My experience (or lack thereof) with “The AOL Way”
Earlier this year, on the first day of February, an alleged internal document from my employer, AOL, leaked. As Business Insider reported at the time, this was supposedly AOL’s “Master Plan” for content creation and management — a business-driven document that detailed the various criteria for publishable content on AOL’s many, many branded sites. Presumably, this would include sites like Joystiq (where I publish work), which worried me. It also worried some of our readers, who asked about it on Twitter. That worried me as well.
So please allow me to be clear: In the approximately four months since that supposed leak, I’ve seen zero change in our editorial policy at Joystiq. We vet everything we run doggedly, every piece that gets published sees the eye of a copy editor before going live (except in rare occasions like, say, a liveblog), and I’ve never once been asked to take a different angle on a piece because it was “sexier” or more Googleable. If anything, since the Huffington Post acquisition, I’ve heard more than ever about the importance of quality content.
Admittedly, I’ve rearranged headlines to give them better SEO, for sure, and that’s nothing new. As in, “That’s nothing new to writing things on the internet, for anyone.” This might blow your mind, but we’d like news that we write to be the first thing you find when you search for it on Google. When you type in “Call of Duty 24 release date,” we want to be your first result, and we want that result to be about the release date of Call of Duty 24. That’s not where we derive all of our traffic from by any means, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!
“Now Ben,” you say, “Why bother writing all of this? Who’s asking?!” Probably no one, in fairness. But I’m getting pretty tired of reading screeds from ex-AOL writers decrying the “evil slave drivers” who forced them to work for nothing, write terrible drivel that they were far above writing, and suddenly fired them. To be clear, this may be totally accurate of those individuals and their situations, but I felt it was just as important that the other side of things be represented.
In my experience as an AOL “freelance contractor” — I work full-time hours for full-time pay, but I have to handle taxes/HR/etc. myself — I’ve been paid well, treated well by my boss(es), and had plenty of opportunity to grow. I even get to make (often poor) suggestions with regards to editorial direction! Other than the fact that we’re spread out across the world as a staff (there are 10 of us at Joystiq as of this writing), I have constant communication with our managing editor and the editor-in-chief, not to mention the folks copy-editing/fact-checking pieces I write.
Maybe it helps that I pursued Joystiq, that I knew what I was getting into. Maybe it’s that our particular AOL brand is somewhat insulated from the rest of AOL, due at least in part to our history within the company. Or maybe I’m just lucky enough to have never expected the kind of pay and benefits package that journalists got when print was king and the internet didn’t exist (or maybe I expected to earn those amenities after years of hard work rather than on the merit of my journalism degree).
It’s possible that The AOL Way is a real document that real AOL writers are using to write stories, but I sure hope not. And if they are, I really hope they have the sense in their brain to interpret the practices therein as almost entirely business-minded and rarely with the reader in mind, and that things like SEO matter but aren’t as important as delivering good content in a timely fashion. Maybe they take that idea one step further and realize that SEO is a great way to attract new readers, but the only way to keep those readers is through consistent quality content.
Anyway, my point in writing all of this is to provide a counterpoint to all the madness I’ve seen written about working for AOL in the past few months. It’s bureaucratic and there are issues — it’s a big corporation! shock! — but it’s also provided me and some of my best friends (the Joystiq staff) the opportunity to travel around the world covering the video game industry. It allows us to keep a full-time copy editor and supports repeated coverage of indie games, despite our readers’ thirst for yet another Call of Duty 24 trailer.
I hope this makes some sort of sense, as I’m writing from a bus early in the morning after waking up and reading the latest piece on how “working for AOL is the worst.” But you’ll forgive me if I’m sick of answering reader questions about what it’s like working for Joystiq/AOL. Here’s the truth: It’s pretty incredible. I get paid to do what I love! I complain all the time about stuff, but that’s me — I complain because I love.