Today, Yahoo launches The Upshot*, a news blog that uses search queries to determine its content. Staffed by a couple of editors and six writers (no robots as yet, though) it is, as James A. Pitaro claims--he's the VP of Yahoo Media--what differentiates Yahoo from its competitors. But does it?
The NYT has a lengthy piece about how The Upshot works--and it's not all about ranks of Asimos banging out copy to crappy techno. First of all, you've got the folks who analyze the trends on Yahoo's content network--what's being talked about, and any search queries related to the stories. Should there be a search topic that comes up again and again--Pitaro uses an example from the Beijing Olympics to illustrate this--then the analytics team will inform the writers, who will then delve into the subject from that angle. So, kinda crowdsourced, but not crowdsourced like the HuffPo headlines.
Using algorithms to determine what journalists should be writing about is nothing new. Indeed, last year, AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong lined his editors up against a wall--metaphorically, you understand--and replaced them with an automated system that ran through news feeds to determine which stories should be covered--and even when they should be run.
But this new Yahoo venture is a clever way of finding new angles for much-covered topics, because it basically turns the concept of online content on its head. Instead of writing about what other sites are writing about, you write about what people are asking about. And it helps if you've got your own search engine or two--don't forget, Yahoo and Bing have a tie-in as well.
From a financial point of view, this could be very beneficial to Yahoo, as targeting their audience like that could mean a higher advertising revenue. Yahoo is going all-out in the war on content--don't forget that, two months back, it shelled out $100 million to buy Associated Content, giving it instant access to 380,000 freelance writers. But Pitaro is adamant that The Upshot is not about bombarding Yahoo users with even more content. "If you're a news startup, focusing on breadth would be the wrong way to go," he says. "What we're seeing is the market getting increasingly fragmented. And because of that you can survive by owning a niche category."
The way to look at The Upshot, then, is as an experiment--and one that will, most likely, be pretty successful, provided they can breathe new life into news. What is heartening, however, is that it's an idea that's come from Yahoo which, in the past two years, seems to have given up on dynamic ideas of its own, preferring instead to enter into agreements with more dynamic firms than itself, such as its recent integration with Facebook.
*Check out this post on The Upshot last Friday, before they went live. Nice healthy sense of irony there.