For media reporters everywhere, Thursday will be one wistful day. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is expected to climb the podium and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. With that, AOL will officially be unleashed from Time Warner. The divorce marks the end of an era. The soap opera representing the union of AOL and Time Warner was the media story that just kept on giving for a glorious and tumultuous decade.
When I took over the media beat at BusinessWeek in October, 2000, my first story was a commentary that said Time Warner executives were already questioning whether merging with AOL made sense, this three months before the deal would close. The piece was illustrated with storm clouds looming over a photo of Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin and AOL CEO Steve Case. That prompted an angry call from the Time Warner PR denizens to our then editor-in-chief Steve Shepard. The worst was still to come for AOL Time Warner, the best for those of us covering media. Accounting scandal. Corporate politics. Management shakeups. Government investigations. Parent company name change. Strategy Shifts. Turf battles. Plunging share price. Shareholder lawsuits. Sweeping layoffs.
The story’s lasting legacy for journalism outfits is that the AOL Time Warner merger broke down newsroom silos. It really was the first big story that made technology and media reporters work together because AOL in those days was typically covered by the tech side. And, boy, were we suspicious of each other. I partnered for years with Cathy Yang, our AOL reporter, but it took a while before we worked well as a team. Today, the overlay between technology and media is so common that teaming up is no big deal.
Now, tens of thousands of column inches later, three books and I am sure a script has been optioned somewhere, we’ve come to the end of the AOL and Time Warner thread. We’re going to miss the worst corporate merger in history. They say the recent NBC Universal-Comcast partnership will become the new AOL Time Warner. Maybe. But I just can’t imagine it will dish out the same Sturm und Drang that kept us rich in bylines all these years.