I fear I’m being typecast as the guy who rants about content farms, which I never wanted. But every time I think it’s time to leave this debate alone, something happens that gets me worked up all over again.
A number of folks writing about content farms have asked me why Demand Media seems to have stopped responding to writers digging into what they do. I can’t speak for Demand, but my guess is they’ve decided it isn’t worth it — they’re doing just fine attracting new media partners and potential backers, so why get distracted duking it out with their critics? Which is pretty smart. But Demand hasn’t remained completely silent. Here’s a recent blog post from Jeremy Reed, Demand’s senior vice president for content and editorial, that answers his company’s critics. It’s a remarkable exercise in misdirection, one that is worth responding to.
Reed thanks the Demand writers who have answered the critics on various Web outposts, and says he’s unhappy that Demand’s writers are being attacked: “in spite of what people are writing about us, all of us here at Demand Media and the vast majority of you, do care about the writing craft and for the reader. The editorial rigor and process for creating content is just part of the equation; the other important piece is the pride in what we do and pride in the articles you touch.”
Reed adds that “tonight, I will read my new issues of the New Yorker and Texas Monthly that showed up in my mailbox and that I look to for inspiration. Our hope and intent is to fulfill the needs of our best writers, copy editors, titlers, and filmmakers. We hope to continue to improve the content in order to be the standard upon which other content is judged.” And near the end, he says that “when we’re being criticized, you’re being criticized as well.”
Well, actually no. When I criticize Demand Media and its ilk, I’m not criticizing the people who write or copy-edit for them. A lot of those people love to write, something I certainly understand. Some of them are people who have been laid off from jobs in journalism, just like I was. They’re trying to make ends meet, or keep their writing muscles toned, and those are worthy things. I’m not aiming my slings and arrows at them at all. Rather, I’m criticizing the people who created the business model those writers have to work within — a business model that hollows out caring about the craft of writing and undermines pride of authorship by making it very difficult for writers to do good work.
Your average Demand Media writer makes $15 an article. To make a semi-decent wage, that writer has to write an article in half an hour. Copy editors get paid $3.50 an article. To make a decent wage, they have about seven minutes per copy-edit. Unless you’re writing a very straightforward tutorial on a relatively simple process (an aspect of content farms that doesn’t bother me), it is not possible to write an article of any substance in half an hour. Nor is it possible to copy-edit such an article effectively in seven minutes.
Put these two things together and you compound the mess. You get articles that read like first drafts — haphazardly organized, superficial messes. You get things like this, and this, and this — all Demand content selected as Editor’s Picks for USA Today’s Travel Tips section. These are lousy articles, and USA Today editors should ask hard questions about what being associated with them is doing to their brand. But I’m not saying the writers of those pieces are lousy writers, because it’s not a fair test. Criticizing those writers for creating subpar content in such a situation would be like criticizing auto workers for creating a crummy car when the assembly line’s moving at 40 miles per hour. The poor quality of the writing isn’t the fault of the writers, but a predictable outcome of the business model.
Given this, Jeremy Reed looking for inspiration in the New Yorker and Texas Monthly is simultaneously infuriating and really funny. How much does Reed think a New Yorker copy editor gets paid? How long does he think it takes a Texas Monthly writer to craft an article? Does he ever stop to think what those magazines would be like if they were produced according to his own company’s business model?
Demand either needs to stick to just-the-facts tutorials or change its business model to support its ambitions. If it’s going to do the former, it should stop calling itself a media company, making high-minded references to storytelling, and invoking the name of magazines its business model could never produce. If it’s going to do the latter, well, it’s got its work cut out for it.
Recently I’ve been quoted a fair amount about Demand Media and other so-called content farms, and come to accept that my initial description of Demand Media as “how our profession ends” will follow me around forever. (The Web is the end of forgetting, after all.) My views of content farms and what they do has become more nuanced since then, but so be it — I wrote it, after all.
That said, there’s one thing about content-farming I don’t object to in the least, and that’s their use of algorithms to create story ideas. News organizations are beginning to use the same tools and taking flak for it, which is reactionary and silly.
