“Are you a passionate and entrepreneurial online journalist? Want to be part of a dynamic and innovative team of journalists, engineers, designers, and business pros who are creating a bold new solution for our industry? Do you think that traditional news media just don’t get it anymore?…”
AOL may have a job for you. Really. In fact, in June AOL pledged to hire as many as 500 journalists over the next year as part of a push to propel the struggling company from its past as an Internet service provider into a future as a content and advertising company. This is on top of what the company says is 500 full-time journalists already on staff. Lately, the company has been posting hundreds of openings, primarily but not entirely in its fast-expanding Patch.com community news network. Full-time jobs. With benefits and what many might call respectable salaries, for doing what it calls quality work.
But, what kinds of jobs? What kind of journalism? What kind of quality? How does this “bold new solution,” which forges a closer union between journalism and technology, work?
It’s too early to know the answers to those questions. Still, the developing model at AOL—and, on a smaller scale so far, at its rival Yahoo—which recently hired a half-dozen veteran journalists for its new breaking news site called “The Upshot”—represents an aggressive hybrid of editorial skill and computer algorithms, a combination with the muscle to influence the future of journalism.
Some journalists blanch at the mathematical ring of “algorithm.” They see it as a road to computer-assisted pandering. Proponents argue that an algorithm is simply a software program that can make journalists more successful by telling them what people are interested in. Success, they say, translates to the kind of stories that entice users to click and companies to advertise.
The algorithm developed by AOL, called Demand/ROI, does two main jobs. It scours databases and social networks to discern user interests—through search and other behavioral data. And it monitors how readers are responding to a story or aspect of a website in real-time. In essence, it’s a kind of “most e-mailed list” on steroids—not just reporting on a story’s success, but predicting the degree of success and even how much revenue it might thus generate. This information, obviously, is potentially useful to those assigning and producing content and to those advertising alongside it.
Currently in Beta mode, Demand/ROI is poised to roll out soon for use by AOL News and the rest of AOL’s fifty-plus niche sites, or brands, according to David Mason, AOL’s senior vice president, AOL Content Platform. Demand/ROI is so adept at assessing content “opportunities,” Mason says, that eventually the algorithm may be used to post some basic assignments—automatically—in areas such as Seed.com, AOL’s new professional-amateur site, which offers low-pay assignments for freelance writers, photographers, and, soon, videographers.
Tim Armstrong, the company’s chairman and chief executive, stresses that the algorithm is a tool to make journalists smarter and their output more relevant, not to be the sole dictator of content. “Technology is not a weapon against journalism, it’s a weapon for journalism,” he says. A tall, lanky man of thirty-nine, Armstrong took the helm at AOL’s sprawling corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan in March 2009. He came from Google, where he oversaw advertising sales, marketing, and operations as president of the company’s Americas Operations.
Armstrong envisions AOL producing good journalism guided by humans and enhanced by machines, a form at once familiar and alien, especially to members of—and refugees from—legacy media. Yet AOL is luring veterans of those newsrooms, along with graduates of top journalism schools. It hired close to 900 people over the summer, though editorial hiring for the company’s chief journalistic brands beyond Patch—such as AOL News, DailyFinance, PoliticsDaily, WalletPop, Engadget, and FanHouse—has slowed somewhat, according to people familiar with AOL. Before that, the company already had signed on dozens of experienced journalists, many with distinguished backgrounds at major news organizations, from USA Today and the San Francisco Examiner to The Associated Press and The New York Times. AOL’s corporate site mentions nine employees who have been involved in writing or editing Pulitzer Prize-winning stories.
AOL declines to disclose salary information, but people familiar with the company estimate that some top editors on AOL’s leading journalistic sites earn six figures, while some staff writers make $70,000 or more, depending on their experience or, in the case of columnists, their following. In addition, AOL claims that more than 40,000 “content creators” work across its properties, some on contract and others on a per-assignment basis. Most of these are paid on a much lower level, often under $100 for an article.