The AOL List: Pink Slips

David Cassel (
Thu, 29 May 1997 12:06:06 -0700 (PDT)

	 		  P i n k   S l i p s

70,000 subscribers read the sad news.  "AOL is pulling the plug on
AnswerMan, and NetHelp too."  And it's just one of many unpublicized cuts
hitting the service. 

"Last week, the powers that be at AOL abruptly decided to cancel the
AnswerMan and NetHelp forums..." the final issue of the e-mail newsletter
announced.  "I'm sorry to have to tell you that this will be the last
edition of the AnswerMan Internet Extra..."  AOL immediately deleted
AnswerMan's unauthorized goodbye from the on-line version. "They did a
sloppy job, though," one AnswerMan staffer notes.  Over 13 paragraphs
disappeared from the "Current Edition"--but AnswerMan's web page points
out that the complete version appears next to it under an icon labeled
"May 26, 1997--Final Issue." ( 

AnswerMan's nine-person staff must now seek employment elsewhere. 
"Despite the fact that the AnswerMan and NetHelp forums have never been
more popular, and that this newsletter has more readers than ever, the
management felt the cuts were necessary." 

The AOL List asked:  Was it done to save money?  "You hit the nail on the

"I can't believe this is going away," one subscriber posted to the area's
message board.  "Goodbye, AnswerMan!" 

But other content providers are saying goodbye, too.  "AOL has implemented
its destruction of the Company Connection forum," Russell Hoffman told the
AOL List. "We were knocked off last week after about 7 years."  As Owner
and Chief Programmer for the Animated Software Company, he'd been a
charter member of AOL--and it's another money-related departure.  "As a
small company we could not afford the tens of thousands of dollars they
requested, starting immediately and lasting forever."  Without the fee,
AOL wouldn't maintain their place in the Company Connection forum.  "I
never really thought it could last forever," Hoffman announces bitterly on
his web page ( )  "But I
wanted to be able to walk, not run, to the nearest exit when the time
came."  His cynicism rose.  "I think AOL has, just in the last year or
two, machine-gunned themselves in both feet."  The page concludes with a
warning.  "It's a small world, AOL. Your reputation will follow you." 

Maybe it did.  Four weeks ago the editor of AOL's ABC Boards made an
announcement:  "Our NewsViews message board will be replaced by a series
of boards linked to individual stories on the website."  Angry readers
laid the blame on AOL.  "Rumor has it, AOL has up'd the 'rent' for the
content providers,"  one poster noted. "I wouldn't be surprised if this is
mostly just an economic move to save pennies, and/or resources." 

"AOL has decided to fall back on its usual strong-arm tactics and get its
partners to pony up the money," a HotWired columnist noted recently. 
( that message
made its way to the ABC board.  "Add in the fact that AOL is apparently
trying to gouge a few more sheckels out of its corporate sponsors for its
own reasons, and I think you can see where this whole change is coming
from--and where it's probably going to." 

Many posters were concerned they couldn't reach the web-based message
boards using AOL's software.  "Unless you have a reasonably fast,
expensive PC, access to the Net through AOL is nonsensical."  Others were
more blunt.  "If I have to depend on the AOL browser to get to the new
site, you can consider me history.  The so-called AOL Internet link or
browser STINKS!!!!"  But ABC isn't the only AOL partner beefing up their
web site.  Content providers like "The Knot" 
( and The Motley Fool
( recently
announced more emphasis on their web offerings--and last week Intuit
joined them, expanding their on-line banking service to the internet

Some users saw ABC's moves as a sign of AOL abandonment.  "If AOL cared
about maintaining a quality proprietary service, features such as
News/Views would not be disappearing," read one post in the board's final
days.  "I think AOL's goal is mediocrity concealed by glitter." "As for
AOL, I've had my suspicions that they weren't on our side for a while
now,"  another poster concurred. "[I]t's all about money, money, money."

Just when it seemed the comments couldn't get any more negative, another
user posted that "Friday, I sold my AOL stock."  Then they issued a call
to arms. "As this is the only action they seem to understand, perhaps
there are more of you out there who can engage in similar activity." (This
post was quickly deleted from the message board.) But it might have been a
good idea.  Earlier this month Barron's polled 156 portfolio managers to
determine the most overvalued stocks--and AOL ranked near the top of the
list.  (  AOL even
made Worth magazine's "Ten Stocks to Avoid" list -- an investment
professional's pick of their "least favorite stocks--securities the pro
expects to underperform the market."
(  Then "Insider Trader" 
reported that eight AOL executives filed documents last week indicating
intentions to sell 334,140 shares of restricted AOL securities--over $15
million worth.  (Placing AOL in the top ten for the "Form 144" 
transactions.)  Sellers included three company officers, two directors,
and AOL's President.  ( 

In an apparent attempt to shore up public appearances, Steve Case
addressed the National Press Club Wednesday.  "A MAJOR NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT
WILL BE MADE AT THIS LUNCHEON," the organization boasted. 
(  But where was it?  Reuters searched in
vain while reporting Case's comments:  "We are lagging behind people in
foreign markets."  ( 
And the audio clips on MSNBC were no more auspicious.  "We clearly have
had a tough year, kind of a humbling year, trying to keep up with the
growth we've seen in the service..." 

One AOL observer came forward with the answer: AOL Enterprise has just
laid off most of its employees."  (  "Our
highest number of employment was probably this time last week," said
Dennis Steffe, Regional Sales Manager.  "We had, I guess 25 or 30 people. 
Now there's seven."  AOL's on-line directory still lists 36 names, but
Steffe says the remaining employees were folded into the Business
Development department.  "We've had some sales, some limited successes,
but not the kind of success that AOL is accustomed to having." 

Last week the Washington Post reported 60 customer service positions were
eliminated in Herndon, moving functions to cheaper facilities in Tucson.
And an AOL List reader writes about another departure.  "Apparently
Teletech USA, the Denver, Colorado firm that was hired to handle some of
AOL overflow from their service numbers, has lost the contract." 

The moves left confusion throughout the ranks.  An AOL Enterprise staffer
reached Wednesday night refused to confirm or deny the dozens of layoffs. 
"There have been changes" one receptionist confirmed--and another told us
her supervisor was no longer available; "He left the company last week." 
Over a dozen other calls failed to connect to a live operator.  Even when
the AOL List contacted Ross Crum, Steve Case's assistant, he was unable to
locate an official at AOL Enterprises.  ("It's a possibility that there
have been some layoffs in that area," Crum stammered.)

But it does leave a big question mark.  Maybe Case's "major announcement"
was widespread downsizing. 


When the closing date for the ABC board arrived, regulars found a reprieve
came--from a technical glitch.  "The word there is that AOL has been
having problems with the new boards and the implementation schedule has
been delayed a bit."  They seized the opportunity for some final posts. 

"Will I perhaps get the last word?"

"Maybe it was all a hoax!"

"[T]he REALLY last laugh is that AOL/ABC can't even close this board out
 on schedule."

        David Cassel
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