In the Future, Your News Will be Shallow

We should give AOL credit. On paper, a company that mainly trafficked in maddening dial-up symphonies and is included in business school textbooks as one half of the worst merger in the modern era should in 2010 be a footnote in the well-rounded journalist’s quickcard of notable fallen giants.

Yet the company is, relatively speaking, enjoying a successful transition into the content game, hiring and poaching web writers over the past year, subtly rebranding, and generally scrapping to stay relevant.

And, apparently, it won’t be just the writers doing the writing.

AOL’s “newsroom of the future,” as it was unveiled last week, is the company’s intention of harnessing New and Powerful web metrics to dictate the focus of their content, steering it primarily to what readers respond to most.

Of course, this sort of pre-cognitive editorial strategy sounds incisive and promising: “If we know the reception of a piece before we commit to it, we’ll never fail! The masses will love us and shower us in click-thrus and fervent adoration!”

Except we already know what pulls weight and moves units with the general reading populace: the tawdry, plump, but essentially hollow baby-gleaning updates of our favorite celebrities and “Drink-Only-Mango-Pulp for-Eight-Days-Diet-Secrets-Revealed” link-bait.

The underwhelming results of the AP Exchange platform, an eminently worthwhile endeavor which opened up solid, nonprofit resources for wire purposes, but whose six-month run saw little traffic, bears this out.

Not that AOL leaning on lighter fare would be an abject travesty. Their fly-in-your face homescreen of screaming linegrabs was flying in your face when they were just a humble ISP monolith. Which is fine.

AOL is undoubtedly in a place of expansion, putting somewhere around 500 journalists at desks and keeping a stable of nearly six times as many freelancers, and should they come to operate a “What Readers Want” version of a content mill, they’ll also be encouraging the worldly ignorance of its considerable readership.

The caveat here is to not put too much stock into ersatz revenue streams that promise things like better results and stronger performance, in favor of reporting what actually happens, in all spheres.

Because like other things of likeminded claims, they always leave something to be desired.

–Max Lakin


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