The Good Old Days of AOL

By Jack Limpert

Native advertising is a media buzzword—definitions include “ads that are unique and native to the experience of the site” and “a form of media where the ads are part of the content.”

MIN (Media Industry Newsletter) is hosting a conference on May 7 on “Native Advertising: Navigating the Ad-Edit, Church-State Dilemma.” Among the topics: “Why there’s a danger in blurring the ad-edit line” and “Whether traditionalists need to wake up and adapt to a changing business model.”

A look back at the first hints of how the digital revolution was changing journalism: America Online had emerged in 1989 in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington and by the mid-90s was rapidly growing as an online service that let people who didn’t know much about computers go online.

In 1995 The Washingtonian created its website, and soon AOL was calling to ask if we wanted to explore how we could work together. They were trying to find content to build up local readership on their site and they said they’d pay us if they could use some our coverage of the area’s best dining and nightlife.

So we set up a meeting and an AOL team came to the Washingtonian offices and offered us $2,000 a month for the right to use our dining-nightlife coverage. To the editors it seemed like found money and a way to begin to profit from this strange new online world. As we talked, the issue of the wall between ads and edit came up. The top AOL guy didn’t hesitate: “At AOL,” he said, “there’s no church and state.”

So media traditionalists can’t say we weren’t warned.


AOL paid us for about 18 months and then moved on to a new media strategy. We heard stories about AOL being a different kind of place to work, but most the people they hired weren’t established journalists–those taking a chance on this new venture were mostly people without good jobs, including several people we had let go.

Then in January 2000 Time Warner made arguably the dumbest decision in corporate history by merging with AOL, making lots of AOL employees instant multimillionaires and costing Time Warner stockholders more than $100 billion as broadband destroyed the AOL dial-up business model.

One of the lucky ones was Ted Leonsis, who had joined AOL in 1993 and then in 1999 could sell enough stock to buy the Washington Capitals hockey team for $200 million. He’s parlayed that stake into now also owning the Washington Wizards NBA  franchise and the Verizon Center sports arena in downtown DC.

Not long after starting our website in  1995, I invited eight users of the site to dinner to talk about what they liked and didn’t like about what we were doing online. My only memory: They all said they looked at the Washingtonian website while at work. When they got home, they said, the last thing they wanted to do was look at a computer screen.



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