Grande Dame Data Gives AOL A Second Chance

As we often do, I spent a little time this past week pondering the mingling of the old and the new. Old and new media, that is. I've been catching up on my reading about AOL's new journalism project. No irreverence intended -- but some of the details are curious, considering the entity and the change-making executives involved. Ad economy pacemaker Tim Armstrong, for one.

You may have heard that over the summer AOL projected that it would hire 500 or more "journalists" -- sourcing from both new and legacy (an icky but often used term) media -- in an effort to transform its former existence. Its aim is effectively to transform AOL from its station as Internet service provider to a content and advertising company of our current age -- and do so on a very large scale. At the heart and in the wheelhouse of this venture is something called Demand/ROI, an algorithm that trawls the social networks and databases to get a beat on user interests through search patterns and other behavioral trending, which will be used by various divisions and sites within AOL. It is ostensibly able to predict the success of that content by dynamically monitoring user feedback and response to content. In today's world these predictions can guide strategies on fostering readership and site loyalty -- as well as help identify and quantify content monetization potential.

The predictive engine concept is not new. Comparable technology fuels entities like Demand Media, Associated Content and others. But despite the capacity for these "news organizations" to churn out quantity according to what might attract the most "users," for many of us, there has always been the question of where quality, original reporting and the mitigating voice of rooted journalistic principles fit in. The same questions seem to apply here.

As nearly all of us do, I immensely respect Armstrong and team. But I find some of the public comment around this venture awkward, from a future-of-journalism standpoint. Armstrong was quoted recently in Columbia Journalism Review saying, "Technology is not a weapon against journalism, it's a weapon for journalism." I've often felt that the talk of technology relative to journalism paints tech as somewhat predatory and negative.  Yes, there have been dark days. But what of the promise of technology as an enabler?

Believing wholly in positive progress, I feel it's far more essential to focus zealously on preserving the principles of good journalism and to acknowledge that it's just our vehicles that are changing. That doesn't make technology a weapon; it makes it an enabler and an ally if wisely deployed, allowing us to pursue a higher standard for vehicles, access and utility. It is in the hands of the un-wise, un-ready and unprepared, that tech has damaged journalism. Even in the context of the kind of change Armstrong is putting himself behind, I don't love the weaponry reference. It doesn't have to be that way.

The folks behind Demand/ROI also speak of Chinese walls, always a somewhat dubious position. It's almost as if the moment you speak of having them, you call their existence into question. So, let's spare us this claim. Within the Demand/ROI-led environment, it's doubtless true that both editorial and business sides might salivate over the data at their fingertips. Data that some might, somewhat disingenuously, call "nice to have." It's of course helpful and nice to have this data, but at the scale envisioned, this data is magnificently big-business. Who's kidding whom?

Admittedly, I find myself a bit mesmerized by this venture. But, there are ironies. As Armstrong and others close to this picture frown upon, if not disparage, what is described by them as an opportunity lost by journalists, who for too long sat on available data and didn't really leverage it, I can't help but think of opportunities previously squandered by AOL itself, at least in my book. These of course predate the current team. AOL in its earliest years of the proprietary service had nothing if not massive tomes of consumer data. And keyword search -- both on the service and on - represented an incredible first-mover opportunity never realized.

Having been involved with AOL very early on as a joint-venture partner, and then having spent deep time in the search sector, I will say I feel like I have been waiting for AOL to become something great and truly important for a very long time. And now reinvention of such gigantic scale looms large. It's kind of like Data herself is giving AOL a big, fat, second chance. And so, while I have concerns about its authenticity and its journalism -- and am a little creeped-out by the overt tech-speak relative to the journalism trade -- I'd personally love to see the company hit this



5 comments about "Grande Dame Data Gives AOL A Second Chance ".
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  1. William Mcgarry from BuzzMedia, November 15, 2010 at 12:59 p.m.

    Hi Kendall,

    I Iove reading long-form journalism as well as shorter fun pieces - both in digital and print - but think there's something inherently wrong with an algorithm that gives the people what they want. How can popularity dictate what real journalists write about? I don't want to know about war, famine, destruction, but it's important to read about EVERYTHING to keep oneself informed in order to try and stay sharp and one step ahead. So I do it.

    There's an enormous difference between journalism and entertainment. I think once an organization goes the route of creation by popularity, we'll start seeing more snark and less of what informs and inspires. I'm rooting for AOL as well but hope they can see beyond algorithms and focus additionally on what journalism represents at its core.

  2. Bob Valeiko from Research Now, November 15, 2010 at 2:12 p.m.

    Hi Kendall,
    I agree. Early on, the former AOL (America Online) had numerous opportunities to shape and lead the future of many foreseeable trends and applications. However, as a slave to quarterly economics AOL chose to sell-off the audience and platform for the immediate yield rather than invest and develop for the long term. It's ironic that this strategy resulted in one of, if not the most critical agreements inked during Google's infancy.
    What a comeback it would be if the current team at AOL can build a new success story. I too would like to see it happen.

  3. John Fredette from Alcatel-Lucent, November 15, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    I think I would be happier if AOL "married" an organization that had an established identity and mission as a news organization. There is a long and established tradition of journalistic integrity that cannot be just grafted on or grown from scratch. In the meantime I will keep my fingers crossed that the NYT can figure out how to make it work.

  4. Jake Dell, November 16, 2010 at 9:52 a.m.

    Bravo, Kendall ... especially your sentiment that it is "far more essential to focus zealously on preserving the principles of good journalism and to acknowledge that it's just our vehicles that are changing ..."

    The Internet Content Syndication Council is hoping to do just that:


  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 17, 2010 at 2:59 p.m.

    Even if you believe it could happen, would they "pay" journalists/reporters or would they try to have the workers contribute willingly for bubkas or unwillingly for lifted work? Editing integrity, too? A jounalistic fact ?

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