The “algorithm-as-editor” meme started with this article by the New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters about how Yahoo is using search queries to help guide its writing and reporting for The Upshot. Peters’ take on what Yahoo is doing and how such efforts are shaping editorial agendas is pretty nuanced overall, but that got lost because of his rather breathless lede: “Welcome to the era of the algorithm as editor. For as long as hot lead has been used to make metal type, the model for generating news has been top-down: editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses. But with the advent of technology that allows media companies to identify what kind of content readers want, that model is becoming inverted.”
Beyond the fact that that’s not true — the article explores algorithms as a tool used side-by-side with traditional brainstorming — the emphasis angered Upshot editor Andrew Golis and writer Michael Calderone, who took their grievances to Twitter, as chronicled by Business Insider’s Joe Pompeo. (Sample tweet from Golis: “OMG, online journos periodically use data to figure out what readers are actually interested in! PANIC! HANDWRING!”) Today, Lacey Rose of Forbes chatted with Yahoo’s Jimmy Pitaro about the issue. “First off, the algorithm and the automated approach are one component of how we’re identifying topics and programming sites,” Pitaro told her. “We’re sitting on all of this [audience] data where our users are telling us specifically what they want and we need to take all of it into consideration as we program both video and text on our site. The way I look at it is we need to be feeding our users both what they want and what they need. If you cover both then I think users will be kept well informed.”
Pitaro is exactly right. That top-down model of news discussed by Peters — “editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses” — is obsolete, a product of an age in which we couldn’t know what readers thought was important in any timely way. And good riddance to it. Seeing that top-down model as a hallmark of journalism instead of as a technological limitation was a trap, as the implicit arrogance of that model won us few friends among readers and obscured plenty of the good work we do.
Journalists worry themselves, sometimes to distraction, about the idea that traffic and studying search queries will wind up driving editorial priorities and assignments, squeezing out substantive stories in favor of, I don’t know, lurid tales, gadget reviews and pet pictures. Peters quotes Perfect Market’s Robertson Barrett as saying that “there’s obviously an embedded negative view [in newsrooms] toward using any type of outside information to influence coverage.” Which there is. But which possibility is more likely, and thus more damaging to journalism: That a news organization given search queries will be run with them and devolve into Funny Cat Pictures Daily Times, or that worrying about that will lead editors to reject valuable insights into what their readers are looking for? It may strike an editor as noble to stop his ears to the guy from some outside service who’s crunched the numbers on search terms, but what that editor is really doing is refusing to listen to his own readers.
Pitaro tells Peters of one Yahoo story that emerged from looking at traffic: Why do Olympic divers shower after they get out of the water? You know what? It’s a good question.
In his Wired portrait of Demand Media, Daniel Roth asked Demand Media’s Byron Reese, creator of the algorithm the company uses to generate story ideas, what Demand’s most valuable query was. Reese’s answer: “Where can I donate a car in Dallas?” Reese didn’t know why so many people in Dallas were looking to donate cars, but if I were a Dallas-area editor, I’d sure want to know — and I’d be glad for whatever mechanism had brought a good story idea to my attention.
In the spring, I spoke on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Rob King told a funny story about one of his first days on the job. (You can listen in here, starting at 47:50 in the video.) Listening to the radio in the car on his way to work, King heard India and Pakistan were playing a big cricket match. So he asked about it in the morning meeting — where it hadn’t come up — and said ESPN ought to do something. Later in the meeting, a staffer ran through a list of sports search terms were trending, and something called “20 20″ was at the top of the list. What was 20 20? Nobody knew. It turned out to be the India-Pakistan match — in fact, King said, cricket-mad ESPN employees were holding a big party elsewhere on campus to watch. King’s reaction? “That was the moment where I thought, ‘We really need to pay attention to what our audiences are into, because they’re telling us where the traffic is.’ “
My issue with content farms has to do with their business model, which I think all but ensures the production of low-quality content when they stray from generating simple, straightforward tutorials. But it doesn’t bother me that they comb through search terms or make use of algorithms that point out potential story ideas. Why would it? Those tools work for any newsroom, and using them will help us serve our readers better.
