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Firings at AOL Patch a Study in Corporate Myopia

All is abuzz and atwitter (literally) with news of the firing Friday by America On Line's boss Tim Armstrong of half of the staff of its local news project, Patch. The firing comes on the heels of Armstrong's humiliating dismissal of one of AOL's top executives during an August 9 phone call to 1000 Patch staffers.

All this AOL news in one painful week! It certainly says a lot about how Internet corporate execs' view their workers, but the more important story is how they view the Internet. How could a major technology company like AOL so deeply misread the culture and the irreversible changes that have taken place in news coverage and how reflective is that of the corporate Internet? Important as it is, that issue has gone largely unreported.

The "incident", on the other hand, has been reported ad nauseum. It happened two Fridays ago (August 9). Armstrong was running a major meeting for staff members working on "Patch", AOL's four year old "localized news" web system. About 1000 people were on the call. In the first few minutes of the call, Amstrong suddenly said "Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired. Out!" He was speaking to Abel Lenz, the creative director at Patch and other AOL news websites. (You can listen to this on a leaked audio from Jim Romensko.)

The Photo That Sparked a Firing -- Armstrong at the Fateful MeetingThe Photo That Sparked a Firing -- Armstrong at the Fateful Meeting

Lenz's sin? He shot a photo of Armstrong at the meeting--something he would routinely do for distribution to Patch sites. Armstrong, in a subsequent quasi-apology letter, said he had over-reacted but that he had warned Lenz about photos and videos in the past and Lenz just kept on shooting so he fired him...in front of 1000 people.

Last Friday, Armstrong acted more politely but much more painfully. AOL separated Patch staffers into two rooms: one for employees who would be retained and the other for those being fired. Remote staff were given a dial-in number to their appropriate room. Armstrong then addressed each, firing about 350 in one room and telling those in the other room that their jobs (and local news sites) were safe for now but things had to improve or there may be more down-sizing. In fact, sources at AOL are sure that at least 150 more people will soon lose their jobs.

There's much speculation about why Armstrong would hold one meeting to threaten cuts and then another a week later to specify the cuts. But, as important as that is for those who lost their jobs, and probably for the bunch who have momentarily kept them, there is a more important question for the rest of us: Why in the world would a collossus like AOL go against the tide in news coverage that we are all witnessing -- the rise of blogs and participatory journalism -- by investing a reported $60 million in a service that started failing the moment it went live?

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