Will New York Times Vet Saul Hansell Run AOL’s New Robot Factory, Or Something Less Ominous? Let’s Ask Him.

111209ATDhansellFor much of this year, AOL (AOL) made a point of boasting about each and every traditional journalist it hired. Message: We’re dead serious about becoming a content company, not one that sells Internet access to people who don’t know any better.

Those boasts grew less frequent in recent months, as the company’s hiring binge drew to a close, then switched into reverse, when AOL announced it would need to shed a third of its staff. Meanwhile, AOL’s plans to inject automation into its content factory freaked out both employees and outsiders.

So the company’s most recent hire, announced shortly before AOL  separated from Time Warner (TWX), may help soothe some frayed nerves — New York Times (NYT) veteran Saul Hansell, who will run AOL’s new Seed.com content creation platform.

But what does that actually mean? Is Hansell going to be running “AOL’s News Borg“, as Gawker put it. Or something less ominous?

I talked to Hansell yesterday, and the answer is… not really clear.

Hansell, who spent 17 years at the Times, can’t spell out exactly what he’s going to do at AOL, because he’s not exactly sure himself. He says he reached out to AOL CEO Tim Armstrong when the paper announced its most recent round of buyouts back in October, and then he and the company went about creating a job that made sense for him.

But beyond his new title — “programming director” — a lot of what Hansell will do at his new gig is do is up in the air. The positive spin: That’s OK, because uncertainty is a way of a life at a startup, and AOL is in many ways a company that has to reinvent itself on the fly, just like a startup. You can fill in the less positive interpretation of this yourself

Hansell does have some big picture ideas about AOL’s ability to combine its audience, workforce, technology and ad sales to produce a next-generation publishing platform. And he has a very nice parable he uses about visiting Amazon’s warehouse, where technology and humans coexist quite nicely.

OK. But what about the robots he’s supposed to be in charge of? “I don’t know anything about the robots,” Hansell says. “I haven’t gotten there.”

Anyway, Hansell was a good sport about letting me shove a Flip camera very close to his face, and he can tell his story much better than I can. So here you go:

[ See post to watch video ]

Soundbite: NYTPicker Speaks!


“Once every few weeks, social media editor Jennifer Preston calls us cowards and invites us to lunch. Otherwise, not really.”

If you are a follower of the New York Times you are probably familiar with the blog NYTPicker, the website that “devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times — the newspaper and the institution itself.” In other words, they watch the goings on at the Times better than most including, arguably, the Times. Recently this has included breaking stories about Maureen Dowd’s plagiarism, this weeks buyouts, and yesterday’s post regarding the Times’ strange holiday guide. MediaShift landed an interview with the Pickers; still no word on who runs the site — it’s six people — but apparently they are all “very attractive.”

NYTPicker Covers New York Times Like a Wet Blanket

On Sunday, the New York Times published an Editors' Note detailing a conflict of interest:

The "Place" feature about Miami in the T magazine travel issue on Nov. 22 included a reference to the 8 oz. Burger Bar. The writer has had a long personal relationship with a co-owner of the restaurant; had editors known of that connection, the restaurant would not have been included in the article.

One thing the note didn't disclose was that this personal relationship was first identified and publicized by the NYTPicker, an anonymous group blog (and Twitter account) that has been keeping tabs on the New York Times for a little over a year. During its relatively brief existence, the site's hundreds of posts have demonstrated that its authors have a breadth and depth of insight into the paper.

Just last week, the NYTPicker raised some serious and legitimate questions about a new book edited by Gretchen Morgenson, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist.

The NYTPicker has also demonstrated a talent for spotting overused phrases by Times headline writers; it celebrated the work of Times journalist Robin Toner after she died late last year; and it has been diligent about tracking the work -- and titles -- of technology columnist David Pogue.

If you're interested in the Times, you need to read the NYTPicker. Here's how the site describes itself and the people who write for it:

This website devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times -- the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports daily on the internal workings of the nation's top newspaper, and comments on its content.

The site's authors refused to provide even a few hints as to their identities, but they did, for the first time, agree to answer questions via email. As a result, we now know that six people write for the site, they describe themselves as "reporters," and they aren't impressed with the work of Thomas L. Friedman. On top of that, they're a pretty funny group.


Why did you start the site?

We came up with the name "NYTPicker" and realized it didn't really work for our soft-core porn idea.

How many people visit the site per day?


We average about 1,000 to 1,500 hits a day, but have had a few 10,000-hit days. Depends on what we write about, who links to us, and whether we use that sexy photo of Maureen Dowd in a lounge chair.

Do you get a lot of traffic from folks inside the Times?

Um, yes.

Do you consider the site to be a watchdog of the Times? Why or why not?

We're not media critics. We're journalists who love the NYT and hope our stories improve it. We report on aspects of coverage NYT readers might not otherwise know or think about.

