AOL’s CEO on Patch, Native Advertising and Why Journalism Won’t Die

This morning, media pros gathered at the Bryant Park Grill for the inaugural “Media Minds” breakfast, featuring Tim Armstrong, chairman and CEO of AOL, and Susan Lyne, the newly installed CEO of AOL’s brand group. Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard, moderated the event, which covered everything from women in leadership roles to the Time Inc. spinoff. While the panelists shared many insights, Armstrong’s comments on the future of content were heartening.

While the rise of digital has been blamed for the “death” of journalism, people are still voracious content consumers.  “Technology changes a lot, but human behavior doesn’t change as much,” said Armstrong. “One of the things that’s most important to [humans] is trusting information.” He cited Google eye-tracking studies that show that, when people search, they immediately look at the URL after seeing a result to asses where the information came from. “Human beings want fast information from trusted sources… trusted brands of information, and I believe trusted brands of information come from powerful sources of people.” That means you, editors and journos.

This dovetails nicely with some recent comments that The New Republic editor-in-chief Chris Hughes made, which were that readers want to “trust an editor to curate an experience.” However, the problem of finding a sustainable business model remains to be figured out…

Will the answer be native advertising? It could be, but according to Armstrong, the “publishing community needs to have some standardization on native [advertising].” The Atlantic issued guidelines on native ads after its Scientology sponsored content debacle, and there’s no doubt these guidelines can help prevent similar fiascos in the future. Publishers are wading into uncharted territory with sponsored content (now you can pay for a sponsored comment at the Washington Post), so industry-wide standardization could help both readers and publishers.

Perhaps the publishers that have suffered the most as a result of the digital transition are local ones – it seems like we can’t go two days without hearing about some local paper folding, or laying off staff, or cutting publishing frequency. AOL’s Patch hopes to remedy this, but has run into a lot of trouble with former staffers speaking out against it and inquiries of being evil. About a month ago, the hyperlocal news experiment cut 3 percent of its staff in a bid to “make Patch profitable in 2013.” So how’s that going?

“I will say that Patch is moving in exactly the right direction – precisely what we thought was going to happen this year. So yes, we are very optimistic about how the year is going to end up,” said Lyne.

“We made a very public commitment,” said Armstrong, “we’re very invested in getting Patch to profitability.”

We’ll see soon enough how the hyperlocal news experiment will pan out.

In the meantime, readers, do you think the publishing industry should adopt certain standards for native advertising? Or would such a move stifle innovation at a time when we ought to be experimenting with new business models? Let us know in the comments.