This story has been updated from its original version.
New Media is about to meet Old Media. But not in the way you’d think.
AOL is about to launch a politics site, hiring well-respected political journalists to do reporting and analysis, and thus moving the Time Warner division more aggressively toward becoming a producer of traditional news.
The site’s top editor will be Melinda Henneberger, who has been on staff at The New York Times, Newsweek and, most recently, Slate. Henneberger told TheWrap that the launch will take place in April, "pegged to Obama’s first 100 days in office."
With cutbacks and collapse dominating most newsprint outlets (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced on Monday it would no longer produce a print edition), finding talent for an online portal has been almost an embarrassment of riches.
AOL’s site will be “polypartisan” and focus initially on commentary rather than breaking news, Marty Moe, senior vice president of AOL’s MediaGlow content division, told TheWrap.
"AOL is investing in a big way in news and in old school journalism," Henneberger said. The goal is "quality news sites that have zero aggregation, original content, that pay writers a living wage, and that pay bloggers."
Might other big digital media companies follow suit?
With the consumer craving for news looking stronger than ever after a riveting election and a confusing economic downturn, you might even ask, why wouldn’t relatively solvent companies like Yahoo and even Google try to produce more of their own news and original content?
The glut of available talent has helped AOL lessen the risk of moving into new territory. With the new politics site, AOL will add gravitas to an editorial mix that includes sites for country-music lovers and video gamers. Said Moe: “We’re able to launch new sites with journalistic talent at levels unheard of in the past.”
Henneberger confirmed that she has so far hired three writers and "two and a half" editors. The writers are Carl Cannon, White House correspondent for National Journal, USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, and Patricia Murphy, creator of citizenjanepolitics.com.
Other portals are expanding their ambitions, too. Yahoo is moving steadily into web video, with the announcement on Monday of a new celebrity mom show, and there are rumbles that even Google’s Eric Schmidt is reconsidering the technology company’s longstanding aversion to creating its own content, according to one person familiar with his thinking.
If these companies do emerge as large-scale content creators, it will be worth noting that the once-dowdy AOL is leading the way. New AOL head Tim Armstrong may be inheriting a cargo boat of problems, but the company’s two-year-old drive to become a successful source of content is not one of them.
MediaGlow is home to hit machines like celebrity news site TMZ and niche-oriented, category-leading blogs like Engadget, which regularly breaks technology news, and car-nut magnet Autoblog.
The sites together average 73 million unique visitors a month, according to ComScore.
While the new politics site will not at first report breaking news, Moe did not rule that out for the future.
“There’s plenty of real time news flow out there, and so our approach is not going to be to replicate that,” Moe said. “As the site becomes more of a brand and more successful, you may see us begin to move more into [breaking] news coverage, but we don’t see that as the wise place to start.”
Hennerger said the site will aim for good writing. "People have thought there’s one way to do it on the web and that’s to dominate the ten-second news cycle. We are gambling there’s another audience that wants you to step back, for maybe a day, and do thoughtful analysis pieces that are heavily reported."
At Yahoo, the company’s recent strategy has been to identify an audience need, then fill it, with shows like “Prime Time in No Time,” a humorous daily round-up of prime-time shows that averages 400,000 daily streams, and the upcoming celebrity mom show “Spotlight to Nightlight.”
That approach could be translated into more traditional news content, as well — perhaps erasing memories of the last push Yahoo made into becoming a major entertainment news content creator several years ago, which was eventually scaled back.
Over at Google, the cultural barriers to becoming a producer of news, rather than just a technology company that works with news outlets to distribute news, are steeper. For years the company has held dear the dogma that it does not produce media content.
“We are a technology company, not a media company,” said Google spokesperson Jennie Johnston. “The tremendous amount of expertise that goes into news gathering, editors, journalists – it’s not something we have to be good at.’’
The focus across Google is instead on working with news organizations: “We want to help newspapers distribute their content online, engage their readers better.” Google’s ethos is to “create – but not be creative,” as Johnston put it. It’s an appealing model, and you can’t argue much with the results.
Still, the lure of the potentially lucrative gap opening up as traditional news organizations radically downsize could be hard to resist. And the chance for someone like Schmidt to be a white knight — in this case, to appear to “save” journalism – might prove irresistible. When Schmidt floated the idea of buying the New York Times a year ago, there was an almost universal outpouring of joy at the prospect.
There are doubters, of course. Given the culture clash between technology people and news people, “Google is not going to successfully build a news organization,” said Michael Wolff, whose own news site, newser.com had 1.7 million unique visitors last month. “But can they profitably buy something, that’s a different question. If Google were to give any news organization its traffic, that’s the way to create a category killer.” (See accompanying Q&A with Michael Wolff.)
In the meantime, the “news ecosystem” that’s emerging in the digital era will consist of much more than simply content created by huge companies. News now means professionals and amateurs, newspapers and nonprofits, Twitter, blogs and Flickr streams, with aggregators and RSS feeds and tools like Google Reader to sort it all out.
(At the South by Southwest festival this weekend, complementary pieces on the teeming digital news landscape by new media seers Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson were much discussed and Twittered-about among the media set. The gist: It’s becoming uncool to lament the death of newspapers. There’s more news out there than ever.)
But AOL, at least, is calculating that among all this abundance, the opportunity is there to create a New York Times-like empire on the Internet — one that is native to the web and knows how to use its strengths and quirks.
"It’s a gamble we’re taking in a way, to focus on quality," Henneberger said. "But if we fail, I’m never going to say, ‘oh damn, I’m sorry I tried quality, how embarrassing.’"
Many believe there will always be a need for large media brands and the authority they convey.