Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heading into the workshop


Two years ago, when I explained to my children why I left one of the best jobs in journalism—covering technology for the New York Times—I told them that I wanted to be an inventor. Since then I’ve had the thrilling experience of being part of AOL, which is doing more than nearly anyone else to rethink the way that news is gathered, presented and paid for.

Now it’s time to strike out on my own and seek my fortune as an inventor.  I’ve left AOL, and Monday I started as an entrepreneur in residence at Betaworks. If you’re not familiar with it, Betaworks has started and invested in a number of companies that are on the vanguard of real-time social experiences—several of which relate to news and publishing—including Bit.ly, ChartBeat, TweetDeck, and News.Me. It’s run by John Borthwick, who I first met in 1997 when he sold his startup, Total New York, to America Online. We’ve become friends, and I couldn’t think of a more fertile environment in which to germinate a new idea than the bustle of creativity bursting out of the Betaworks loft in the meat packing district.

I know my friends in the technology press well enough to suspect some of them will see my move as part of a broader trend at AOL. I’m not sure the easy take is the right one. Based on my experience, I am more bullish on Tim Armstrong’s clear vision of a company built from the ground up for online journalism and the potential of AOL’s many assets to achieve that vision. 

I will always be grateful to Tim for giving me the chance to prove that I had more to contribute to a journalistic organization than simply articles and to Arianna Huffington for inviting me to join the HuffPost team.   And I’m in debt to so many who offered so much advice—some of which I ignored to my own detriment—on the nuances of technology, product design, PowerPoint, and the ways of big companies. What is now the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, is clearly emerging as a powerful and innovative source of news and information.  Yet this success entails a continuous refinement of the AOL organization, and one of the inevitable reorganizations provided a logical time for me to try my hand at starting a company.

It’s too soon to say much about what I’m doing. But I think there is a lot left to invent around both how to present news to people that takes advantage of the technology available today.

I expect you’ll see a lot more soon.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Six thoughts on Goog-Moto

Note: I posted an expanded version of this thought on TechCrunch.


Sanjay Jha: He is one of the best CEOs I’ve met.  A great addition to Google if he stays. 

Patents: I believe Google when they say that patents are the reason they got into this. They see themselves in a legal war. But why buy patents when they could buy the whole company:

Goog Strategy: This deal is not an endorsement of the Steve Jobs doctrine that the best way to make software is to control the hardware that runs it.
I think Google believes that, but only really for the hardware that runs its data centers. Google is to its core a cloud computing company. It sees hardware as little more than devices to run browsers of various sorts, which is a way to describe Android.

Cellphones: This doesn’t really change the dynamic in the market. It’s hard to see how much different Motorola’s Android lineup will be because of the deal. Moto already offers phones with the Google name and deep cooperation with Goog engineers. It’s not like Google’s Nexus lineup has been much of a hit.

Television: There is much more potential for impact in the living room. Moto is a very large cable box maker. Google TV has not caught on yet, and this could be the wedge to get it (a browser for the TV with a big search button) in millions of living rooms.

Future: I’ll bet that Goog spins off the manufacturing business within the decade. It’s just not what they do, and it’s not what they need in the long run. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Big news for me: A new role in the Huffington Post Media Group

It was just after midnight on February 7 when the email arrived from Tim Armstrong telling the AOL staff that the company had just agreed to buy the Huffington Post. I couldn’t restrain my excitement.

“This absolutely is brilliant,” I wrote to a friend at AOL. “Huffpost has so much that we need. A true understanding of how editorial voice can drive readership mixed with great analytics and so much more.”  It was a perfect fit with AOL’s strengths—breadth of topics, powerful technology and a leading advertising network that can help pay for the sort of great journalism that I knew that both Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington want to provide. After a year spent working largely on the mechanics and organization of AOL’s complex turnaround, I saw that now we would be able to take the offence again, informing and entertaining a vast audience in ways no other company could. This was why I came to AOL at the end of 2009.

Today, I am delighted to say that Arianna has offered me a new role that will let me work elbow-to-elbow with the editors and engineers who have made the Huffington Post into the Edison laboratory of journalism innovation.  My title will be big news editor. That’s named after the Huffington Post’s Big News feature, pages devoted particular topics--John Boehner or Johnny Depp or the foreclosure crisis. My job is to help look after those pages and the others around the entire network of the Huffington Post Media Group, as AOL’s publishing unit is now called, that pull together information on a given event, person, product, idea, place or product.

