AOL’s content flows out through multiple streams, a wide range of niche sites, or brands. Many of these sites—such as Games.com, Love.com, and the country music-oriented The Boot—offer little or no journalism content. Many others feature service journalism, such as KitchenDaily and StyleList, “real style for women who love fashion, beauty, and celebrity.” Experienced journalists are sprinkled throughout these service sites, primarily as editors.
The AOL sites most deeply rooted in journalism, and where many of the journalists hired so far are working, are in the news and information group: broad-based AOL News, which tries to provide national and foreign news and analysis edited by former New York Times web journalist Michael Nizza; PoliticsDaily, run by former Times journalist Melinda Henneberger; DailyFinance, run by former BusinessWeek reporter Amey Stone; Engadget, a popular tech site; WalletPop, on personal finance; and sports-oriented FanHouse, which is crammed with former newspaper sportswriter stars.
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.