When I gaze upon the lumbering beast known as AOL Time Warner, I'm reminded of the parable of the elephant and the blind men who, inspecting only one part of the animal, alternately suggested that the elephant must be very much like a tree, a snake, a rope, a wall, a spear, a fan.
When it comes to AOL Time Warner, point of view is all. And so we interviewed an AOL TW corporate executive; AOL's news director; a rank-and-file reporter at one of its publications; three students who follow the news on AOL; and a veteran media critic. Each has a different take on how this beast is shaping up.
To freshen our allegory a bit, what we have here is not really an elephant at all but a genetic experiment: the world's first bioengineered mega-business -- the corporate equivalent of a geep or zorse, an unnatural hybrid genetically engineered to sustain itself on a force-fed diet of synergy.
Except the experiment hasn't gone as its progenitors predicted.
Consider: Since the merger was announced on Jan. 10, 2000, the company's value has decreased by a mind-blowing $160 billion. Last month, AOL Time Warner took a $54 billion quarterly write-down -- the biggest quarterly loss in U.S. history. (To put that in perspective, the entire U.S. newspaper industry is worth $55 billion.) Last week, as new CEO Richard Parsons assumed the company's reins, he signaled that a back-to-basics approach was in order, one that would focus on improving the fundamentals of the company's individual business units.
In recent weeks the news media have lavished saturation coverage upon the company's woes. But almost all of the attention has focused on the its incredible shrinking stock price; the prospect of layoffs; or the new parlor game among analysts and pundits of predicting what the empire's breakup might fetch.
Meantime, barely a column inch has been written about the impact of the merger and the company's financial troubles on other key players: the public. The company's tens of millions of customers. You and me.
Let's forget our stock portfolios for a moment and focus on something that's much more significant over the long haul: the vitality and independence of the news outlets at the world's largest media company.
What impact has the merger had on the news operations of the world's first Internet-powered media company? How is this game of media monopoly affecting the players -- the journalists, the readers, the public?
NEXT | The executive: "AOL is learning how to become a media company"
Senior Editor J.D. Lasica hosts a page of online resources on his home page at jdlasica.com. He also writes a popular weblog, New Media Musings.