Technology was supposed to help writers and editors aggregate stories from other sites more quickly and easily. What happened?

By Shane Schick

If content curation engines worked, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I wouldn’t have to.

Instead, I would open up my browser and access a dashboard that showed me all the newspapers, magazines, blogs and other third-party sites that have already written stories about curation engines—technology that lets you extract a few paragraphs and instantly post it to your own publication. This story would then be organized less as my own original composition, but more of a collection of wisdom I had expertly put together. Thanks to the curation system, I would be able to out-HuffPo HuffPo.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. Let me explain.

First, the business case: as everybody lays off editorial staff, the survivors are often still expected to churn out as many (or more) stories than ever before. Curation engines (sometimes called content discovery engines) were supposed to be a way for publications either to complement the original content they were already producing or—even more tantalizing for publishers—replace entire sections or staff that were dedicated to making phone calls, conducting interviews and synthesizing the result into valuable information. Newspapers like the Boston Globe and tech news sites like Ziff-Davis use curation platforms like PublishThis, for example. Others, like the CBC, curate social media posts through services like Storify.

Next, the mea culpa: I was personally involved in several attempts to use curation engines to assist staff I was managing to add more content to our sites. As editor-in-chief of a group of B2B trade magazines, we worked with several startups to try to pull stories from other technology sites that we could annotate or simply add to our newsletters and magazines. It’s not because I didn’t value original journalism or journalists. But as more media organizations turned to curating or aggregating stories from other sites, including their rivals, automation seemed like a natural step. It also struck me as a way to assist more traditional journalists through the transition to aggregating content as well as producing it.

Finally, the reality check: nearly every company that offered a curation engine promised the world. All we had to do was check off a box in the dashboard and the systems were all supposed to get “smarter” over time and deliver up even more relevant suggestions.

These curation engines almost all failed to deliver on every single one of these promises. The stories they served up were too often irrelevant to the audience I served, and they never seemed to get smarter. Feeding a curation engine into another content management system was horribly complicated (especially before everyone started using WordPress), which meant editorial staff had to work across two different web-based systems. As a result, and perhaps predictably, editorial staff bridled at the mere idea of curation engines, suggesting as they do that machines are better at identifying useful content than journalists could do on their own.

Although a few companies still offer curation engines, a lot of them have either shuttered their doors (like Thoora, a promising Canadian startup at the time) or changed their business model entirely. I recently approached Atomic Reach, a Toronto-based firm that I thought was still offering a shining example of content curation, only to find that it recently “pivoted” to content optimization—a way of evaluating and tweaking online articles to make them more search-friendly or to meet certain business goals. Curation engines that remain are increasingly targeted less at publishers (which are probably an irritating client set) and aimed more at brands, which are using them to assist with content marketing and which don’t often have editorial-type resources in-house.

Curation within publishing still happens widely, of course, but it’s become less of a technology you buy than a skill set you nurture and develop in your best editors and writers. Content optimization, meanwhile, may represent the next software to torment newsrooms and editorial departments. While most of us want to focus on our readers or audience, publishers (and their ad clients) want to focus on content optimization to determine which stories will drive email subscriptions and time on site in the consumer space or downloads of white papers and other lead generation assets in B2B.

We should probably be glad curation engines didn’t replace news judgment, but the shortcomings of the technology also represent a challenge to journalists to continue defining their value, at least in part, by having great taste in what they offer readers. If content is king, effective curation should still be an ace up an overworked editor’s sleeve.

Shane Schick is a writer, editor and speaker who focuses on how technology is changing the world. He lives in Toronto.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.