AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong has just launched his company into a world of controversy (nothing new there, then) by promising to "spark a revolution." In what? In online news reporting: He's got plans to automate it, kind of. Try not to snigger, please.
Armstrong's plan, despite that grand promise, is actually pretty simple at heart. Instead of relying on AOL's experienced staff of editors and writers to put together the written content for AOL's news Web sites, the company will be employing an algorithmic system that trawls the Internet and examines the stories its Net visitors will most prefer. It'll then advise the humans in the loop which stories are likely to do well, and when to run them—particularly pieces like seasonal or sporting-interest ones. AOL will also be using Seed.com to share out article assignments among the large freelance staff. Payments for freelancers will also be calculated automatically, along with advertising fees. And, and this is the most intriguing part, it'll screen the submitted pieces for grammar and even check them for copyright infringements.
Is this the thin end of the wedge that ends with fully-automated news writing? It's clearly the next-level of automation to the automated headline-choosing at Huffington Post. And it certainly could spark a revolution off within a giant publishing machine like AOL—where the chase for every penny of profit, in terms of efficiency and targeted advertising is the key part of business. But will this work, or not? One risk is that even an automated story-selection system could result in a flat, bland and uninteresting publication—one that actually feels de-humanized. Assuming your target audience is sensitive to well-produced sites, that could be a big problem in terms of reputation. A fully automatically-written news site (not too technologically distant, by the way) would also run the risk of being treated like those irritating pop-up ads we all click past—obviously artificial and supposedly tailored to your needs by a clever Google cookie in your browser, but actually just visual chaff we tend to winnow out of our Web-browsing experience. Where would all the Web 2.0 and social-media debate and comment thread discussions go, when the source of the article is clearly a machine? Machine-hating definitely can't stir up the same kind of emotional response.
This is a viewpoint echoed by David Carr in a fascinating post over at The New York Times this weekend. Instead of bemoaning the sorry-looking fate of traditional news publishing in Manhattan, Carr notes that by thinking about it another way, the future of journalistic writing is actually getting brighter rather than dimmer: It's full of "bright young things" with "tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud" and "contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago."
If you tend toward Carr's thinking, then in the future online writing of news won't be dominated by automatic or even semi-automatic systems like AOL's...simply because the reading audience will become more savvy to the technology, and will always prefer the human touch. If you're more pessimistic, that doesn't mean AOL, and others, won't stop using this sort of tech or developing ways to automate the process more deeply. Let's hope that isn't the future for the greater majority of news writing—but if you disagree with me, and you can because we're both people, feel free to tell me in the comments.