Can You Crowdsource Journalism? Seed Is Trying

In what he hopes will be the first big demonstration of the “crowdsourcing” potential of AOL’s new service, former New York Times writer Saul Hansell says he is looking for writers who will write up interviews with all of 2,000 or so bands and artists at the SXSW music festival in Austin. The assignment will involve “real reporting,” Hansell said in an interview, in which writers will have to pick up the phone and call the band or artist and write up a 1,000-word interview in question-and-answer format, as well as a 300- to 500-word biography. The price for this assignment? The princely sum of $50.

Both Seed and similar web-based contract-writing services from Demand Media and Associated Content have come under fire from a number of critics who say they are primarily designed to generate low-quality, cheap content that contains just enough keywords to attract search engine traffic, and therefore advertising. Hansell, however, who joined AOL in December as head of programming at Seed, says that what he is trying to do is to figure out how to “deploy human intelligence at scale,” and that it is much more than just an effort to generate “the lowest-common denominator of SEO-friendly pages.”

When it comes to the price, Hansell says he wants to “attract the people who are already excited about the process,” either because they want to interview someone, or because they’re music fans. The idea, he said, is to give them a “mix of financial and non-financial rewards.” When asked about the danger of getting fawning fan interviews instead of something worthwhile, Hansell said that questions would be provided for the freelancers, and that all the pieces would be edited by AOL staff.

He also said that Seed was “not trying to find something new to say about Bruce Springsteen for the cover of Rolling Stone,” but instead was expecting “light, fun questions” and that the project was an experiment (AOL recently bought a video production studio called StudioNow to add to the Seed network). As he put it to me:

“The only way we’re going to learn about doing this kind of journalism at scale is to try things in public and experiment and learn…we need to explore what the market will bear in terms of how much money it will pay for what quality. We need to understand the economics of it. If readers aren’t paying us enough with their attention, or advertisers aren’t paying us enough for access to them, then we need to know that.”

Hansell said that Seed was not intending to “investigate corruption in some government agency, but we’re not just rewriting Wikipedia entries for $10 a pop, either. We’re going to try a bunch of different experiments and see what’s possible.” In a recent blog post at the Seed blog, he said that the company’s main job was to “satisfy the world’s curiosity.” But the big question is, can AOL accomplish that and still make money?