A source close to AOL has informed ReadWriteWeb that it will be shutting down and relaunching the Weblogs Inc. "Lifestyle Blogs" as online magazines. These blogs make up roughly 1/4 of what remains of the Weblogs Inc. network that AOL acquired four years ago. From the heady days of carrying the flag of the blog revolution in 2003 and 2004, to a high profile buy-out by AOL in 2005, the near-term future of Weblogs Inc. raises interesting questions about the ballyhooed medium of blogging itself.
This news comes just after major staffing cuts at AOL were unearthed earlier today. Lead bloggers at the "lifestyle blogs", sites like ParentDish and SlashFood, have been told that they will be terminated in February but have apparently been told not to tell their staffs yet.
These shuttered sites will be relaunched "magazine style," highly edited, presumably long-form and no longer written by the rag-tag bunch of aspiring journalists that Weblogs has long paid dollars per article.
Update: AOL's Stephanie Dolgins has responded to our request for comment, saying that "There is absolutely no truth to this rumor. In fact, it's quite the opposite...We are so enthusiastic about the growth potential of our Living blogs that we need people to spend MORE time on them, and we are asking for more of a commitment from our lead bloggers than has been needed in the past so that we can provide consumers with more engaging and interactive experiences across our sites..." Take that for what it's worth, for now we believe our original source on this.
Six months ago AOL told an angry mob of Weblogs writers that despite cutbacks and work slowdown orders, everything was actually better than ever for the network. Several requests for comments on this story haven't been responded to yet.
Weblogs Inc. has long been a great place for new bloggers to find part time work writing on topics they love for between $5 and $15 per post. This author started there, for example, before getting a job at TechCrunch and then here at ReadWriteWeb.
There used to be a strong sense of camaraderie at Weblogs. In the early days every blog in the then sprawling network would put up one post each week linking out to the most popular posts on other blogs, as if the differences in content were less important than the blogging format readers were believed to love.
The egalitarian ethos suffered some turbulence with the rise of electronics blog Engadget as one of the very strongest blogs on the entire internet and presumably worth far more than the estimated $25 million that AOL paid for the entire network in 2005. There have been a handful of other standouts, but the majority of the Weblogs blogs have failed to deliver like AOL would have liked. Why, no one may ever know. Travel blog Gadling, for example, has only had 4 stories hit the front page of major traffic driver Digg in the past year, despite frequent pleas for promotion on its internal email list and an affinity for "boobs around the world" schlock content. If that formula doesn't work then maybe nothing will. Update: AOL wrote again to tell us that Gadling is no longer considered a Life Style blog. Lucky them.
Over the years, tensions never got resolved between the more corporate AOL and the scrappy Webloggers. Network co-founders left after their contractual requirements were up, Jason Calacanis now runs human search and Q&A site Mahalo and Brian Alvey runs another blog network called Crowd Fusion, focused on particularly high quality content and sophisticated publishing technology. Meanwhile the market for remainder content has grown more crowded by the expansion of Canada's B5 Media and MySpace co-founder Brad Greenspan's acquisition-happy web of crap called LiveUniverse.
What's AOL to do with Weblogs Inc.? Maybe turn it into what AOL knows and trusts more than blogs, a collection of mainstream-feeling magazine sites run by more traditional journalists.
The web won't be better for it. The loss of opportunities for aspiring pro-writers is a real tragedy. The failure of this landmark network of blogs calls the financial viability of blogging in general into question. We and others believe that an "anyone can do it" media economy is emerging, but if only a handful of blogs are truly able to effectively monetize then one has to wonder.