AOL edit staffers fear the worst after Verizon deal

On Tuesday, a few hours after the news broke of Verizon’s AOL acquisition, AOL employees assembled in the company’s New York headquarters to drink and celebrate the company’s $4.4 billion sale to Verizon.

But one floor up, where members of AOL’s publishing brands sat, the mood was less jovial. Verizon’s acquisition, driven largely by an interest in AOL’s ad tech and video assets, wasn’t universally positive news for those at The Huffington Post, TechCrunch and Engadget, which still aren’t sure what the AOL move means for their websites and jobs.

Digiday spoke to a handful of AOL edit staffers in the wake of the announcement. “We really had nothing to celebrate,” said one, describing the mood among fellow AOL editorial employees. “For 90 percent of people at AOL, this was great news, but it wasn’t for us.”

The sentiment is understandable. While AOL CEO Tim Armstrong has repeatedly assured those inside and outside the company that AOL plans to keep and continue investing in its editorial brands, the feeling among many AOL content staffers is that the ultimate decision will be out of his hands. That Armstrong didn’t outright deny AOL’s plans to sell or spin-off the properties has only fueled the uncertainty.

The feeling hasn’t changed much in days following the news.

“There are definitely worries, both around editorial interference and whether or not we’ll be gutted or sold off or spun out,” said another AOL editorial staffer. “I think we’re more worried about the latter.”

The ideal outcome, multiple AOL staffers said, is that the brands stay with the company. AOL has invested heavily in its editorial operations over the years, helping fund The Huffington Post’s international expansion to 14 overseas markets and TechCrunch’s video efforts, to use two examples. Employees agreed that there are far worse places to work.

“Overall, there are definitely things to complain about with AOL, because they’re a big company with some dumb rules and dopey managers,” the AOL staffer said. “But they’ve been decent owners, offering both freedom and resources.”

But AOL’s relationship with its content brands has been fraught in recent months. In January, the company shut down its gaming blog Joystiq and Apple blog TUAW as part of a larger effort to simplify its brand portfolio. Current AOL staffers have a case of déjà vu. “Nothing I’ve seen here convinced me that AOL values editorial as much as everything else,” one writer said.

The telecoms giant has landed on the wrong side of topics such as net neutrality and user privacy over the years, which hasn’t won it many friends among tech journalists, and even fewer at Engadget. On Tuesday afternoon, the day the acquisition was announced, Michael Gorman, Engadget’s editor-in-chief, wrote an impassioned post about the independence of Engadget’s editorial, which he said won’t bend to Verizon’s corporate will.

“It doesn’t matter who pays our salaries; we’re not in the business of censorship. Engadget’s editorial isn’t for sale. It never has been, and it never will be,” Gorman wrote. His vitriol in part stemmed from the controversy surrounding Verizon’s failed tech blog Sugarstring, which was reportedly unable to write about topics such as American spying or net neutrality, which Verizon had a stake in.

For that reason, Gorman’s feeling is shared by editorial staffers at AOL. “I just wish it was any company but Verizon,” grumbled one such staffer.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/kavram

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