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AOL's New Way: Huffington Steers Portal Away From Freelancers, Ramps Up Aggregation

And Why the Content Boss Says New York Times Paywall 'Is Good for Us'

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AOL's content strategy was once built on armies of long-term freelancers -- so-called permalancers -- on top of a thin staff of editors, but that's changing. Content President Arianna Huffington is converting that workforce to fewer full-time employees, leading to many departures but more full-time staffers.

Arianna Huffington at the Ad Age Digital Conference Credit: Rob Tannenbaum

"If you're going to produce great journalism, you have to build a team of people who are working together and driving toward the same goals editorially," she said today at Ad Age's Digital Conference in New York. "That is something you cannot do with hundreds of freelancers."

Many of those freelancers were producing what Ms. Huffington called "commodity content" rather than the unique content that drives page views. Those who were doing the latter are being offered full-time jobs.

The result will be content from two different classes of contributors: full-time employees and unpaid bloggers, in addition to the content AOL regularly aggregates from other sources, such as traditional newspapers.

Other layoffs have come as a result of overlapping brands. AOL and Huffington Post both had travel sites; AOL Travel was deemed the stronger, and Huffington Post Travel was shuttered. In politics, Huffington Post Politics was preserved and AOL's Politics Daily was shut down.

"We spent a lot of time looking at the data; basically, our decision was to integrate brands that are duplicative," she said.

The now-famous "AOL Way," a content strategy document that pre-dated AOL's acquisition of Huffington Post and outlined how content should be judged by its profitability, is out the door. In are content themes such as "how to live less stressful lives." "We are going to be obsessive about covering how to unplug, recharge and live healthier lives," she said. Also in: three nap rooms in the Huffington Post Media Group newsroom.

She argued that Huffington Post will cover important topics that don't necessarily generate page views, such as the foreclosure crisis around the country.

One thing that won't change: Huffington Posts' commitment to aggregating content. "Even if I had billions to produce unlimited original content, I would still aggregate," she said. "There is good content being produced everywhere in the world. if we are going to be a site that is about accessing the best content in the world we must aggregate."

It's a model, she said, that benefits both the aggregator of links -- like AOL -- and the creators of content. "You pick the best pieces and send traffic back to the creators that produced it so they can monetize it."

Asked if paywalls at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other sources of primary news disrupt that strategy, Ms. Huffington said they don't: "The more people who put their content behind payrolls, the better it is for us."

Ultimately, she said, asking people to pay for general news is a losing game. A new generation is not accustomed to pay for news -- and they won't.

"We are betting that content will be free, except maybe for financial information or weird porn," she said.

What's the model, then? Advertising. "We are betting that [AOL head of sales] Jeff Levick can sell enough advertising to pay for it," she said. "And as more ad dollars move online we are going to be able to do that."

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