The news last week that AOL has grown the number of journalists it employs - inclusive of full and part time, or freelance - to 3,000 from 500 since Tim Armstrong took over this year has stuck with me. I've been thinking, "Three thousand journalists? Why?"
I went back online to find the story and what's clear from all the search results is that the growth in the number of journalists has been going on at AOL all year. TechCrunch was impressed when the number hit 1,500 in July. Since then, according coverage in TechCrunch of the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco last week, the number has doubled to 3,000. Doubled. Since July.
Tim Armstrong has declared that content will be king in his remake of AOL and I have been rooting for him on that basis. He knows from his Google days that content - ergo, context - has a propitious effect on advertising. But, 3,000 journalists? Why?
Part of it may be driven by Patch, the hyper-local information resource of which Armstrong was an owner and which got sold to AOL after he joined the Company. Fulfilling a hyper-local information mission will rack-up journalists quickly. Part of it is clearly MediaGlow, AOL's collection of proprietary content web sites that are refugees of the by-gone portal era. But, in reports, Armstrong hints at a tech strategy - a content management strategy - as the driver of AOL's appetite for journalistic talent.
The New York Times Company, according to their 2008 annual report, has roughly 9,000 employees. Nearly half of them, 4,000, or so, work for the New York Times Media Group. The New York Times Media Group is inclusive of The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, NYTimes.com, and the New York Times News Services Division, which - among other things - supplies syndication services to 1,500 newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and 80 countries worldwide. Thus, roughly 4,000 people, not all of whom are journalists, gather and distribute content, globally, preserving the highest levels of quality.
The New York Times Company also owns About.com. The About.com team of 235 people (also per the 2008 Annual Report) supports 770 About.com guides. These are freelancers writing on more than 70,000 topics that have produced over 2 million pieces of original content over the years.
Suddenly, in a side-by-side comparison, I am afraid of what 3,000 AOL journalists are likely to do to the neighborhood. Do we really need another Internet?
Seriously, what incremental value are 3,000 journalists likely to produce for us online and, as importantly, for AOL? Editors at the New York Times would be delighted for more reporting resources. Without them, I'm still overwhelmed by the content they generate on an average day and most certainly on Sunday.
Digital doesn't require as many trees and won't accidently strike and kill a dog in the driveway, but, even so, how will 3,000 journalists succeed in adding meaningful value to an online experience in a way we can grasp and explain? A mere 770 guides at About.com manage to inform us on over 70,000 topics and all I can say is, gee, that's a lot. How's that working out for them? Would another 2,230 guides able to inform us on an additional 202,727 topics transform About.com from hero to super hero, or - better - catapult its beleaguered parent, the New York Times, into the digital age with the most mojo of any information outlet online? If the answer is yes then - please! - do it, and let the misery end.
It's a very hard question to answer online: How do you successfully exceed the value of all the parts? It's a question that, no doubt, has gnawed at AOL for 15 years (almost exactly). Once it was King. Then, the peasants overran the village and sent it into exile. It has as much to be bitter about as every other main stream media player that saw their estates carved up and given over to condos.
Tim Armstrong is committed to restoring AOL's brand luster which is a good and worthwhile thing that ought to benefit the community - kind of like restoring Grand Central Station in New York. But with 3,000 journalists one senses AOL comes as an army, not as a trading partner. Marching ahead of a horde, pulling a hidden bit of technology, one senses it is back, and it is pissed.