From Moviefone to Engadget, we already have information about a lot of what people are interested in.  Don’t expect a big bang from the big news department though. The Huffington Post team operates on a very fast tempo. So we will be making lots of small changes very quickly to all these pages that should soon add up to big improvements. One area that we are going to dive into first is the pages that we have connected to the 2012 election, one of the core topics for the Huffington Post.

What about Seed, AOL’s freelance network that I had been running?   Seed is in fact thriving and will continue stronger than ever as part of AOL’s Advertising.com group, which is devoted to providing the best tools to online publishers and marketers. Seed and its sister company, StudioNow, can make high-quality articles, photographs and videos in a very cost effective way.

I am very proud of what we achieved at Seed over the last year. And I’m just as proud of what we didn’t do. Despite our reputation as “hellish scheme” dedicated to “slapdash, disposable content churned out en masse,” we didn’t pollute the Web with millions of articles that would be embarrassing even in a high school newspaper.  Rather, we worked on ways to respect our creators and our audience by creating formats that delivered lively, useful and reliable information that writers can produce efficiently. You can see the results in articles like these: What Is Christine O'Donnell's Religion?, Giardia in Dogs: What You Need to Know as a Dog Owner, and Jack Daniel's Drinks: 4 Drink Ideas From a Bartender.   

What you can’t see is all the work our Nashville-based engineering team put into building an entirely new platform for Seed that will enable us to create, assign and edit innovative, high quality projects very quickly. Nor can you see the incredibly talented group of editors who joined me at Seed, including Lance Gould, our project editor, Anna Wahrman, the production manager, and Gordon Hurd, who built our copy editing network (and sadly has moved on to another opportunity). Lance, Anna and Neel Chopdekar, the AOL vice president who is the real father of Seed, are refining this technology to serve advertising and publishing clients. And when appropriate, one client will be the Huffington Post Media Group itself.

For me, this isn’t really as big of a switch as it may appear. When I first talked to Tim Armstrong about the possibility of joining AOL, he described a vision of having a page about everything in the world that people are interested in, every prescription drug, every make of watch, ever college campus. It’s an audacious goal, one that flows from Tim’s experience at Google. But Tim, unlike Larry and Sergey, doesn’t see this as a task just for engineers. He understands how a human being--with insight, curiosity and skill—can make any page more interesting and more useful than if it was just made by a machine. From the start, Seed was not a cynical attempt to cash in on the dark arts of search engine optimization. Our goal was to deploy many thousands of people to help create the smartest page on everything people care about.

As big news editor, I’m devoted to exactly the same mission. The mix of topics of topics will shift to include more politics, national affairs and breaking news. And we are very interested in finding ways for the Huffington Post’s vast community of commenters and bloggers to contribute their passion and expertise to the pages we build. We will also use both our growing stable of talented journalists and our portfolio of very interesting search and text analysis technology to enhance the pages. And any time we can serve our audience best by using a freelance writer, we’ve got the Seed network at our disposal as well.

Now, even more than that night in February, I am convinced that the big news about the combination of AOL and the Huffington Post is how we have all the pieces needed to thrive and innovate even in the very harsh environment of Internet news. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Need Freelance content data analysts (full time jobs too)

Hello world.

   I'm busy helping AOL build great websites on all kinds of topics. We're combining the best of editorial insight with an understanding of what our users really are interested in using all kinds of quantitative data.

  We're hiring a bunch of of full-time analysts with an passion for great news and information. Apply for these great jobs here.

  And in the meantime, I need someone I can work closely with this summer to go through a bunch of data related to search engines, web traffic and other measures of behavior. If you've got interest and experience, please drop me a note at  this email address.

Thanks
Saul

Friday, December 11, 2009

Video: My New Job as Master of the Borg

I always found one of the hardest kinds of interviews was of someone on the eve of starting a new job. Mostly they don't know anything, and what they do know they don't want to say before they get to spend time with their new coworkers.