I’m quoted in Dylan Stableford’s very good piece about Demand Media and other so-called content farms over at TheWrap. (There’s some very smart stuff in the comments as well.)
For those who’ve arrived here because of that article, you can read my first post on Demand Media here, and a more-nuanced take looking at articles it supplied to USA Today here. I also did a roundup of posts about content farms here that may be useful for further reading.
Anyway, a few more thoughts.
I don’t think what Demand and its ilk do is “evil” — “unfortunate” is a better word. And my concern isn’t that companies like Demand and Associated Content will drive down writers’ salaries or that the compensation built into their model is “too low,” whatever “too low” means. That’s unfortunate, sure, but it’s just the pitiless economics of supply and demand at work — there would have been some other actor if Demand had never existed. Rather, what bugs me is the quality of the stuff these companies produce, and what it does to search. (See Daniel Roth’s Wired article for a deeper exploration of that.)
Nor does it bug me that content-farm bosses and writers aren’t journalists, which is a charge you’ll find tossed around here and there. First off, a lot of their writers actually are journalists who are trying to get by in extremely trying times for the profession. Second, I think it’s elitist nonsense to say you need some fancy degree or seal of approval to practice journalism. Third, the captains of the news industry don’t exactly have a glittering record when it comes to figuring out their own business.
Demand and AC produce some helpful articles, particularly step-by-step processes and tutorials. I can never remember how to take a screen shot on my Mac, for instance, and inevitably wind up at the same eHow article reminding me how to do it. That’s valuable information that I’m happy to get from them, and that could complement news organizations’ offerings nicely.
My objection is that when you get beyond tutorials and simple how-tos, the quality of the content produced by Demand, AC and others is mostly poor. (That’s my opinion — your mileage may vary of course. Go look at the USA Today travel tips and draw your own conclusions.) Granted, there’s a lot of poor content out there — but content-farm stuff is specifically shaped and molded to game Google and appear higher in search results, which wastes people’s time. And the real problem, as I told Stableford, is that the business model makes it very difficult to produce good content. There just isn’t time to do it profitably.
A commenter on Stableford’s article raised a good question: “Has anyone read copy with an editor’s eye in small- and medium-sized newspapers? With the exception of the NY Times and the Washington Post (the LA Times can’t even compare these days), most of the stories read as first drafts. They’re poorly written and grossly undersourced. The quality of writing and reporting has gone down the toilet.”
Sadly, this is too often true. But I’d say that’s an unfortunate product of years of cost-cutting and an industry in terrible distress — it’s not supposed to be that way. With the economics of Demand and its ilk, though, it’s the logical outcome.
Last week I read in the Los Angeles Times that Demand Media is now supplying text and video to USA Today, creating a new section called Travel Tips.
I’ve gone on record as not exactly being a fan of Demand Media, though I think my perspective is a little different than that of some of the company’s other critics. It doesn’t bother me that Demand Media’s bosses and writers aren’t exclusively journalists, as I reflexively bristle at the idea that journalism can only be practiced by members of some anointed class. (Besides, a fair number of Demand’s writers are journalists.) Heck, I think Demand has come up with smart algorithms for understanding what people are searching for, and too many newsrooms seem depressingly indifferent to questions like that.
Nor does my opposition have to do with Demand paying very little for content — as a professional writer I of course find that worrisome, but those low wages are just a consequence of the pitiless laws of supply and demand. The phenomenon makes me unhappy, but it’s not a miscarriage of justice.
What bugs me about Demand Media is what I fear it does to the quality of information on the Web. Here’s Wired’s Daniel Roth with a metaphor: “Imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.” Demand uses SEO to game Google, shooting its content to the top of search results where it’s more likely to be clicked. Whether or not that content is valuable to the reader is beside the point.
This isn’t the way the Web is supposed to work, and that’s what made me mad. But was that fair? Hearing that Demand was now working with USA Today seemed like a good chance to challenge my assumptions. It might be a very good fit, after all: Demand’s algorithm could be put to good use, and its content used as raw material by a reputable news organization whose mission is to help its readers.
