AOL’s Assembly Line

Journalism is finally widgetized

AOL’s new high-tech method of mass-producing news and other online content raises some interesting questions.

The new approach, which will launch in December when AOL becomes independent from Time Warner, reduces reliance on error-prone human judgment and further smears the already blurry line between journalism and advertising.

Who needs editors and journalists to come up with compelling story ideas when there is AOL’s “new digital-newsroom system that uses a series of algorithms to predict the types of stories, videos and photos that will be most popular with consumers and marketers”?

Why wait until an article or video is produced to see if you can sell an ad against it? Instead, AOL “plans to offer marketers the chance to work with its editorial team to create custom content.” It’s not exactly clear what that means because in the very next sentence, as The Wall Street Journal reported today, “AOL says that its ad model will allow advertisers to be affiliated with the content but not control what is written or created.” Whatever. AOL reportedly will disclose when an advertiser has shaped or paid for custom content.
And why pay freelancers set fees? Why not just pay them what AOL’s algorithms estimate the story is worth?

AOL says it will pay free-lancers based on how much its technology predicts marketers will pay to advertise next to their articles or videos. It says that will range from nothing upfront, with a promise to share ad revenues the article generates, to more than $100 per item.

Determined to boost visitors and revenues, AOL apparently believes it has found the answer to that pesky age-old question in newsrooms everywhere: What do readers want?
[A]nalysts say what may set AOL apart is the new technology powering its system, which can tap massive amounts of data on consumers’ Web-viewing behavior to learn what’s on their minds.

Once the consumer mind has been tapped, AOL editors will assign articles to a cyber army of over 3,000 freelancers around the country—a number it plans to grow through a new Web site for contributors called Seed.
Although it sounds a bit chilling, AOL’s approach may not be much different, conceptually, than the focus groups that newsrooms have long used to figure out what their audiences want—albeit a computerized version.
But the most important question raised by AOL’s new strategy is this: Do stories that are churned out on demand still qualify as journalism?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.