Monday, April 26, 2010

Journalists rejoice: there's work in 'them there hills'

OK, so it's not exactly a gold rush. And the number of journalists being hired by the likes of AOL and Yahoo may not be anywhere near approaching the legions that have been let go by print media over the last five years.

But there's good news for working journalists - at least those savvy enough to develop the skills to work online - for the first time in a very long time.

If we needed more evidence that "curated media" is the wave of the future, we only have to look at recent moves by master content aggregators such as Yahoo and AOL, both of whom are aggressively hiring more journalists to run their content shows. This has been accompanied by declarations that they're not getting out of the aggregation business, but mostly looking at ways to more smartly "surface" content from their partners, while spiking it with strategic original content.

AOL has a long history as a content producer and of hiring journalists away from print media to lead its content teams, although there was a lull - not quite a hiatus - while the beleaguered company came to terms with the massive indigestion caused by buying Time Warner in 2000. That critical point in AOL's history, beautifully chronicled by Kara Swisher in There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere ( a joke about a man digging in a big pile of manure), was the metaphorical equivalent of a mouse giving birth to an elephant. For the next nine years, resentment of Time Warner properties toward the perpetrator of the unwieldy (and, as it turned out, impossible) absorption of its huge portfolio of content companies, handicapped what had once been the earliest innovative media darling of the Web as it fought internal battles. While those battles raged and eventually ended in AOL spinning off on its own again, Yahoo! took the opportunity to grab the larger share of the content market and become the content behemoth it is today.

Although Yahoo! began as a search engine, by the late 1990s it had diversified into a web portal and started its first experiments with original content. With the hiring of LA Times editor Dave Morgan to head up its sports coverage two years ago, along with the launch of the highly popular Shine, an original women's lifestyle content site, it showed it was ready to play hardball in content. This year, the portal showcased very aggressive coverage of the 2010 Games in Vancouver and has brought on veterans including former WashingtonPost.com editor Russ Walkerto to build out Yahoo News.

But don't count AOL out of the race. With the launch of new content properties fueled by daily posts from a growing army of bloggers, AOL's is definitely not bowing out of original content. In the last two years, AOL has launched Lemondrop, an original women's lifestyle blog property, the men's site Asylum, an entertainment blog called PopEater, a new classifieds website, WalletPop, and more recently, Lifestream, a stand-alone product being touted by AOL on TechCrunch as "what Google Buzz should have been."

As Avertising Age asked recently, while noting that AOL "is snagging talent from all sectors: Wall Street, publishing, consulting, Google, Yahoo, social-news aggregator Digg, Time Warner and even its own huge diaspora of former employees," why does everyone want to work at AOL all of a sudden?

The portal landscape is gearing up for some battles. Although there may not be gold in those hills, journalists no longer need to wonder what their second act will be while print media learn how to play in the new sandbox.

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