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

by Carter Maness

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 freelancers@teamaol.com 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.