By Maha Atal
August 21, 2009

New online platforms like True/Slant and SnagFilms are a home for original content. Can they succeed?

AOL is getting some good press these days for hiring journalists such as newspaperman Carl Cannon and Walter Shapiro, a veteran of The Washington Post and Time magazine, in an effort to bolster its original content.  The effort, praised in media circles for creating a home for experienced writers and producers, is part of a strategy by new CEO Tim Armstrong to revitalize AOL in advance of a planned spinout by corporate parent Time Warner, (TWX)  which also owns FORTUNE’s parent.

But AOL is not alone in its online journalism initiatives. In fact, a number of former AOL executives are pursuing similar pursuits. In the last year or so, three ex-AOLers, including former vice chairman Ted Leonsis, have launched new sites devoted to online distribution of original non-fiction content.

“Branded experts” – not journalists

At their core, what all the AOL-bred web offerings have in common is an emphasis on the individual brands of writers and producers over the brand of the publishing outlet.

Lewis Dvorkin, who managed news content for AOL and left the company in 2008, launched content network True/Slant in April. He refers to his contributors as “entrepreneurial journalists.” He explains: “That could be a journalist, or it could be an academic, anyone with incredible subject-specific knowledge, who blogs under their own name.”

Dvorkin expects writers to be a “brand of one,” to take responsibility for attracting traffic.

For that reason, True/Slant recruits celebrity professionals like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and Miles O’Brien (formerly of CNN) who can bring their own audience and survive without an editor’s hand holding. “We edit the talent, but we don’t edit the copy,” Dvorkin says, “which makes for a low-cost newsroom.”

While True/Slant sells traditional ads on its pages, Dvorkin believes the main source of revenue will be from corporate partners who pay to publish their own views: articles on health care reform from pharmaceutical executives, for example. As its name suggests, True/Slant embraces the inherent bias in such pieces.

Another AOL-connected company, sports blog SBNation, also embraces bias rather than trying to edit it out. Founded in October by former AOL programming chief Jim Bankoff, SBNation features niche blogs for individual teams.

Bankoff says SBNation’s 7.5 million monthly visitors come to the site precisely because the writers are unabashed fans of the teams they cover. “We celebrate that bias,” he says. “The whole reason that spectator sports exist is for fan bias.”

So Bankoff hires superstars of fan communities who have “the ability to attract a lot of conversation.” Where does he find his recruits? Online, of course, through social media sites such as Twitter.

Adding value?

With their contributors doing much of the content creation and building audiences, the AOL alumni can focus on building new tools to help manage and distribute the content.

SnagFilms, founded last July by former AOL vice chair and Washington Capitals owner Leonsis, offers a hosting service for independent documentary filmmakers.

“We take films that get no distribution, and we’ll turn them into widgets, so if you like that film you can drag it into your Facebook page and create a virtual movie theater,” says Leonsis.

SnagFilms inserts advertisements before each film, and collects revenue from advertisers when viewers watch films – on the SnagFilms site or on, say, someone’s Facebook page. “It’s a pretty good business,” Leonsis boasts.

A Long Time Coming

In some ways, the AOL alums are recycling an idea that their former employer kicked around years ago.  In 2005 AOL (under the leadership of then-CEO Jon Miller) acquired web publishing platform Weblogs as part of a strategy to launch its own network of sites.

But at the time, AOL was in the middle of a strategy shift: Miller had been pushing the company to become more of a Yahoo (YHOO) -like portal, even as some executives within parent company Time Warner sought to use the site as a distribution platform for the media company’s rich libraries of content. Recalls Dvorkin: “AOL at that time didn’t have the DNA for content creation.”

Miller departed AOL in the fall of 2006 (he’s now the top digital executive at News Corp. (NWS)). Leonsis, Dvorkin, Bankoff soon followed.

Now — as it looks at life after Time Warner — AOL appears to be returning to the strategy it abandoned three years ago, launching local news sites and marrying them to what CEO Armstrong calls “structured data.” One example: embedding local news on maps from AOL-owned MapQuest.

Meanwhile, like Dvorkin’s True/Slant and Bankoff’s SBNation, AOL is betting on the brand power of high-profile journalists to sell the content on its niche blogs.

AOL Mafia

The convergence between AOL’s past and the alumni projects is only partly coincidental since the ex-AOL executives continue to advise and invest in one another‘s companies. “It’s not just an AOL mafia,” says SBNation’s Bankoff, “but we did grow up in this industry together.”

If there is a mafia, then Leonsis is its godfather. Bankoff, Dvorkin and Weblogs founder Jason Calacanis all worked for him at AOL, and he’s invested the ventures of many ex-AOLers. Now that AOL is moving back in the direction of media content, Leonsis says he might even “want to help out from afar.”

Whether AOL takes him up on the offer may depend on the successes of the ventures Leonsis is backing.

Leonsis is confident: SnagFilms, he projects, should turn a profit next year. But others are more cautious about the ex-AOLers prospects.

John Borthwick, an AOL alumnus who runs tech incubator Betaworks, intones: “AOL was good, bad and intense. Now, we’re just trying to make new mistakes.”

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