The Hamster Wheel and the AOL Way

Audit Chief Dean Starkman’s “Hamster Wheel” piece has now been enshrined in the lexicon of the bureaucracy with the release of the FCC’s big report on “The Information Needs of Communities.”

But, you know, the big wheel keeps on turnin’, and though periodically hamsters tire and fly off into the wood shavings, they’re replaced by fresh hamsters from whom at least six months to a year worth of hard digital labor can be squeezed.

In a sense, this has long been the Way of Journalism, which should never be mistaken for an ocean cruise. In the newspaper era now ending, that meant something like this, according to my completely unscientific observation: Of print journalism majors, about a third managed to work for the college paper. Of them, roughly a third—so, a sixth ninth—went on to work for a real newspaper. A goodly number burned out five years in and went to law school to be burned out but have nice things. Fifteen or twenty years in, half of the rest had gone to the dark side, PR or some such. A hefty percentage of those remaining do okay; some do very well; others are brain-fried after decades of daily deadlines but they make it.

The demands of the Internet have just speeded up the winnowing process. Where hard-pressed reporters on small-town papers used to get eight or ten bylines a week on cop stories and school-board meetings, sometimes a few more, sometimes a lot less, content farmers are writing eight or ten things a day on stuff like this:

I was given eight to ten article assignments a night, writing about television shows that I had never seen before. AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one-to-two minutes in length — clips from “Law & Order,” “Family Guy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” the Grammys, and so on and so forth… My job was then to write about them. But really, my job was to lie. My job was to write about random, out-of-context video clips, while pretending to the reader that I had watched the actual show in question. AOL knew I hadn’t watched the show. The rate at which they would send me clips and then expect articles about them made it impossible to watch all the shows — or to watch any of them, really.

That alone was unethical. But what happened next was painful. My “ideal” turn-around time to produce a column started at thirty-five minutes, then was gradually reduced to half an hour, then twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes to research and write about a show I had never seen — and this twenty-five minute period included time for formatting the article in the AOL blogging system, and choosing and editing a photograph for the article. Errors were inevitably the result. But errors didn’t matter; or rather, they didn’t matter for my bosses.

That’s Oliver Miller, who used to work at AOL, in a harrowing piece in The Faster Times on what it’s like to work as a content slave, as he puts it, making $35,000 a year putting in 60-plus hour weeks to churn out, wait for it, more than 350,000 words a year. That’s two-thirds of the way to War and Peace, people.

Much of Miller’s scorn is reserved for the infamous AOL Way document that Business Insider (neatly enough) scooped up earlier this year*, and which revealed to Miller the “why” of his suffering:

“The AOL Way,” as the document is called, lays the whole plan bare — long flowcharts, an insane number of meaningless buzzwords… the works. One slide is titled “Decide What Topics to Cover.” It then lists “Considerations” from top to bottom. “Traffic Potential” is the top consideration, followed by “Revenue/Profit” and then “Turnaround Time.” “Editorial Integrity” is at the bottom.

Lest you think that the prioritization of those bullet points was a Power Point foulup, Miller is here to tell you it was not:

I still have a saved IM conversation with my boss, written after 10 months of employment, when I was reaching the breaking point:

“Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?” I said.

“Not really,” was the reply.

This is roughly what internal communications at The Audit are like. Me: “Please, Sir, might we interface for a few moments sometime soon to share ideas and exchange views about the large issues of the day? You know, chew the fat, blue-sky about this and that, run things up the old flag pole, perhaps think a bit?” Dean: “Think? About what? Keep typing, helot.”

And so I type. But my lame jokes aren’t so amusing in light of the growing body of mini-memoirs sprouting up around the Web about life down on the content farm, including Nicholas Spangler’s piece last year for CJR and Jessanne Collins’s for The Awl, which pulled this gem from Demand Media’s manifesto:

“We aren’t here to break news, lay out editorial opinion, or investigate the latest controversy. Our audience tells us they want incredibly specific information and we deliver exactly that —in a style that the average consumer appreciates and understands.”

The Demand Medias and AOLs are the logical result of a digital arms race triggered by the harsh realities of a Web marketplace that makes it all but impossible to make money doing serious journalism. The Awl and a few others are trying to fight the race to the bottom, but that Demand quote shows what we’re all up against.

* I added “earlier this year” here to answer a reader comment on when The AOL Way document came to light

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,