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.
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
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
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 AOL.com - 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