NSFW: On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're A Journalist

So here’s an odd thing. Since TechCrunch was acquired by AOL, there has been a slight but appreciable uptick in the number of stories we’ve run about our new parent company. In the last month alone, we’ve reported their Q1 goals, three new content partnerships, their new SVP of technologies and even their latest billboard.

None of this, I should hasten to add, is because AOL has told us to write about them; so far the company has remained true to its promise of staying editorially hands-off. Instead, I suspect our new-found interest in the goings on at 770 Broadway is more a variation of availability bias: we hear a story about AOL and, whereas a year ago we might have (perhaps unfairly) shrugged off the thought of covering a dying company, today we think “oh, yeah, I wonder what Mom and Dad are up to now”.

So then, given that our editorial ears prick up at every squeak of our corporate overlords’ floorboards, it’s an odd thing that this week’s New Yorker profile of CEO Tim Armstrong failed to get even the most cursory mention on these pages. Not least because it was pretty damn favourable about Armstrong; describing his rise from entrepreneurial genius to potential “savior” for AOL and even quoting Eric Schmidt saying: “He is among the best and most inspirational sales managers I have ever worked with”.

The profile got loads of coverage elsewhere, so why did no-one here comment on it? Maybe the rest of the article provides a clue….

“AOL does not seem to be saving journalism, and journalism does not yet seem to be saving AOL…. The company has hired many talented journalists… much of what AOL publishes, though is piffle…”

Uh oh.

“Perhaps Tim Armstrong will be able to make AOL rise again, but there’s a much more common path followed by digital companies – like Wang, DEC, Starwave, Excite, and Lycos. They rise, then they sputter, and then they crash.”

I’ll get my coat.

In fact, in contrast to the profile’s love for Daddy Tim, writer Ken Auletta’s verdict on the fate of the company as a whole is damning. As he points out, for all of AOL’s insistence that they are a content business, the fact remains that 80% of the company’s profits still comes from subscriptions. Editorial operations play a quiet second fiddle to the four million people who inexplicably still pay AOL in order to check their email.

‘[M]any of [AOL’s subscribers] are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty-five dollars a month to get online and check their email. “The dirty little secret,” a former AOL executive says, “is that seventy-five per cent of the people who subscribe to AOL’s dial-up service don’t need it”’

And Auletta’s dismissal of our – yeah, hoo boy, I guess it really should be ‘our’ now – content operation doesn’t stop there. Sure, he acknowledges, AOL employs 900 journalists, but even the promise of a steady paycheck in the current hideous media employment climate isn’t enough stop “tensions between the writers and executives”. One reporter at AOL explains the problem thus: “when I started here it was all about page views. Then they decided on a different metric, S.E.O [search engine optimisation]. What they never realized is that you can’t build a real jounalistic brand that way.”

To underscore that point, Auletta takes a quick dance around AOL.com’s much-vaunted home page – skipping over headlines like “KATIE AND TOM MAY BOYCOTT OSCARS”, “CURLED LASHES WITH NO MASCARA AT ALL” and “VIDEOS: HILARIOUS PETS” before alighting on the fact that the company doesn’t employ a single overseas news correspondent. By way of contrast, he cites the New York Times which pays seven million dollars annually just to cover Iraq and Afghanistan. (So don’t expect to see headlines like “HAMID KARZAI MAY BOYCOTT OSCARS” or “VIDEOS: HILARIOUS HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES” gracing AOL.com any time soon).

Auletta’s piece must – and should – have made painful reading at AOLHQ. After all, he’s right that the majority of AOL’s editorial output is total horseshit. And yet, and yet – his critique lacks an important punchline: so is everybody else’s.

The fact is, it’s almost impossible to find a single ‘content’ company on the web that maintains a horseshit:quality ratio better than 10:1. Just look at the homepages of Yahoo! and MSN, boasting the respective top stories: “Why Clooney Won’t Marry” and “Five Things You Shouldn’t Do When You Propose”. For all its lofty ideals, even The Huffington Post has succumbed to the temptation of bolstering costly and time consuming think-pieces with an avalanche of linkbait crap and blatant cut-and-paste jobs from other blogs. “We always provide a link!” they protest, as if that’s an excuse. (“At least I’m proud of myself!” cried the kitten killer.)

Tina Brown’s Huffpo-rival, The Daily Beast, is at it too. Sure, today’s top stories include a piece on a possible Egyptian revolution, but what’s that right underneath? A slideshow of “Ashton Kutcher’s 10 Best Shirtless Moments”. Hell, even Salon – whose journalism I praised the other week – isn’t immune to the page-view boosting lure of the slideshow: today their front page boasts a pictorial guide to “Hotels with a dark past” (including the Bates Motel, which doesn’t even exist) while on Friday they bravely addressed the issue of the child sexualisation with a gallery of “shocking” but  “sexy” child images. Wowsers.

