How the mighty have fallen. America Online once boasted huge subscriber growth, a top online brand and a buyout of the top American media company, Time Warner. But you only have to look as far as the name of that company -- with AOL excised -- to see how the online division has hit hard times. Now the company is facing SEC investigations into accounting practices, bleeding dial-up subscribers bolting for broadband, and a steep ad sales drop-off.
So it surely piqued my interest to see that one of AOL's new initiatives was in news, with a press release trumpeting a "new interactive news experience" and "involvement journalism." Could stodgy old AOL transform itself into a purveyor of cutting-edge participatory journalism?
AOL News has long offered little more than aggregated wire service stories, not that unlike other big portals -- such as Yahoo and MSN. But after the merger, it made a big effort to promote the integration of Time Warner content -- of which there was plenty. Much of AOL News' recent change has to do with revamping access to even more of its various news content partners, including The New York Times, ABC News, Comedy Central and The Wall Street Journal. Could dusty, musty AOL blow my mind?
Not exactly. The news experience is still far from participatory, and it is only slightly more interactive than in previous incarnations. Skeptics, such as author and journalist Kara Swisher -- who has written two books on AOL -- say that AOL is a service provider, a software company that shouldn't pretend to be a news organization -- even though it boasts 24 million news viewers who stumble into top stories through the AOL welcome screen.
For a person just signing up for AOL (like me, though I had been a member for many years in a previous life), the news is pretty hard to find. My computer was preloaded with AOL 8, which insisted on including a "how-to" guide for new members in the welcome page's spotlight, which should have had news in it. When I finally upgraded to AOL 9, the startup was better, with rotating news features in the spotlight.
Still, the only interactivity I encountered in a couple days playing with the proprietary service and the new HTML Web site (also for members only) was a poll here and there and highlighted comments from reader forums. Only after I spoke with Lewis D'Vorkin, AOL editor-in-chief of news and sports, did I find out that a limited, but growing number of stories each day got the "interactive package" treatment, with links to message boards, video, other stories and more.
The Web site made it even harder to find news, other than a lone story in a tiny spotlight. The way in is through "My AOL," which doesn't scream "news" to me. D'Vorkin said the product was still in transition mode and that they hoped to add more to the AOL.com portal.
In future versions, D'Vorkin said, AOL News will include more links to user blogs (known as "AOL Journals"), along with user-submitted photos and more participatory elements. Though the AOL News staff has not been beefed up for the effort -- standing steady at 24 staffers -- D'Vorkin said that AOL News is a big priority at the company, with 70 percent of all AOL members visiting the section each month.
One feature that did stand out for me was the Election 2004 coverage, with a Political Insider page that included six columnists each on the left and right side of the ideological spectrum. Also, the sports and entertainment coverage is relatively deep, while free access to pay video from ABC News and CNN was a nice plus.
I was impressed that the folks at AOL seem intent on getting their members involved in the news process. And there are a lot of members still: AOL News was ranked No. 1 in news by comScore Media Metrix for October 2003, with 24 million unique visitors that month, who mainly saw the top news story from the AOL welcome screen. (That number does not include visitors to AOL.com, which added news only recently.) D'Vorkin told me that AOL had the unique ability to include readers more than in other media.
"What we bring to the table is the ability for people to communicate," D'Vorkin said in a phone conversation. "You can't communicate with TV; it's very difficult to communicate on radio. You can't communicate with newspapers. You write a letter to the editor and it's the equivalent of throwing a message in the bottle in the ocean. Maybe it gets there, maybe it doesn't. But online with AOL you can see your contribution online instantly."
That might be true, but your contribution still sits in a forum, possibly multiple clicks off the original news story, which could be clicks off a front or welcome page. One exception is a little box on the upper right corner of the Top News page called "What America Thinks," where you can cycle through an assortment of reader thoughts on a hot subject.
D'Vorkin, 51, has been working at AOL News for the past 18 months. He also has been executive editor at Forbes magazine and page one editor at The Wall Street Journal. He said that AOL members are interested in stories that have "an emotional core, a personality core, a controversial core -- not a process story."
While other news sites obsess over ways to sell advertising or lock down paid content, AOL News is a different beast, acting as another way for AOL to get members involved and stay with the service. D'Vorkin said his most important goal is to "provide relevancy for AOL members" and the metrics he watches are news visits, frequency of visits, message board posts, and multimedia streams served.
As AOL tries to pitch a broadband add-on service -- as dial-up members bleed off -- the news experience now is optimized for broadband, while keeping dial-up viewers in mind, D'Vorkin says. There's now a daily Webcast that comes on at about 6 pm covering what they believe to be the most interesting story of the day. Overall, broadband users are twice as likely to consume news as dial-up users, according to D'Vorkin.
Observers weigh in
One way to look at the new AOL News is as a reaction to the computer-generated Google News, a phenomenon of aggregation that has proved to be a powerful source of alternative sources for news. AOL has taken a different tack, trying to be human in the face of the machine.
"Google News has its merits, and I'm sure one day they'll perfect their algorithms," D'Vorkin said. "But at the moment, I think wherever you go, the editorial input, the human input -- there's a tremendous benefit to that. Maybe [Google News] works for some people, but it's very sterile, and I'd like to think that there's a bit of a soul to the AOL News product. The media business is still one about emotion."
Swisher, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal whose most recent AOL book is "There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere" on the AOL/Time Warner merger, thinks that news has never been a raison d'etre for the service.
"Most people go there not for content," Swisher told me. "It's still a really small draw. If you look at one of those pie charts, content has never been an important aspect for people using that service. It's mostly e-mail and access and community and people going off to the Web. They don't have any reporters. It's just cut and paste. But Yahoo does it better, and Google is doing it without any people! It's ridiculous to position it as an editorial product, when it is just a compilation of news and information. In other words, it might be a lot of effort for a small payoff."
Swisher was a little more positive when it came to interactivity, and said AOL has always been about chat and letting users have their say. "The discussion groups, blogging, that's great," she said. "It's a tool and it's not editorial. And it has relevance as a hot topic of the day."
Other die-hard skeptics seem to be warming to AOL's new approach. Eric Meyer, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and managing partner of Newslink.org, said he applauds what AOL is doing -- even if he may lose his status as a curmudgeon for saying it.
"AOL always has had a great sense for what keeps people coming back," Meyer told me via e-mail. "This is not some gimmick to lure disinterested young people. It's all about creating habit. Not only is AOL's action a smart move in a business sense. It's a smart move journalistically and for our society. It encourages everyday people to become more involved in everyday news rather than appealing solely to some informational elite bent on backroom dealings. It democratizes the news rather than intellectualizing it."
But consultant Doug Weaver, president of Upstream Group, is not convinced that the aggregated approach to news will win online. Weaver told me via e-mail that aggregators might save money producing a news site and can generate a lot of page views. But maybe that's not the most important thing.
"To me, this move doesn't answer the basic question: What does AOL stand for?" Weaver said. "It doesn't make them an authoritative content player and it's really not offering their customers the superior technology or experience to beat back Yahoo or MSN in the portal wars." (Weaver did mention that he's done work for AOL, Time Inc. and MSN in the past, and currently is doing some work for Yahoo.)
All in all, the new AOL News seems to be more of a marketing idea than a radical new approach that includes participatory journalism. AOL has not even promoted the revamp to its own users. Of course it does have the advantage of drawing from a huge audience of readers and chatters (and maybe bloggers) to make interactivity part of their news habit. But it could be too little too late for a beginner-oriented service that is struggling to redefine itself in a broadband world where the training wheels have come off.