Peter Kafka of AllThingsD's MediaMemo did his best to get me to say something interesting in a video chat at a coffee house in Chelsea Market Thursday. He mainly wanted to talk about "robot editors," which is how some have interpreted what Tim Armstrong, AOL's CEO, described in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.

AOL may have an army of robot editors ready to unleash on the world, but no one mentioned it to me when I was interviewing for my new job. (I don't start work until Tuesday.) We did talk about using data from AOL's search service and its other windows on the pulse of the Internet to find out what people are curious about.

Some people worry that this might lead to what Gawker artfully termed "slapdash, disposable content churned out en masse." I'm not worried. One thing that all journalists hope to do is tell people what they want to know. Most of us also want to tell people things they didn't know they wanted to know but nonetheless find interesting. AOL, including Seed, will do lots of both.

The thing that most excites me about AOL is that it isn't devoted to one method of producing content. It has full-time journalists, wire service and syndicated content, bloggers, freelancers, input from the entire Web community, and all kinds of automated ways to find interesting stuff. Our challenge is to create right blend of information from all these sources for each page that will be the most interesting, accurate and engaging for readers and to do it at a cost that can be sustained by the revenue available to Internet media.

How do we do that? I don't know, and if I did I couldn't say. I do know that Seed is an important component because it can bring human intelligence into the mix at vast scale.

Here is the six minute video of my chat with Peter in which I try to vamp around my ignorance.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Official Announcement: I'm going to AOL

I'll have more to say on this soon. Check back here. In the mean time, I'll let the official announcement give the who-what-where.

SAUL HANSELL, FORMERLY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES, JOINS AOL AS FIRST EMPLOYEE OF SEED, AOL's NEW CONTENT MANAGEMENT PLATFORM


AOL has hired another prominent journalist to join AOL's full time editorial staff.

Saul Hansell, formerly of The New York Times, will be join us as Programming Director of AOL's Seed.com., AOL's first employee for the recently announced content management platform, expected to launch this month. Saul will be reporting to Mike Rich, senior vice president of AOL entertainment, and will be responsible for leveraging Seed across all of AOL's platforms.

Saul joined The New York Times in 1992 and most recently was covering the telecommunications beat, including wired and wireless communication of voice, data and video, including companies involved in telephone, Internet backbone, cable TV, Internet video, cellphone handsets, and other devices connected to networks, as well as communications policy and privacy. Launched in 2007, he was the founding editor of Bits, a blog on nytimes.com covering a wide range of technology topics with particular interest in Internet media, digital marketing, consumer electronics and the evolving business models for music and video.

Bits was named best blog among larger publications in the 2007 Best in Business awards by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. His September 1989 story on computerized trading, ``The Wild, Wired World of Electronic Exchanges,’‘ won the Overseas Press Club's Morton Frank award for best magazine business reporting from abroad. He has also received awards from the Deadline Club of New York and the American Society of Business Press Editors. Saul received his Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies/Economics from Columbia College in 1984.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bigger Than Bits

As some readers of the Times may have noticed, I’ve got a new role. I’m now covering telecommunications, both for the Bits blog and for what we refer to as “the paper,” which really means longer articles both in print and online.

The immediate reason behind the switch was simple and common enough: The Times needed a body, and I was there. Matt Richtel, who has been covering telecom (with Jenna Worthham who continues to do so), is now working on some special projects. So someone needed to write about telephone, cable and related companies.

When Damon Darlin, the technology editor, asked if I was interested in filling in for Matt, I leaped at the chance. That was a change for me. A few years ago, I had turned down an offer of the telecom beat. I thought that the companies were too big and slow. I had already spend enough of my life covering banks.

But over the past two years editing Bits, I have come to become very interested in so many issues related to communications networks and the devices that connect to them.  Apple’s iPhone and everything spawned has been the single most frequent topic on Bits.  I also wrote about last year’s auction of the radio spectrum now abandoned by analog television, giving me an introduction to covering the Federal Communications Commission. And earlier this year, I got fed up with people hearing about how broadband was faster and cheaper in other countries, and I wrote a series of posts explaining what is and isn’t different about the United States.

I’m defining the telecommunications beat as business that moves information from here to there, whether by wires or radio waves. That includes cable and satellite TV companies, many of which increasingly resemble phone companies.