But while it would be easy to attack Tim or Carol or Arriana or Tina for the dumbing down of Internet content, let’s assign the blame where it really belongs. If most Internet content is horseshit, it’s because most Internet users want it to be.

Auletta’s source derides AOL for its obsession with SEO – an obsession it shares with every other content company – but, for good or ill, all SEO does is gives the people what they want. AOL’s (and HuffPo’s and Yahoo’s) front pages are packed with celebrity-obsessed crap because that’s what people are searching for, and that’s what they click on. It’s a problem at TechCrunch too: in the past seven days, almost three times as many people clicked on our headline about famous people using Twitter as cared about Mike’s interview with Google’s three most senior executives.

For free, ad-supported content, pageviews are king – and pageviews are what slideshows and celebrity fluff and SEO generate. Those horseshit pageviews are then magically transformed into money which is used to hire more staffers to produce more horseshit in order to generate more pageviews. And so the world wide web keeps turning.

If Armstrong – or any other CEO or Editor In Chief – decided it was time to reverse the ratio; hiring foreign correspondents, axing slideshows and investing in quality over quantity, the result would be amazing. For about a week. Then pageviews would take a dramatic hit as search engines stopped unloading their daily cargo of drooling, eyelash-curling morons. That drop in pageviews would cause a commensurate drop in revenue which would result in the rapid firing of all of those costly journalists and a return to business as usual. The public gets what the public wants, as the Jam so accurately sang.

The only surprising thing, really, is that Auletta talks about AOL’s – and by extension the whole of the web’s – crappy SEO “piffle” like it’s a bad thing. Hell, if I were a writer at the New Yorker, or any other publication that’s rooted in print, I’d be fucking overjoyed.

In print, things are different. For a start, there’s no SEO; not least because – generally speaking – people don’t know exactly what they’re looking for when they pick up a magazine or newspaper. In that regard, periodicals like the New Yorker actually have a lot more in common with cable TV than they do with the web.

As the web gets more pandering and fawning to the precise whims of the masses, cable and magazines provide a welcome break from the tyranny of search, allowing users to passively browse the newstand – or flip through channels – letting content wash over them until they’re struck by something interesting. People might not know they’re looking for an episode of NCIS, or an article about AOL’s fortunes, but they’re glad when they find it. No-one – absolutely no-one – knew they were looking for Seymour Hersh’s expose of Abu Ghraib, but by God did they pay attention when it appeared in the pages of the New Yorker.

(In the unlikely event that a writer at AOL or Yahoo had stumbled across the Abu Ghraib story, the throw-up-the-facts-and-iterate-later culture of web editorial would have slain it in the womb. Also: who buys banner ads against prisoner abuse photos? Maybe if it were a slideshow…)

Moreover, as the scramble for advertiser dollars continues to take its toll online, there exists a real opportunity for old-fashioned editorial curation to thrive on other platforms, both old and new. The joy I felt today flicking through the New Yorker – stumbling across Tad Friend’s wonderful piece about Lenny Bruce tribute actor, Steve Cuiffo and a short story by Woody Allen (Woody Allen!) before reaching the Armstrong profile – was easily the highlight of my day. After I’ve finished writing this, I’ll probably switch on HBO and let them curate my entertainment for an hour or so.

In both cases I’m more than happy to pay; in part for the privilege of not having to think and search, but also for the tantalising prospect of discovering something I didn’t know I was looking for. And, lest you think this is another Luddite – ALL TECHNOLOGY IS BAD – screed, it isn’t; the New Yorker I was flicking through was on my Kindle – an electronic edition delivered last Monday morning (at a total cost of nearly forty bucks a year). I would have read it sooner but first I had to work my way through my iPad subscriptions to the Times (of London) ($150) and the Economist (another $150). In the digital age, print isn’t so much a medium as a state of mind: a place where people browse rather than search, and are quite happy to read an article that spans three pages let alone three lines.

Earlier this week, we reported that AOL is preparing to launch a new iPad app – called “Editions” and taglined “The magazine that reads you”. Educated best-guesses suggest a kind of Flipboard-esque app which allows users to curate their own magazine. If that is what “Editions” turns out to be – because God knows the world needs another user-powered content aggregator – then I have a modest suggestion for what AOL might do next.

Perhaps instead of pandering solely to the ‘wisdom’ of the web-based masses, the company could use some of its millions of subscription dollars to develop a few high-quality, subscription-based – professionally curated – publications, specifically for the iPad and Kindle platforms. Its own digitally-native, original-content-filled equivalent to the New Yorker… or at least to Esquire or Cosmopolitan.

Maybe then in a few years, when those four million Internet access subscribers have either met their maker or come to their senses, the 80% of profits they once provided will be replaced by subscription revenues of a different, more defensible, kind.