As AOL launches as a stand-alone company (disentangled from its ill-regarded merger with Time Warner), attention will focus once again on whether "content mills" are the model for journalism in the future.
Newspapers for years have been bad chefs in planning their daily spreads, trying to balance how much spinach vs. cotton candy to serve up to readers -- in other words, what an informed citizenry ought to know as opposed what it (secretly or otherwise) wants to know. Derivatives or Britney? Public option or Tiger?
In some ways, the Web has made the menu-planning harder, since it can easily measure the "traffic" a story generates. A horrific ax murder in an affluent neighborhood? Not only will the news bulletin on a newspaper's website produce a lot of clicks from local readers but it also will bring hundreds of thousands more through a national aggregator.
So a package of stories on the ax murder is developed for the next day's newspaper, perhaps to the detriment of stories on shrinking ice sheets, famine and war, nuclear politics or other thumbsucking esoterica.
The more the murder resonates with readers, the more stories are produced around it. And the more eyeballs those stories draw in print or online, the more happy are advertisers who happen to be on display nearby.
But companies like Demand Media, Examiner.com, Suite 101 and Associated Content have upended that model: They watch online searches for keywords on what interests readers, sell that audience to advertisers, and then produce the content to keep readers coming back. They pay freelance writers pennies per word -- $10, $15, $20 a story, vs. the historical $200 and up -- but promise to share future revenue as the stories or adjacent ads are clicked.
(The model, by the way, irritates professional freelancers, judging by this call to arms by one Seattle writer to petition "sweatshop-content users and content-mill owners to pay writers fairly," as she described it on LinkedIn.)
Now enter the 800-pound gorilla, AOL.
The company has been gearing up to create deep content around highly sought-after topics, like Demand and its brethren do. It even has created a mechanism, called Seed, to automate the process of conceiving of and assigning stories to writers.
It's a tough model to accept for those of us who formerly earned our living via legacy media. Fifteen bucks per story and pennies per click? The other day, one wag did the math and came up with a staggering volume of page views that a reporter would need to earn a modest $40,000 annual salary.
And what of the spinach, the stories that help shape an informed citizenry?
Consider this offered by Lauren Rich Fine, a former Merrill Lynch analyst who now is associated with Kent State University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She participated in a panel discussion on new business models in news at last week's workshop on the future of journalism in the Internet age, held by the Federal Trade Commission:
"The idea of matching advertisers with content like Demand Media and AOL I think it is actually very smart. ... I think the flaw in the model is, what this whole workshop is getting at, is if you're trying to preserve democracy, giving people what they want probably won't end up with the kind of coverage that most of you in this room really want to provide, and therein lies the real challenge."