Demand Media and the New Economy of the Journalist

Demand Media has been a constant topic of conversation among online journalists of late.  It all began with this article in Wired entitled “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model“.

Plenty of other companies — About.com, Mahalo, Answers.com — have tried to corner the market in arcane online advice. But none has gone about it as aggressively, scientifically, and single-mindedly as Demand. Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

Demand Media is what we’d generally call a content mill.  Instead of the old days of the newspaper where the editorial and advertising teams eyed each other distrustfully, in this case, the entire editorial side is essentially outsourced, and it’s done at rates that would make any professional writer cringe. From their Wikipedia page:

Contributors choose among available titles that were previously identified by the company’s algorithm. They are paid once their work has been automatically checked for plagiarism[7] and is approved by editors. Typical compensation is $20 for a video clip, $15 for an article of a few hundred words, $2.50 for copy-editing an article and $1 for fact-checking an article.[6]

To put that into context, I used to write similar content online for a rate of $500.00 per article.  Ouch!

For the record, there’s a huge gulf between what you buy for a $20 article and a $500 article.  In the $20 version, I’d suggest that some of the little things go out the window, such as revision, or perhaps even contacting sources.  Wired puts it well:

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal.

The question I have in mind is this:  at what point does Google start to put some weighting behind their search results that will,instead of just promoting stories that are well optimized for SEO, help good content rise to the top?

In This Week in Google’s latest podcast, Matt Cutts, spam guru at Google made the statement that 2010 would be a bad year for low value content, when Leo Laporte pressed him on the issue (note: this is not a direct quote, I’m going by memory here, but the gist is fairly clear…).

How do I think they could add value to search results?  A few suggestions:

  • Leverage the actual search experience of real users with vote up, vote down, hide capability.
  • Identify and utilize subject matter experts to fine tune results.
  • Allow us to add weight to the search experience of our friends (note: that doesn’t simply mean using everyone in our contacts list!).

In the long run, fixing this hole may make things a lot harder for those of us who do SEO optimization as part of our services.  However, I’ve got to think that things only improve for those who use the only time proven SEO tactic I know: providing good pertinent content in a tight, well ordered presentation.

The thing that truly worries me is what this portends for journalists.  We’ve seen steady erosion in jobs for journalists over the past couple years, as newspapers and magazines cut back.  Now it would seem that even online their services are devalued.  Is there room in this new online economy for good content at a fair price?

I certainly hope so…

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