Thursday, February 10, 2011

AOL + HuffPo? Good for Ariana, Bad for journalism

And with that, we all suffer: those of us who report the news. And those of us who believe in -- and rely on -- its relevance.

Among all the words spent ruminating on the merger, among the best come from the Los Angeles Times' Tim Ruttan, who suggests that when journalism becomes content, we all lose. He also compares the merger of one site -- AOL -- that pays very little with one -- HuffPo -- that doesn't pay at all to "a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates." Here's a taste:

The media-saturated environment in which we live has been called "the information age" when, in fact, it's the data age. Information is data arranged in an intelligible order. Journalism is information collected and analyzed in ways people actually can use. Though AOL and the Huffington Post claim to have staked their future on giving visitors to their sites online journalism, what they actually provide is "content," which is what journalism becomes when it's adulterated into a mere commodity.

Consider first AOL's pre-merger efforts, which centered on a handful of commentators and a national network of intensely local news sites called Patch. The quality of those efforts varies widely, but the best ones are edited by journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs and buyouts that have beset traditional news organizations over the last decade. These editor-reporters are given reasonable benefits and salaries that are about what beginning reporters at major newspapers were paid three decades ago. Their contributors, by contrast, are paid a maximum of $50 an article, often less.

The results pretty much conform to the old maxim that you get what you pay for; the best Patch journalism almost invariably is being done by experienced journalists who do the work out of idealism or desperation. What happens when that pool of exploitable surplus labor dries up — as it will with time — is anybody's guess, but the smart money would bet on something that isn't pretty.

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