Thursday, April 7th, 2011

I'm Permalance No More! "Thank You Very Much for Your Contributions to AOL"

I left the corporate world in 2008 to write about music and entertainment because I wanted to work from bed, only leaving to maybe smoke joints with Kid Cudi while asking him pretentious questions about string arrangements. I don’t ask for much! During this time, my main gig has been permalancing for AOL Music. There, I aggregated content about hip-hop and indie rock, with a stray shot at actual journalism—attempts which were usually trumped by stories about Rihanna deboarding a plane or Jay-Z making funny faces at Madison Square Garden.

And then, in early February, AOL purchased the Huffington Post and handed over its editorial keys to Arianna Huffington. We knew there would be layoffs when the acquisition was announced. How could there not be? On topics like business and financial news, Huffington's crew did the same aggregation with way fewer people for way less money. I suspected that AOL would make a few big name hires for image purposes while firing most of its full-time, fairly compensated editorial workforce.

Late on March 9, we began hearing about the first of the bloodbaths to come. It immediately took me back to nights in college and its periods of insane insomnia: Like those at Viacom before me, it was like following my own job security became my new beat. I couldn't stop refreshing Google News and Twitter. Online media, despite its penchant for get-there-first wrongness or pageview-hungry reader-baiting, was still the only source for news: AOL was silent. Emails to my longtime editor went unanswered.

In the end, 20 percent of AOL's in-house workforce was canned and nearly every editorial staffer, including my own editor with whom I’d worked every day for two years, was shown the door. The people I knew inside AOL told me that workers were fired in mass conference room terminations, with no reason given.

"My no. 1 priority is keeping all of our writers informed," read a manager’s email four days after the layoffs. Other than telling us about a temporary freelance editor, I haven’t heard from her since.

For longtime employees, the transition was puzzling. “What’s so insulting was that it felt like there was no logic to the layoffs,” said a now-former AOL employee, who was let go in the first round of layoffs. “I was ranked in the top 20 percent of the company, awarded a merit-based salary increase, received a large bonus and was then let go with no explanation.”

Freelancers waited, uncertain, for two weeks. Emails were traded, each with links to incendiary stories about how we had no future. Hearing nothing from AOL, it became harder to sleep and focus. The joy of freelancing is that, while we’re essentially disposable, we at least don’t have to be overly concerned with office politics. But in reality, I had grown accustomed to what was, yes, essentially a full-time job with no office. I enjoyed the perks of someone without an office job—nooners and a very lax dress code—while becoming incredibly dependent on the trappings of someone who did.

There's a real difference between getting outright fired and being left in purgatory. Being unemployed lights an immediate fire. You have to apply for jobs, hustle, tap all connections, sweat it out. An indefinite request to "just standby"? Well, what’s to do?

On March 22, AOL cut 30 of 70 online properties, folding many into existing Huffington Post sections, ending more altogether. AOL Music remained, was incorporated into the HuffPo website and even the higher-ups exuded optimism that all would be OK for now.

Then we got an email that night—sent at 2:30 a.m.— requesting our presence on a national conference call the next day at noon. My peers seemed encouraged by this. Maybe we had won this disgusting game of corporate King of the Hill.

"We want to make clear: there is no immediate change for you," they wrote, in bold.

Maybe the definition of “immediate” is slippery? The content of that conference call could have been used as a model for what to do when a corporation really has nothing to say, plans more mass terminations, but wants to keep people contributing to its sites so that they don't cease publishing before a series of cheaper cogs are put in place.

Because, yes: freelancer layoffs began on Monday, starting with the entire business and financial staffs. Then they came for the movie writers over at Cinematical, who received an insulting email termination with the offer that they could still write stories for free. Then, presumably because she pushed the Huffington model just a little too soon, the writer of that email was fired by Huffington’s new axe-man. Huffington’s quite sensitive to packaging and timing, so even those who embrace her scheme aren’t safe unless they do it right.

And then, yesterday, pretty much everyone left was let go in the most insulting way imaginable: A form email.

Hi there –

Thank you very much for your contributions to AOL. As we have discussed on calls and in emails, going forward our editorial direction is to build a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters. To that end, we are reducing the scope of AOL's freelancer program.

Per the terms of your agreement with AOL, this note confirms the end of your engagement for content services effective Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Rest assured, you will be paid for your content and services through this date, disbursed to you per AOL’s regular payment schedule in late May.

We greatly appreciate your contributions and are available to answer any questions you may have. Please email with any inquiries.

Hi there! Over my two-year tenure at AOL, I published over 350,000 words in approximately 900 posts—at least three novels worth of words. This was met with a blanket termination, with zero notice, in the form of an email that didn't even include my actual name. Freelancers know they are just a number, but AOL really went out of their way to demonstrate that. Rest assured!

The toughest part is that it's now near impossible for us to gain satisfaction from the merger's probable failure. Tim Armstrong is already rich. Arianna Huffington is already rich. Those that treated the Mighty AOL Freelance Army like so much trash to be taken out have already gotten paid on our backs. At least we were “greatly appreciated” for helping them out.

Carter Maness is the associate music editor at NYPress and currently working on a chapbook based on Cam'ron lyrics. He works and lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by George Kelly, from Flickr.

21 Comments / Post A Comment

katiebakes (#32)

WAIT. Where can I purchase this unicorn that is a CHAPBOOK BASED ON CAM'RON LYRICS!?!??!?!?!?!?!

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)


KarenUhOh (#19)

Impressive. They actually sent an e-mail.

They only sent an e-mail because they didn't know his IM address. Here's the IM version:

"Hi there! Ur freelance contract ends 4/6/11. U will B paid. Thx 4 contrib 2 AOL!"

