure there will be some people who don’t like it – who preferred the old temperature – but there will be others who take the opportunity to swim a little faster.”

Tim Armstrong already had his work cut out for him to transition AOL from an Internet company which makes 80% of its profits from users who don’t know they don’t have to pay for dial up anymore to a thriving public company. But Huffington’s quest to transition the company’s content properties from slavish dependence on home page traffic, where content is frequently written to order for advertisers, into a profitable utopia of high quality journalism is far, far more ambitious.

With Montorio’s hiring, Huffington’s vision has moved one step closer to reality. Like everyone at Aol who believes its possible to have both a paycheck and principles, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the thermometer.