Near the other end of the AOL editorial spectrum is Seed.com, run by Saul Hansell, a veteran New York Times technology writer and the programming director of AOL Content Platform. On Seed, professional and amateur freelancers choose from a variety of primarily service-oriented assignments generated by editors with assistance from AOL’s algorithm. Contributors bid for assignments along the lines of “Best Public Restrooms in Park City, UT”—competing for assignments that pay as little as $50 for 1,000 words. If a submission is selected for publication, editors then shape the winner’s material. The plan is for Seed to generate large amounts of original content—including articles, photos, and videos—for use across AOL brands.
This is the closest AOL currently tilts toward the so-called “content farm” model. Content platform chief David Mason contends that, over time, a stable of trusted contributors will emerge from the fray and some will receive direct assignments. He said payment for projects on Seed will eventually run the gamut from $10 to more than $1,000, depending on such variables as the required level of expertise and the complexity of the assignment.
AOL’s Manhattan headquarters occupies three sprawling floors in the old Wanamaker department store building on lower Broadway. Row upon row of gray cubicles are punctuated by large flat-screen color monitors on the walls. The floors are so cavernous and similar in appearance that color-coded location charts are provided on counters near the elevator banks. Hushed but busy engineers, programmers, designers, and editors work side by side. Brainstorming takes place in quirky seating areas defined by orange and white shower curtains, and most people have at least two computer screens on their desks.
One of them is Cheryl Brown, editorial director of AOL’s KitchenDaily, a new recipe-oriented food site for home cooks, and its older Slashfood news blog. Brown spent ten years as an editor at Condé Nast’s recently shuttered Gourmet magazine, until 2005, and then served as managing editor of Disney’s now-defunct parenting magazine Wondertime before joining AOL in October 2009, just four months before the launch of KitchenDaily.
After the demise of Wondertime, “I decided this was the time to hitch up the wagon and learn some new skills if I were going to stay in this business,” says Brown. She manages two full-time and two part-time editorial staffers, along with a long list of regular contributors, many of them ex-Gourmet writers, and nearly a dozen “partnerships” that provide columns and recipes from people like author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and outlets like The Culinary Institute of America. “The pace is different,” she says. “It’s almost like putting out a whole magazine every day, with less staff and fewer resources. So, it’s almost blinding whiplash for a little while. But then you kind of get into the groove and figure out how to make it work.” A few graying heads can be spotted around the office, but just a few. “It’s really young,” notes Brown, who is forty-one.
At this point, she said, some 90 percent of the content on KitchenDaily (not counting recipes) is original, plus some licensed reprints. KitchenDaily also ventures beyond the stove. It sent an editor to the White House in June for an exclusive story on harvesting honey from the presidential beehives, including photos, video, an article, and links to honey recipes. The goal is increased engagement with users, measured in clicks, comments, and participation, as in inviting cooks to share food photos through Flickr.
More news-oriented than KitchenDaily, the Slashfood blog publishes such stories as “Wine Vending Machines Debut in Pa.,” “Ready Pac Baby Spinach Recall,” and features such as “Celebrating Cow Appreciation Day,” along with modules on chefs, restaurants, reviews, and items on new beers and other products. KitchenDaily has about fifty regular contributors and SlashFood has eighteen, but Brown can access more original content from different regions of the country for both sites through local Patch editors and assignments posted on Seed.
Brown admits she’s become an algorithm addict. She puts up what she calls her “heat map” on a screen, a program that instantly tells her exactly what’s hot and what’s not on her two sites by tracking where people are clicking.
And she can do something about what she sees. If a feature on asparagus is not pulling in the expected eyeballs, its headline and deck copy can be changed to increase appeal. If it’s determined that a cooking video is more popular at a certain hour, it can be shifted. While it doesn’t dictate what they do on the sites, Brown said, the algorithm “helps us focus the content.”