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Battle for News Eyeballs: AOL Scrapes the Bottom of the Barrel

Battle for News Eyeballs: AOL Scrapes the Bottom of the Barrel

If you want tabloid news in all its shameless glory, AOL.com is happy to serve it up -- and it's not the only Internet media outlet that puts no limits on how low it will stoop in order to drag in as many inquisitive readers as possible. The number of Internet "news" publishers that eagerly peddle gossip while burying the real news seems to be growing, and it's a nauseating trend.

By Renay San Miguel TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
04/03/09 8:30 AM PT

The headlines appeared at 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time on April Fools' Day. The joke, apparently, was on the readers of AOL.com.

The part of the page where your eyes usually focus first had a picture of President Obama meeting Queen Elizabeth with the headline, "Obama Gives Queen a Gift: Do You Think She'll Really Use It?"

Right underneath that headline was another: "This Was No April Fool's Joke: Bunny Born With Bizarre Trait."

Under that headline, the "Crime Beat" leads: "Killer Used Craigslist to Lure Victim," "Were Little Kids Stoned at School?"

No need to dial up the Drudge Report, pick up a copy of the National Enquirer at the grocery store checkout line or watch the top stories on the 11 p.m. newscast of an if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV market. You had all that and much, much less at AOL.com.

The Web site real estate that showed at that moment on Wednesday -- the page layout that filled your computer screen -- also featured a big picture of the teen pop star who has apparently replaced Britney Spears as AOL's favorite bad girl du jour. The headline: "Miley Cyrus Poses for (Another) Magazine."

If you wanted real news at that point in time, you had to scroll down, the equivalent of a dead-tree newspaper's below-the-fold purgatory. There you would have found, under the generic "News" section, smaller font headlines about the protests at the first day of the G-20 summit that brought Obama to London, the latest from Congress, the top financial/market news.

Scroll further down and it was tax time news-you-can-use, sports and entertainment headlines, a video recipe for zingy turkey meatballs.

Back to the top: the Obama-Queen pic and headline is the first of eight rotating mini-page fronts, focusing on entertainment, lifestyle, marketplace, sports, "On Your Side," video and "What's Hot on AOL."

An inordinate number of links took you to pictures of celebrities in various stages of undress. One invited you to "Poke Fun at Video of Eva Longoria." Another spotted a "Celeb Mom Seen in Torn Underwear."

Hey, my mom isn't a celeb, but I listened to her when she said to make sure I always had on clean underwear in case I was ever in an accident -- or caught by AOL.

The Battle for Eyeballs

It should be as clear as a paparazzi's lens that AOL really wants your eyeballs, and tosses together a heady mix of grabby headlines ("New Conficker Virus Strikes" -- uh, actually, no), links to its celebrity-trolling corporate siblings like TMZ and Pop Eater, and an overall sense of desperation in order to capture them.

It's been going on for a while now, as parent company Time Warner made it clear early last year that it wants to make its stand against Yahoo, MSNBC/MSN and Google in the War of the Portals.

AOL.com isn't AOL News, but you get there from the home page. Nielsen Online has AOL News ranked fourth for the month of February among Current Events and Global News Destinations with almost 23 million unique visitors who spent an average of 26 minutes surfing the site.

MSNBC Digital Network was first with 41 million unique vistors (24 minutes per person), followed by Yahoo News (37 million uniques, 17 minutes) and CNN Digital Network (36 million, 37 minutes.)

With all the recent navel-gazing regarding print journalism's current precarious situation and the Internet's threat to its future, you might be interested to know the names of five of the next six digital properties on Nielsen Online's list: NYTimes.com, Tribune Newspapers, USAToday.com, Gannett Newspapers and McClatchy Newspaper Network. Fox News Digital Network is ranked sixth.

So, AOL is staying competitive -- but with a tabloid sensibility that closes the feedback loop with the worst of cable news and local TV. And I'm wondering: Why does this bug the hell out of me? I'm not naive enough to think that a major portal like AOL can't do whatever it feels like it has to do to drag consumers into its tent, and can't use tactics that have been around since the days of Eyewitness News and "Headless Body in Topless Bar" New York Post goodness.

Maybe it's the brazenness of it all, and the fact that other popular portals and aggregators aren't having to engage in lowest-common-denominator news to make their unique user numbers.

Shopping for Smart, Clean News

The New York Times is The New York Times, whether spread out on your coffee table or filling up your laptop screen.

MSNBC.com's "above the fold" front page on April Fools' night was positively "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"-esque: a video interview from "NBC Nightly News" with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; a special section of stories on the Mexico drug cartel problem; a Medicare investigation from the AP. Sure, there were links to "American Idol" results and the obligatory Octomom story, but those links were the ones in smaller font-type.

Google News doesn't create the news, it aggregates it -- but the layout and design is simple and very customizable, with three big stories in each section -- Top Stories, World, U.S., Business, Sci-Tech, Entertainment, etc. -- and lots of links to other news organizations' versions of those big stories, along with other news.

Yahoo.com comes closest to aping AOL's drive to the bottom, with four sections at the top of its page that highlight Featured stories, Entertainment, Sports and Video. On April Fools' night, those sections brimmed with the trivial (look, a Miley Cyrus story!) At least you didn't have to scroll down to get the real news headlines on the G-20 summit and the latest on North Korea.

Below the fold, however, was a section also called "Marketplace," like AOL's. But whereas AOL's area has stories with direct and indirect ties to your money -- how to save it, how to stretch it -- Yahoo's Marketplace is simply a repository for ads, including some that aren't clearly labeled as such. Click on the Marketplace link itself, and you get taken to Yahoo's shopping section.

One link within Marketplace that teases information on heart attacks and a picture of Hugh Downs is an online text version of a Downs infomercial on "The World's Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets." The other links on April Fools' night were for ads for DirecTV, the Hartford and Experian. Yes, the brand names were included in the links themselves, but those folks didn't want to buy banner or display ads? They wanted news-style links? And you gave it to them?

I should mention at this point that Yahoo also had a story on the Rabbit With a Difference. Turns out the bunny was born with two noses. (Somewhere Robert Ripley is smiling). Obviously, the bunny uses one nose to smell its food and the other to sniff out real news on the Internet.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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