By Jennifer O’Connell
It’s nearing the end of her shift, and Ciara is exhausted. She can no longer feel her fingers as they fly instinctively across her keyboard.
But she can’t afford to stop now for a coffee, or to exchange a few words with one of the 500 colleagues occupying the giant, hangar-like structure, where they sit in rows, hunched over their keyboard, simultaneously typing and mumuring into phones.
All around her are reminders of the numbers that must be met if she wants to have a chance of making her target this month. The walls glow with reams of web traffic data, revealing the day’s top performers. Flashing up on her screen are regular advertisments reminding Ciara and her colleagues who’s paying the bills.
Ciara never wanted to work in a call centre.
Technically, of course, she doesn’t actually work in a call centre. The occupation section of her pay slip reads ‘journalist’. But if she didn’t have that to remind her, she’d probably never know.
Welcome to the newsroom of the future, as unveiled last week by AOL.
You might be forgiven for wondering what AOL knows about newsrooms, since it is a distributor - rather than a creator - of content.
But that’s a distinction which belongs to another era, its chief executive Tim Armstrong would no doubt argue, as he reveals a vision of the future of news so depressingly dystopian it might have been culled straight from the imagination of George Orwell.
Armstrong’s plans for revolutionising news are exactly what you’d expect if you asked a tech guy to come up with a model for how a newspaper editor should do his job.
The big idea involves using software to determine what news consumers are interested in reading and what advertisers are interested in selling - and then instruct the organisation’s team of 500 journalists to deliver content that meets both these demands.
Rather than “merely craft articles and passively post them on the web”, Businessweek gushed last week, AOL’s software will “determine which article to write and then give journalists up-to-the-minute data on how much traffic those articles generate”.
"We really want to enhance journalism with technology," Armstrong told the magazine. "We feel like we have a strategic window to invest in quality content."
So goodbye investigative articles into politicians’ expenses, hello investigations into the state of Brad and Angelina’s marriage. Goodbye lengthy features on church abuse scandals, hello footballers’ sex scandals.
AOL editors will use algorithmic systems to track activity on sites such as Google and Facebook to identify current hot topics.
Recent stories generated this way included such era-defining journalism as “How to Open Champagne” and an article on “Your Best Packing Tips”.
The editors – many of whom have reportedly been laid off from some of the world’s biggest news organisations - will be able to use software to constantly monitor the number of web clicks each article generates. The company is even considering launching a profit-sharing scheme for employees who generate the most page views.
This is not an argument to say that traditional news-gathering models are perfect – there has always been a conflict between pressures from advertisers or the interests of publishers, and the interests of journalists and the public they serve.
But there is, at least, a conflict. In the AOL model – which one US commentators dubbed ‘factory-farmed content’ - there wouldn’t be any such conflict. News would be generated to meet the demands of readers, advertisers and publishers. But the demands of readers – just like the demands of advertisers and publishers – are not the same as the best interests of readers.
If you want to know the kind of content you could expect if you left it entirely up to the target market to decide, You Tube’s most popular video of all time might be a good place to start. Top of the charts with 160 million views is a video of a cute toddler and his baby brother entitled "Charlie bit my finger -- again!"
The Orwellian vision of newsroom-as-call centre, where journalists sit in rows, churning out content demanded by advertisers in an effort to meet a predetermined quota of web clicks, is probably – despite the attention given to AOL’s innovations – a long way into the future.
But the idea that a model like this is even being mooted as a possible solution to the crisis in the media industry is alarming.
None of this is to suggest that traditional news-gathering models don’t need to change if they are to survive. Journalists, like the newspapers they work for, will need to become more innovative and flexible: rather than simply generate content into a vacuum, they will increasingly need to engage with their readers; they will be required to act as filters for other content; and they will need the technological skills to allow them to pursue their craft across a much wider range of platforms.
And they’ll need to find a way to do all this without forgetting the things that compelled them to become journalists in the first place.
The online social media guide, Mashable, recently outlined the eight top skills aspiring journalists need to compete in an environment in which 86,000 of their more experienced peers lost their jobs last year.
Reading over them, I’m not sure I’d still want to be in this game if I was starting out again today. The list included software programming skills; being “entrepreneurial and business savvy”; being an “open-minded experimenter”; a blogger, curator and multi-media storyteller.
Lumped together at the bottom of the list were: “skills like good writing, ethics, news judgment, investigation and verification” which will, the article added almost as an afterthought, “always be important.”
I’m not sure traditional news-models are quite as broken as this list – and much of the soul-searching recent coverage of the future of the news –suggests. Certainly, judging by the recent increases in readership figures, Irish newspapers seem to be holding their own.
But we are undoubtedly at an important juncture in the history of the media.
Traditional media publishers have clung with increasing desperation onto the belief that quality content will win out in the end: that users will continue to seek it out and advertisers will be willing to pay to be associated with it.
If the AOL model succeeds, it will be the end of that illusion.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on February 28, 2010