The Dark Side of Applying Analytics to Journalism

Are there places where analytics should not tread?

Many journalists and reporters would answer yes — if the question is whether analytics should be applied to their industry. They’re liable to be especially wary after reading Ken Auletta’s profile in the January 24, 2011 issue of The New Yorker of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and his plan to remake online news.

AOL has “designed a system called Seed, a hybrid of journalism and engineering that is run by Saul Hansell, who came from the Times after seventeen years as a technology and finance reporter,” Auletta writes. “Seed is based on the idea that editors can figure out what stories to assign by mining data from search engines like Google and social networks like Facebook. If algorithms can tell you what people are talking about, and what they’re searching for, then you know what they want to read.”

The tension: while Hansell says the system helps editors know what interests people and “helps us be better journalists,” the results are a lot of stories along the lines of “Confessions of a Personal Assistant” and “Insane Customer Service Calls: They Called About WHAT?” Will the system tilt coverage more and more toward the lightweight and banal?

Moreover, will it lead it bad writing? Seed guidelines, Auletta says, “instruct writers to pay attention to what is called ‘keyword density’: the number of times that certain phrases appear in a piece.” This helps with SEO, search engine optimization, the technologies that go into getting a page to come up higher in web searches.

“The idea of targeting a story for search bots infuriates some journalists,” Auletta notes. One AOL reporter told The New Yorker, “When I started here, it was all about getting more page views. Then they decided on a different metric, S.E.O. What they never realized is that you can’t build a real journalistic brand that way.”

Auletta’s conclusion is that even after hiring 900 journalists in 2010 — a hugely significant number in publishing today — “AOL does not seem to be saving journalism, and journalism does not yet seem to be saving AOL.”