For example, on July 6 a U.S.-based contributor, trying to report on Raoul Moat, a gunman loose in northern England, inadvertently quoted from The News Grind, a satirical British news site. The unwitting—but doubtlessly under pressure—contributor included this quote in his AOL News story: “I can scarcely wait for the climax,” confirmed Elsie White, 77, as she raced back to her house after picking up some toffees and copies of today’s paper from a local news agent featuring the blood-soaked face of a police officer allegedly shot by Moat. “We haven’t had a live event like this to enjoy for quite some time and there’s only old ‘Doctors’ episodes on at this time of day.”

The News Grind and The New York Observer gleefully noted the misstep and a correction swiftly followed. But the incident highlighted the potential danger when reporting is rapidly cobbled together from outside sources. Nizza said AOL News has since formalized a ban on posts based on single sources beyond proven news operations.

Many of these hybrid pieces, sometimes attributing to as many as five different news organizations, are clunky. They’re also vulnerable to errors, as journalists scramble to rearrange quotes and paragraphs during rewriting. This happened, for example, with a June piece on Starbucks offering free Wi-Fi, in which a quote taken from a New York Times story was attributed to the wrong person.

It’s not what Armstrong wants AOL News to be, he said. “I have a hard time seeing an economic long-term value in journalists scraping other journalists and adding 5 percent more to the story. I am not a fan of that. I think it’s not an economic viability and I don’t think it delivers great consumer value.”

But he also acknowledged the challenge AOL News faces. “Patch is very clear journalism. Something like PoliticsDaily is really clear journalism. Engadget and FanHouse, really clear original journalism, and strong,” he says. “Real time breaking news? How do you do that? You can be either the originator or the partner, but probably being in-between is not a good place to be.”

AOL is still working on that conundrum, he said, as well as how best to use the algorithm and its indicators of reader interest and response at AOL News.

This new union of journalism and algorithm is a tricky area that is still evolving. According to Ken Doctor, “No one’s done it right yet. The blend of real journalistic know-how, talent, and experience and the technologies of the day to aid that, and to distribute the work itself—it’s the blend of the two that nobody’s gotten right yet.” Still, he applauded AOL’s effort in trying.

No one, including Tim Armstrong, knows if AOL’s grand plan will work. “Our overarching business question is: Is journalism undervalued?” He continues: “As Warren Buffett says, be greedy when people are fearful, and fearful when people are greedy. We’re being greedy when people are fearful about journalism.”

Of course, he concedes, there may be good reasons to be fearful. “But I have to believe that journalism in the future will be just as important as journalism in the past.” 

 

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.