AOL Screwed Up Covering SXSW Because Of Its Old Media Mentality

Saul HansellSaul Hansell, the man behind AOL’s

There are no new revenue models in journalism: the only place to move the needle anymore is on the cost of producing news content. Demand Media, Associated Content, and now AOL’s new Seed platform are all leaders in producing content at disruptively low prices, but both Demand and AC have forsworn applying their methods to covering or generating “news” or journalism. Seed is different: it has explicitly said that it’s part of AOL’s mission to “redefine journalism for the Internet age.”But based on the way it decided to cover the bands playing at South by Southwest – paying an army of freelancers $50 per article for every band they covered – I don’t think Seed was thinking radically enough, and I believe what’s holding them back is the same journalists’ gag reflex around any content that smells like PR.

Employees who write stories for newspapers are called reporters, for crying out loud. They report news that’s interesting and useful to their audience. So when they get a press release that’s clearly newsworthy, they can and should report that news to their readers. If there are people out there writing quality, useful news content that your audience will like, why not just use it and be clear where it comes from, rather than paying someone to rewrite the whole thing?

Rather than get hundreds of freelance reporters to interview and profile 2,000 bands in two weeks, from a standing start, why didn’t AOL simply tell all of the bands that they’d publish a band-written profile, and give them some helpful guidelines (not requirements) for what to write?

I’ll bet they didn’t do the latter because it would have been “promotional” or “PR” rather than “reporting,” but who cares? What’s the goal of the project? Presumably it’s to have informative content on for readers to find out about all of the new bands they’d see at SXSW.

And who do you think is more motivated to provide the content–a freelancer getting paid 20 bucks/piece or the band itself?’s strategy is a wasteful as a way of doing business in the new news world. Let’s say that some percentage of self-published content from the bands was crap. We should also agree that some percentage from the freelancers is just as bad. Even if the bands produced more junk, at least AOL would have gotten that junk for free, instead of paying $100,000 for it.

But I don’t think the band-produced content would be junk–I’ll bet it would have been idiosyncratic, well informed, passionate, and fun. It would have been user-generated content, for crying out loud. And yes, promotional–but none of the Seed freelancers was going to treat these bands like they were covering Watergate.

Radical transformation in the news business is going to include awesome technology platforms, for sure. But it’s also going to require questioning all of the assumptions about how a news business should function. Seed took those assumptions as a given, and just tried to do the old way on the cheap.

Colin Mathews is CEO of readMedia, a platform for organisations to publish their important local news to the media, local audiences and the web quickly and easily. This post was originally published on the author’s blog. It is re-published here with permission.

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