Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

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 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.

These 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 (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 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 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 okay because uncertainty is a way of life at a start-up and AOL is in many ways a company that has to reinvent itself on the fly, just like a start-up. 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 in the interview, he offers a very nice parable about visiting Amazon’s (AMZN) warehouse, where technology and humans coexist quite nicely.

Okay. 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:

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle