Russell Davies: Has AOL worked out the perfect way of writing for the web?
A view from Russell Davies

Russell Davies: Has AOL worked out the perfect way of writing for the web?

I think I've written about 200 of these columns by now. They've not all been brilliant.

You're probably fed up with all those sentences beginning with "and". And it's hard to find new things to say about an industry that moves so slowly. But I'm starting to realise that the most successful pieces are those where I've found two examples that shine different lights on the same story.

This week's instance was inspired by the splendid blog at influxinsights.com.

You've probably heard about a document known as "the AOL way" that details AOL's procedures and policies for making its online content more profitable. Various high-profile blogging sites have been going through training in "the AOL way" and, simultaneously, and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, various writers, probably used to lives of relative freedom, have been leaving and detailing their displeasure on the way out. They say that there are lots of things you don't want to see being made (sausages is a regular example), and seeing behind the scenes with the AOL way is not particularly edifying. It makes the "newsrooms" of their operations sound somewhere between telesales operations and sweatshops.

In-house writers are expected to produce between five and ten stories a day and editors are expected to produce stories based on "profitability consideration" - deciding to write stories by thinking about what volume of ads can be placed against them and bearing in mind "traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turnaround time".

It's easy to criticise this stuff as lowest common denominator writing, but the relationship between the reader and the writer is not really that different from previous generations of media - it's just that the business function is now quicker and better informed.

Writers have always been there to deliver audiences to advertisers - previously, though, they were shielded from the commercial realities of doing it. I'd argue that some of that shielding is a good thing, but it's not my job to make these blogs profitable. I can understand why they're doing it.

The joy of the web, though, is that it lets a thousand business models bloom, some of them not very businessy. Because when writing becomes tightly constrained in one area, writers have the chance to build themselves a new place to play.

One great example is The Blizzard - a new magazine that describes its main aim as being "to provide a platform for top-class writers from across the globe to enjoy the space and freedom to write what they like about the football stories that matter to them". They don't seem desperate to make a huge profit - they probably don't need to. Who knows whether this or the AOL way will flourish or produce the better writing? But it's great that both models exist.

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