The day my AOL business cards arrived in the mail, I felt like doing a back flip in front of all my colleagues in AOL's Chicago office.
The cards, for the uninitiated, come with about a dozen different variations of the AOL logo on them: ice cream cones, scribbles, jet engines, flowers. And while business cards might represent small potatoes to some journalists, to me they signaled my arrival at my first full-time job since the Chicago Tribune laid off me and 52 other scribes in April 2009.
A fun workplace
Those business cards also say a lot about what kind of place AOL is to work. Fun at AOL carries a high premium, and in the Chicago office, you'll see everything from ping-pong tables in the break room, to machines that dispense free soda and snacks. The new digs, which overlook the Chicago River, offer quite the view. In my case, that view came with a splash of irony, as I could stare straight out from my desk and see Tribune Tower, home of my former employer of 16 years.
The AOL New York office at 770 Broadway is much larger by comparison, and in the many trips I took there I found myself captivated by its electricity and, yes, eccentricity. Some walls have funky artwork in marker shades of vermilion and black; employees were encouraged to color in the cartoonish shapes to make the place more festive. Almost anytime I visited, some form of free food or snacks had been brought in for lunch. I most liked the coffee machines that could dispense a yummy vanilla latte.
While the layout of cubicles and glass-lined offices reflects what you'll see in any typical newsroom, the office footprint itself is huge; you can get lost going from desk to desk, pod to pod, floor to floor. This is why AOL employs a funky system of numbers and letters to help the lost locate someone's desk. For example, in Chicago, my desk was designated "11:C15."
When I went from AOL freelancer to AOL editorial employee, the amount of electronic traffic that crossed my desk exploded exponentially. Now I had an AIM address, a "teamaol" e-mail account and training classes to tackle in a bunch of work-aid systems from Omniture to MediaGlow. I could spend an entire day just cleaning out e-mail boxes and purging copy-flow queues of assignments that never quite made it to the publication stage.
A great group of folks
What makes any workplace are the people, and AOL had some of the best during my time as a full-timer. My former WalletPop boss, Beth Gladstone, was very protective of me and did her best to carve out a path that would allow me to expand my skills, explore my interests and have all the fun I wanted to have.
I think my high point at AOL, or at least one of them, came in November 2009. Beth asked me to write and record a topical song about Black Friday, and star in a music video that would accompany it. That video garnered four-star YouTube reviews and five-digit page views, and if asked to list it among my journalism career highlights, I'd rank it right up there with interviewing Ringo Starr and former Vice President Al Gore.
When Beth Gladstone left AOL in October 2010 to pursue other interests, my life at AOL changed, too. I became a freelancer again in November 2010, after my contract as WalletPop managing editor expired.
How is freelancing at AOL different? Aside from the obvious rubrics involving health insurance and benefits, the main difference is that I act more as an entrepreneur now, going from department to department to see what my editor buddies have for me to do. Mostly, I edit in the Seed system, help out with Patch start-up projects here and there, and write for Spinner. I have spread my tentacles throughout the company, and given the right circumstances, I will likely pop up in other places.
Because AOL gave me the precious freedom to follow my own lights as a journalist, I'd rank it as a pretty swell place to work. That might sound strange coming from a freelancer who became a full-timer and is now a freelancer again, but the workplace and its ups and downs usually remain constant, even if the employment situation does not.
After 20 years in the field of writing, I've never lacked for work -- I still don't -- and so I view the transitions of title and status much differently than many of my colleagues. I visited AOL's New York offices again in November 2010, and it still struck me as the place I knew: where the sweat of deadline and the pursuit of Web-content excellence are tempered by healthy doses of humor, color and most of all passion.
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