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.”

AOL’s biggest current push into journalism is in Patch, a spreading network of hyper-local community news sites, in which it is investing $50 million this year. AOL has been posting hundreds of openings for Patch editors across the country, along the lines of: “Journalists wanted. Small town news. Big time job.”

Armstrong was one of the initial investors in Patch, which AOL purchased in June 2009 (Armstrong says he recused himself from the negotiations and took back only his initial investment). Focusing on neighborhoods of 15,000 to 50,000 people, Patch news operations emphasize original reporting, whether about the local high school graduation or the city council fight over taxes. There were 100 Patches in nine states by mid-August; at least 400 additional sites in more than a dozen more states are projected by the end of 2010, particularly in areas where local newspapers have pulled up stakes.

Most Patch launches tend to in be middle-class to affluent bedroom communities, where demographics are attractive to local and national advertisers. Perhaps cognizant of that class divide, AOL started the Patch.org Foundation in March 2010 to partner with local organizations in inner-city neighborhoods to fund Patch sites in underserved areas. In September, AOL announced the launch of PatchU, a program in which journalism students at a number of colleges and universities can intern at local Patch sites to get course credit and practical experience. The program, which partners with thirteen major journalism schools, offers hands-on training for students and provides a degree of journalistic credibility to Patch—and a source of free content.

Still, the landscape is littered with failed or gasping hyper-local sites, from independent start-ups like the defunct Backfence and the struggling NewJerseyNewsroom to legacy experiments such as The Washington Post’s defunct LoudounExtra and The New York Times’s The Local, which recently shut its three New Jersey sites and pointed readers to Baristanet. Even AOL, in the late 1990s, tested the hyper-local waters with Digital City, a partnership with Tribune Co., and found them too chilly. It was a different model—using reporters employed by Tribune newspapers—and a different time—fewer people had computers, there were no smart phones, and everybody used dial-up. Lack of scale was a problem.

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.