One common theme on the site seems to be conflicts of interest. You often point out how the personal and professional relationships of Times reporters and editors appear to play a role in coverage. Do you see this as a big problem at the paper? And do you think it's worse at the Times compared to other media organizations?

We're not writing an institutional history of the NYT -- we're covering it day to day. We point out the problems when we find them. They don't seem to be going away.

You often display a decent amount of insider knowledge. A recent example would be the fact that you knew about Times freelancer Suzy Buckley's old boyfriend. Does this kind of information come from sources inside the Times? Or do your contributors have a handle on this stuff on their own?

We're reporters. We don't talk about our sources.

How has the site changed over the course of its first year of publishing?

We're more selective about posts now than in the beginning. We only publish when we've got a story, or angle, you won't find anywhere else.

Is there one post that you'd highlight as your best work?

We liked the story we did on Brad Stone's page-one trend piece, the one that was filled with quotes from friends and colleagues. We were also proud of our stories about the NYT's deeply-flawed Caroline Kennedy coverage, and our reporting on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism scandal. We still haven't gotten any comment from the NYT about whether the paper investigated Dowd's explanation, which wasn't very plausible.

Our biggest scoop? Probably when we discovered that the anagram for "New York Times" was "Write, Monkeys."

Have you received any official reaction from the Times?

When Catherine Mathis, the NYT's recently-departed spokeswoman, answered our emails, she always wrote, "Dear NYTPicker." That was sweet. We liked her.

What is your biggest issue of concern at the paper right now?

That changes every day. We read the paper every morning with an open mind, looking for stories, angles, ideas, and funny bylines. The NYT used to have funnier bylines. We miss Serge Schmemann. We hope we'll be seeing more stories from David Belcher.

We've also been working very hard on a story about the difference between Kirk Johnson and Dirk Johnson. That should be ready shortly.

Who is the paper's best columnist and why?

Philip Adler on bridge. Last week he ended his column with the line, "The imponderables of bridge keep us thinking and playing." That's freaking genius.

thomas friedman.jpg

Who is its worst and why?

Thomas L. Friedman. Do we really need to explain?

You recently contacted sports editor Tom Jolly and received an official comment from him. Did he have any specific reaction to being contacted by your site? Was he familiar with it?

We asked him a few questions, and he answered. Simple as that.

Where does the Times excel in terms of its journalism, and where does it fall short?

Too many stories about texting and driving. We get it. It's dangerous. We'll stop.

Can you give me a preview of the top candidates for the Worst NYT Story of 2009 award?

It all depends on what happens next in "The Puppy Diaries."

Why do you need to remain anonymous?

Mom thinks we're doing our homework and we don't want to get in trouble.

I noticed that a comment on your one-year anniversary post read, "Congratulations on a year of anonymity and cowardice!" Do you regularly face criticism for this decision?

Once every few weeks, social media editor Jennifer Preston calls us cowards and invites us to lunch. Otherwise, not really.

How many people write for the blog?


What can you tell me about them? (Where at the Times did they work, did any of you take buyouts, are any of you current employees, etc.?)

We're all very attractive.

How many people are answering these questions?

Four. Two of us have declined to comment.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author and an associate editor at MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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This Exists: NYT Holiday Gift Guide For People Of Color

nythggWhat I would like to know is who thought this was a good idea? In this year’s NYT’s Annual Holiday Gift Guide there is a section devoted to “Of Color | Stylish Gifts.” From the intro to the section.

Somali fashion, do-it-yourself henna kits, children’s books that draw inspiration from the lives of Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor: it’s not hard to find gifts created for and by people of color this holiday season. Here are some possibilities.

I had to read that twice. Because really New York Times? NYTPicker, who was the first to note the addition thinks there’s no other word for it but racist. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. But badly, terribly thought out, bordering on offensive, absolutely. I suspect what actually happened was somewhere in the editing process someone thought they should figure out some way to work Barack Obama (he’s done well for them before!) into the mix and then extended it to Sotomayor and voila, suddenly you have a gift guide that weirdly looks like it’s out of some magazine from the 1960’s except this might not have been kosher in the 60’s (for very different reasons). Still, I am utterly amazed it made it past the editing process and am baffled why anyone felt the need to separate these gifts from the more generalized categories into which all these items would fit.

In case you’re interested, some of the “possibilities” include ‘The Mocha Manual to Military Life: A Savvy Guide for Wives, Girlfriends and Female Service Members’; ‘Wise Latina’ t-shirts; and a number of hair and make-up products designed for people of color.

Meanwhile, if they are going to include sections devoted to particular segments of the population why only highlight one based on race? (Why highlight it at all, really … there are plenty of things listed here people who are not black or Latino may want, but anyway.) Why not have a section for the gay people in your life? Or Jewish? The answer, of course, is because it is insulting and offensive and so utterly at odds with how the NYT conducts itself in all other areas of the paper.

