Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Arianna, AOL and Eyeballs: A Cautionary Tale

A merger couples the Huffington Post and what remains of the dialup service that tried to eat the media world. For Arianna H., it's a giant financial step for Womankind but hardly a "Merger of Visions"--more a cautionary tale about 21st century competition for eyeballs.

In a 1997 New York Times OpEd, at the height of a subscriber and stock boom, I compared AOL to mass magazines of my era which kept buying ever higher circulations at cut rates while consumers needed them less and less in the hope that advertisers would provide revenue.

The magazines died but AOL was bailed out, ironically, by a merger with Time Inc., the healthiest dead-tree dinosaur, which worked out so miserably that AOL had to be spun off before it sank the remains of Henry Luce's empire.

Now the former online giant is making another vampire move in the hope that Huffington blood will revive it. Howard Kurtz, who recently migrated from the Washington Post to the Daily Beast web site, sees it as "evidence that online news and entertainment are an increasingly valuable force in a media world once dominated by old-guard newspapers, magazines, and networks. The merger of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, completed last week, was another such sign."

Maybe so, but what's going on below is much less reassuring.

In that ancient AOL piece, I cited the 20th century wisdom of Lewis Mumford, whose critique of industrial society cited "deprivation by surfeit" as one of its dangers.

"Because of our concentration on speed and productivity," he wrote, "we have ignored the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation."

Now, even more than then, we are flooded 24/7 with information competing for our eyeballs and brains, but less and less with understanding of what it all means. With due respect to the Huffington Post's efforts to practice interpretive journalism, it essentially remains a grab bag of links to entice more and more clicks to its site.

If Ms. Huffington succeeds in expanding and deepening its own coverage, that would be a step in the right direction. Otherwise, our deprivation of understanding will only get worse.

For now, the merger seems less of Visions than, as a competitor asks, "Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Now, even more than then, we are flooded 24/7 with information competing for our eyeballs and brains, but less and less with understanding of what it all means."

Not sure, but I think it was Erik Severeid, native of Velva, North Dakota, who said: "A few words are worth a thousand pictures."

A few thoughtful words, that is.