Stephen Foley: Would you care if AOL were to disappear?
Saturday 21 November 2009
US Outlook: If you wanted to read last night about Oprah Winfrey quitting her chat show, or Michelle Obama's wardrobe, you could have gone to AOL's website. But of course you didn't have to. There's lots of coverage of Oprah out there on the web. And if you were after something more entertaining by half, you might watch a Barack and Michelle elf dance on YouTube.
There is way too much internet. Or, to put it another way, there are more people and corporations creating ever more content for the web than can possibly make a living from ads placed alongside the material being uploaded. It is an inauspicious time to be ramping up one's journalism on the internet, yet that is precisely what AOL is doing.
It has been boxed into this. The other half of its business is demonstrably and imminently doomed. Its dial-up internet service provider operations put America Online in the Nineties, but in an era of broadband its paid subscription model is an anachronism. It is withering.
Now AOL is relying more heavily on attracting readers to its news and entertainment sites. Trouble is, it provides neither the high-quality content of newspaper and broadcaster websites, nor the belly laughs or vibrancy of user-generated content. Visitor numbers are down 11 per cent year-on-year; it is laying off 2,500 people, a third of its staff.
AOL's websites could disappear tomorrow and no one would be in the slightest bit disadvantaged or upset. I can't think of a better definition of value-less. The company is being spun off from Time Warner, but this is no flotation. More likely, it will sink like a stone.
There is a conflagration coming that will wipe a lot of professional content providers from the web. AOL is one of the nearest to the flames.
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