On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published details of a plan by AOL for a 21st century news system that depends as much on computer algorithms as it does editors to decide which news is fit to print and which, well, isn’t.
You’ll have to subscribe to the paper in print or online or borrow a copy from a friend to see AOL to Produce News, Video by the Numbers in its entirety. But here are some of the relevant details:
- AOL will rely on a new digital newsroom system that uses computer algorithms to predict what types of stories, videos or photos will be popular, then assign articles accordingly.
- Here’s where freelancers come in. Stories will be assigned to freelancers via a new Web site called Seed.com. According to the story, AOL already works with a network of 3,000 freelancers but is looking to increase that number through Seed.com, “which is open to anyone looking to submit a story.” In other words, not necessarily professional writers. Note: The Seed.com website isn’t much to look at just yet, but they will take your email address and promise to get back to you after they launch, if you’re so inclined.
- Under the new system, AOL’s freelance fees will range from nothing up front and a share of ad revenue to more than $100 per story.
- According to the WSJ story, AOL will offer advertisers “the chance to work with its editorial team to create custom content.” In other words custom publishing. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not exactly journalism, and hopefully won’t be labeled as such.
The WSJ story used the recent baby crib recall as an example of how AOL’s new system would work. If the new system had been up and running, according to the article, the company’s number-crunching wizardry would have determined that people were interested in seeing more stories on the subject, which would have prompted editors to assign more stories.
To which I can only say: no duh. Any editor worth their salt would have come to the same conclusion, and wouldn’t have needed a lot of computer algorithms to do it.
All this is being directed by Tim Armstrong, the former Google advertising exec who’s slated to take over as AOL’s CEO when Time Warner completes spinning off the Internet company in December.
Some of my freelance friends are already up in arms over the whole situation. They’re ready to put AOL into the same group as Demand Studios, Associated Content, Helium, Studio101 and other sites that I’ve called content aggregators but other freelancers have dubbed content mills for the paltry amounts they pay, whether to professional writers or hobbyists, to churn out how-tos and other articles based on topics that are more prized for how high they’ll turn up in keyword searches than for their reportage.
But other freelancers I know who work on AOL’s blogs and other news enterprises have nothing but good things to say about the working conditions, including friendly editors and decent money.
For now, it remains to be seen whether AOL’s new endeavor will turn out to be a legitimate new market for freelance work, or give new meaning to the term bad seed.
Whatever happens, it’s also worth noting that AOL is the latest in a string of companies that most people would identify as technology ventures getting into the media business, a growing list that includes Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. As newspapers continue to struggle, are these tech giants the real future of the news?