Is Sarah Palin’s WaPo Climategate Op-Ed A Necessary Evil?

Palin_385x185_656313aSo the Washington Post has opted to run another Sarah Palin op-ed piece, this one about Climategate. The piece is a re-working of something Palin posted on her Facebook page last week and the Post is apparently drawing the ire of some readers for running it as noted by its own media reporter Howie Kurtz on Twitter.

Here is the gist of the op-ed, which honestly is not saying much that hasn’t been said (and refuted) in harsher terms by many others in the past few weeks:

“Climate-gate,” as the e-mails and other documents from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia have become known, exposes a highly politicized scientific circle — the same circle whose work underlies efforts at the Copenhagen climate change conference. The agenda-driven policies being pushed in Copenhagen won’t change the weather, but they would change our economy for the worse…This scandal obviously calls into question the proposals being pushed in Copenhagen. I’ve always believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics.

Leaving aside the irony of Sarah Palin calling for “sound science’ vs plain old politics(!), there remains the question of whether WaPo is really just traffic-baiting by publishing the piece, (which is pretty clearly ghost-written, but as Kurtz points out that is not a new thing where politicians and op-eds are concerned).

Choire Sicha at the Awl won’t link to the op-ed directly because “they shouldn’t be rewarded with the clicks, which is pretty much what this is about, I figure.” Which, of course is what it’s about. Also, what I assume Bono’s (arguably less damaging) op-eds at the NYT are about. Also, what 75% of the internet is practically about these days. Also, in the larger sense why Sarah Palin was tapped to be Vice President in the first place, John McCain wanted the attention and the votes of a certain portion of the population.

The other week the Washington Post announced it was closing its New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles bureaus, a decision which could ostensibly leave this country with one national newspaper. If by printing a Sarah Palin op-ed they are somehow able to up their traffic or ad rates or something, than I think it may just be a sort of necessary evil. You know, like slide shows and the like.

Will Google’s Goodwill Campaign Appease Publishers?

whitmans_easter43Here’s how the battle between Google and the news business is playing out: Big publishers, including the Associated Press and News Corp., huff and puff loudly about the way the search giant treats them. They threaten to take their ball and go home, but they don’t actually do it.

And Google (GOOG) shrugs and says it can’t understand what the publishing guys are complaining about it, but goes ahead and makes goodwill gestures, anyway.

By my count we’re up to three in the last nine days:

  • Dec 1: Google changes its “First Click Free” program, making it easier for news sites to wall off access to their premium stuff — or harder for users to game the sites, if you want to think of it that way.
  • Dec. 2: Google makes it easier for publishers to delist themselves from Google News.
  • Dec. 8: Google launches a “Living Stories” experiment in conjunction with the New York Times (NYT) and the Washington Post (WPO), which offers a new way to sort and read the papers’ stories. If it makes sense to you, let me know.

None of the above has anything to do with the publishers’ main complaint, which is that Google is simultaneously profiting from and devaluing their product. But it does allow Google to say that it’s listening to, and even working with, publishers.

Google could appease publishers simply by cutting them bigger checks, but that’s a slippery slope that the search giant is trying to avoid. And the biggest publishers could put more oomph behind their argument if they really did cut themselves off from the search giant’s index. But tellingly, none of them have actually done that to date.

So I think we’re going to be stuck here for some time.

Washington Post, New York Times Team With Google For “Living Stories”

Picture 3The Washington Post and New York Times have enlisted the help of Google to take the “first step toward changing the way news is consumed online:” Living Stories. After being blamed endlessly for the struggles of newspapers, Google is again playing repentant, “touting it as their contribution to the beleaguered newspaper business,” according to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz.

From Kurtz’s report:

The idea is to simplify things for readers by grouping developing stories about a hot topic — say, Tiger Woods — on a single Web page, with updates automatically highlighted at the top of the screen.

Basically, it’s not unlike the Times Topics pages (or Salon’s), but pre-optimized for search engines instead of buried on already overcrowded websites. It’s all about the Google hits, baby:

By grouping the stories day after day under one Web address, the Times and Post could boost their Google rankings, which would tend to push those pages toward the top of the list when people search for that subject. After the Tuesday launch, the story pages will reside at Google Labs for an experimental period of two to three months, and revert to the papers’ own Web sites if all goes well.

To start, the Post’s pages are on health-care reform, D.C. schools and the Redskins, while the Times is focusing on Afghanistan, executive compensation, global warming, swine flu and health care. Topical!

But don’t get your hopes up. Kurtz tempers expectations right up top, admitting it’s a “new online tool that, well, isn’t exactly going to revolutionize journalism.” Way to sell it, big guy! Read the rest here.