Astigmatism (#1,950)

Still better than the Twitter version:

"Hi there –

Thank you very much for your contributions to AOL. As we have discussed on calls and in emails, going forward our editorial dire"

Matt H (#45)

"350,000 words in approximately 900 posts." God that's a depressing number. Its one of those days.

gregorg (#30)

Hi there-


Jeff Bercovici (#4,514)

Thanks for the link. Since you've read my story: What do you think the chances are you and a bunch of other permalancers will get together and make a legal case that AOL screwed you out of your WARN Act-mandated three months of notice? I don't know that you'd get anywhere, but I can say for sure you'll have no problem finding a lawyer to take the case.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

"Dear M. Lavoisier,

Thank you very much for your contributions to the state of France. As you know, going forward our revolutionary direction is the execution of any who we consider to be enemies of the revolution. To that end, your head will no longer be necessary. Rest assured, we will provide a bucket.


–M. Robespierre"

deepomega (#1,720)

At least with small companies there's someone who will act embarrassed and shifty to your face.

(Permalance is nightmarish! All of the job insecurity, but you are slowly. losing. your connections.)

BadUncle (#153)

In '95, I was working with some of the best 'n' brightest of this then-new medium, at News Corp's first digital offering, a joint venture with telecomm MCI called iGuide. At the eleventh hour, MCI pulled out. A day later, Rupert Murdoch appeared before an all-employee office meeting to assure us that everything was still going forward. One week later, half of us were laid off in another all-employee meeting.

While I think we were also kept oblivious to our fates to finish the work, two differences with the above story seem clear:

1) We were given the word personally, by the president of the company
2) We received three months' severance, which means that Rupert Murdoch is a far more generous ruthless business person than Arianna Huffington will ever be.

The OP just confirms my own feelings about the Huffington Post, but the contrast with Murdoch is really interesting.

Sometimes I wonder whether today's online progressive politics is more about getting righteously angry about the treatment of theoretical people than just treating real people decently. Or rather, I don't wonder.

HeatherW (#3,023)

I feel bad for you. Firing people via email is shady at best.

I have been through this scenario more than once at a couple of different big media companies. I'm surprised no one has copped on at this stage that firing people via email is also bad for morale for the people left with jobs. Unless you are a total a-hole, those who were not let go will feel bad and guilty, and sort of hate the company more than they did before all the lay offs went down.

All this said, it's funny that in this world of ephemera that we work and live in, two years is considered a long time to have one job. I would see this as a freelance gig that maybe went on too long, and bid good riddance. There are better sites out there to read about music on, and I'm sure they have AOL quaking in their boots.

jfruh (#713)

Having worked as a freelancer for a long time and now having a full-time salary w/benefits gig, I can totally see how this can happen — "all the benefits of a freelance job, but without having to hustle for more work"! But let this be a warning to the youth of today. If you want a job where you don't have to hustle, get a full-time job. If you're going to be a freelancer, be a freelancer, and that means not putting all your eggs into one basket. Make pie charts of where your income is coming from, and more than half of it is coming from a single client, work on diversifying.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

The purgatory thing is just THE WORST. I worked at a record label and we had two separate rounds of mass firings, both of which I survived. In both cases, everyone knew they were coming, but not when or how, and then the firings didn't come all at once, just a slow drip over the course of months. It was extraordinarily depressing.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

I have been working in publishing since the late 1980s—if you count my shipping department work—and must say I have only learned this in the last 5 years: If you are not a salaried employee or if you have some contract that gives you some semblance of true security, any efforts you make to be “loyal” to your “permalance/freelance” employer gives them benefit and screws you in the long run.

I mean, even when times were better and media was flush with money, the pay stunk because you were doing “what you loved.” But at least there was a path to allow one to grow and move on.

What is “permalance” nowadays? It’s mostly, “Hey, you’re really good. We can’t commit now because we don’t have the cash but one magical day you will be on staff! Just hang in there!” BULLSHIT! It never happens.

Always be networking. Always be diversifying. Always make your skills something you can move to someplace else. And if you do that, maybe—just maybe—folks will take you seriously and pin you down in a staff position. You don’t do that, what do they care? They don’t pay overhead for your employment, don’t pay your health or any other benefits and you get the thrill of paying upwards of 25% of your income because you pay double Social Security… But if you are unemployed? You can’t touch any of those contributions to unemployment. You are a sucker.

And I’ve been a sucker as well. Learn, baby, learn.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Oh, also—to my own defense—the reason I didn’t think aggressively about being a freelancer like this in the past is the world of publishing was so rich and viable back in the 1980s and 1990s you got treated well even when treated like crap. When I did shipping department work I would have some days cut in leaner times, but was always assured work when things picked up. And guess what? It always worked that way. Now when someone says “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” it’s a passive aggressive way of pushing people away. The loyalty and basic professionalism doesn’t exist anymore because the field is dying. Dying a slow Terri Schiavo-like death. But it’s over.

And if you are offered to write for fun, just blog. And aggressively promote yourself. Let them want you. Blah. I sound like a motivational speaker. Time to get out.

You got the form letter a full 42 minutes before me. It was a GREAT thing to wake up to. Great thing. /sarcasm

01lukewarm (#9,661)

Thank you for making this public! Discouraging to think that even a long-term, fully dedicated writer like you got the same backhanded treatment as newer folks. Can only hope that their content streams somehow dry up entirely. How can we sow that proverbial Huff-earth with salt?

SeaBassTian (#281)

Cinematical was my fave film site before it was gutted by AOL goons. In fact, after they took over, the quality started to trickle a bit.

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