What you just ate for lunch could kill you

AOL, please: Lose the stupid clickbait teasers

Jeffrey Denny

When I give people my email address, many snort and mock. “AOL? Really?! Hah!” Their hilarious quips reference the Commodore 64 computer, Motorola’s Dynatac 8000X portable phone rivaling Maxwell Smart’s shoe, Members Only jackets, and obviously, mullets, Flash Dance, Karma Chameleon and Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto. A few wags even try to make the old AOL dial-up sound:


But after 30 years a member, I still like AOL. So did Verizon, which snapped up AOL in 2015 for $4 billion+ to advance its goal to be the №1 global media technology company. Verizon hoped to “leverage” its network and “AOL’s strength in advertising and its position in the growing area of video and mobile,” as CNBC reported.

That’s the same rationale for Verizon’s more recent $4 billion+ bid for Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo before the hack of half a billion Yahoo members kicked the deal into the trash folder.

Yes, Gmail and other “free” email accounts make AOL seem Jurassic, if not Mesozoic or even Triassic or Cretaceous. But as an independent strategic and executive communications consultant (aka, a wretched scrivener in Toledo Mud Hens ball cap and Life is Good sleepwear pants), I like following the news through the day as I use AOL email for my very important professional and personal bidness.

I’m not crazy about the AOL/Verizon-owned Huffington Post. Not because of the Trumpster alt-right slamming, smearing and sleazing of any challenge to the Breibart/Fox nationalist juggernaut, but simply because Ariana Huffington’s spawn is relatively simpering, ineffectual, self-enthralled and thus silly and annoying. Steve Bannon wants to deconstruct 21st century American democracy. Ms. Huffington wants us to get more sleep. HuffPo brings a Nerf Super Soaker Water Blaster to Breitbart’s MG-148 Javelin shoulder-fired, armor-piercing anti-tank guided-missile party. This is the best progressives can do? No wonder … Trump … never mind.

HuffPo aside, AOL keeps me and many au courant through the day. As AOL says, “As a global publishing powerhouse, our media brands attract hundreds of millions of consumers with high-quality original content across every screen. Our rich portfolio of award-winning content features some of the most influential names in media, including The Huffington Post, MAKERS, TechCrunch, Engadget, BUILD, Autoblog, AOL.com and MapQuest.” I’m one of those many millions of AOL consumers.

All good. But:

Whoever’s in charge of “AOL News,” whatever parent-supported and mollycoddled Millennials who’ve never been in real journalism are writing and posting the ridiculous AOL teaser headlines and subheads, here’s some of that mentoring you expect as a birthright: Stop it. You’re not smarter or cleverer than your readers/customers. Way far from. You’re definitely not journalists. Face it, you’re in marketing, not unlike real estate, car sales or time-share or cruise-ship hucksters. We get what you’re doing. We’re not dumb-ass, slack-jawed yokels easily suckered to click through to view more ads.

So when you tease news we already know — “This New York real estate mogul elected to the highest office in America will pass on White House Correspondent Dinner” — you insult our intelligence and underscore your lack of.

When you tease information we need — “Deadly storm fast heading toward this region” — you might risk lives.

When you coyly ankle Oscar mishaps already buzzing past Earth and to the exoplanets, we almost pity your innocent stupidity.

Just today, AOL headlined: “One type of meat is worse for you than processed meat.” Subhead: “You might think of processed meats — hot dogs, sausage and more — and think that they’re the worst for you. But this favorite is actually really dangerous.” Sub-subhead: “Raises your risk of colorectal cancer.”

Before planning dinner, what is this deadly scourge? When you click through, you get LifeScript.com’s, “10 Best and Worst Foods for Your Tummy,” with its own subhead, “Avoid Food Sensitivities for a Healthy Digestive System.” Only then do you find “The 5 Worst Foods for Your Gut,” and finally “Worst Food for Your Gut #1: Red meat.” And this: “The more red meat you eat, the higher your risk of colorectal cancer. That’s because it’s often high in saturated fat, which is tied to cancer of the small intestine, according to a 2008 Cancer Research study.”

That’s right. By sharing the most urgent medical science gleaned from almost a decade ago that we already know, AOL saved me and my alimentary system from enjoying a delicious charcoal-grilled dry-aged Porterhouse.

I’ve been carping about AOL’s clueless condescension for some time, but it’s mostly howling into the void. While most real news organizations provide what’s called a “masthead” that tells readers who’s in charge and making editorial and news decisions, and many in the responsible media employ an experienced and cranky reader ombudsperson to hold the reporters and editors accountable to their audience and the commonweal, good luck finding or reaching anyone in charge at AOL News.

If you Google enough, the best you might find is Julia Beizer, who AOL describes as “Head of Product for The Huffington Post … shaping our consumer-facing experiences across all platforms and devices.” As Ms. Beizer’s LinkedIn profile boasts, “Before moving to this role, she spent a decade at The Washington Post, working on both the news and product sides of the company. She spends her days sweating the details of user experience and execution.”

At the Post, Ms. Beizer was a director of product, director of mobile product, mobile projects editor, and senior director of the Going Out Guide, the local Washington, DC, bar and restaurant tip sheet it sounds like. No doubt she’s a phenomenal talent. But where is the real journalism experience, the usual precursor to being a major media news director? And what, may I ask, does “user experience and execution” mean specifically, and how does that differ from the job description of an airport restroom maintenance crew? And what does that have to do with news?

And where is the public accountability from AOL News? While the ombudspersons at the Post and the New York Times are reachable and respond to reader — aka, customer — feedback, AOL News apparently hasn’t discovered the benefits of transparency. Not that I can see easily.

Not fair to the AOL editorial leadership, I know, but for context, consider that Washington Post managing editor Cameron Barr is a “widely traveled and broadly experienced journalist,” who has been a “Metro reporter, a national-security editor, a foreign news editor, a blogger and the national editor,” the Post said. “In the latter position for nearly the past three years, he has overseen some of the paper’s most important and highest profile work, including the presidential campaign and its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Secret Service and National Security Agency.”

Also consider that the Post hired former New York Times ombudsperson Margaret Sullivan as a media critic to hold accountable the responsible, professional news media and also its detractors who chafe under the uncomfortable but cleansing spotlight.

Yes, it’s my failing to expect AOL News to be more than a clickbait aggregator of the real work that real journalists do every day. And I don’t mean to pick on the AOL News team. They might be doing a great job with what Verizon expects.

But for chrissake, AOL News, whatever and whoever you are, please have some respect for members and readers, and quit with the teaser headers. Unless you don’t mind just being grubbing hucktsers for online ad revenue. In which case, don’t pretend to be “news.”

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington, DC, communications professional and writer

*Thanks to former Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Alexis Madrigal and others for trying.

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