So I dropped by Travel Tips, and decided to assess Demand’s work based on the stories selected as Editor’s Picks. As a reader, I’d expect this to be valuable content hand-selected by someone. There were three such stories — How to Protect Your Home When Traveling, Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World, and How to Prevent Altitude Sickness.
So how’d Demand do?
By my lights, not well: The stories are slapdash constructions, poorly organized and at best indifferently written, and by turns not particularly helpful or overly credulous about suspect advice. (Your mileage may vary, of course — go check for yourself.)
“How to Protect Your Home” begins with an anecdote about a photographer whose home studio flooded while he was traveling, and how the damage was minimized because he’d made preparations. I was heartened to find an anecdotal lead that might draw in a reader, but the writer walked us through the entire situation before translating that to a checklist of how to protect your own home. That construction makes two mistakes at once: It kills the drama of the story and makes the reader wait around impatiently for the advice. Better by far to introduce the situation, run through the checklist of how to keep your home safe, and then return to the anecdote to reward the reader with the end of the story and amplify the lessons learned.
As for the rest of the piece, it has some good tips (I didn’t know many police departments will do “vacation checks” of your property if you ask), but misses obvious opportunities to further help readers. For example, there’s a mention that insurers offer online forms for making home inventories, but there’s only a link (buried at the bottom of the story) to Allstate’s. The writer suggests you consider an iPhone app for home inventories, but doesn’t give any examples.
“Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World” opens like this: “Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., is rarely quiet, but the crowds do vary by a surprising amount.” Reading that, I immediately felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation with an SEO algorithm — in a lot of writing by content mills the SEO-centric construction is a maddening hum drowning out information for an actual human reader. Like the first article, this one does have some useful nuggets — I didn’t know that Disney calls slower times “Value Season,” that the weekend of Jan. 7 is crowded because of Disney Marathon, or that you can enjoy Mickey’s Christmas Party during the quiet time between Thanksgiving and Dec. 16. On the other hand, the writer doesn’t tell me what Mickey’s Christmas Party is, and the useful nuggets sink in stuff like this: “Holiday time in Walt Disney World is truly a spectacular show. Every park and resort is decorated, special events occur and the holiday spirit can be felt all around.” This one felt like about three sentences and a lot of padding; what would have worked better would be to tell me exactly when Value Season is (for those scanning, “Between Holidays” isn’t helpful) and then give me specifics about what to do if I visit then.
The final piece, “How to Prevent Altitude Sickness,” isn’t clear about what it wants to be. In the first sentence it mentions Mexico City tourists, skiers in the Rockies and Everest climbers, and then veers around trying to offer advice for people in all three groups. So in less than 320 words you go from being told not to party hard the night before skiing to learning about hyperbaric oxygen units. But what really jumped out at me was advice from a Sacramento orthopedic surgeon to consider a drug called acetazolamide, followed by the same surgeon’s warning that “it’s unclear if it actually works.” If so, this is potentially dangerous advice. No responsible editor should have let that into the article, and if I worked for USA Today, I would not be happy to see that published under my banner.
I don’t mean to be hard on the writers of these pieces — they may have done far better work elsewhere. Which leads me to one of Demand’s fatal flaws.
As a freelancer, I’ve had to learn to budget my time, saying no to assignments that pay too little for the hours they’ll require. The three Demand pieces I read — and again, these were the Editor’s Picks — read like they were dashed off in a half-hour or so and given a quick line edit by someone who didn’t have time to consider story organization, further resources for helping readers, or whether some of the advice met an editorial sniff test. And given what Demand pays, this is a perfectly rational approach to creating this content: No one involved has the time to make things better and stay profitable.
I don’t think Demand or its writers deliberately try to make subpar content. But the intent doesn’t matter, because subpar content is a logical consequence of Demand’s business model as it’s presently constructed. The question for me is why anyone would want to read this content, or why USA Today would put its name on it.