Reinventing the Newsroom

The Furor Over Content Farms

Posted in Content Farms, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on December 15, 2009

I’m glad to see I’m not alone — the agitation over content farms (my term was vapidmedia) is increasing among digital-media thinkers. Here’s a rundown of recent takes on the issue, what it means, and what — if anything — should or can be done about it. To reiterate my point of view: I don’t think Demand and other vapidmedia mills deliberately try to produce low-quality content, but I think their business models virtually ensure that they will do so. Nor is my primary objection that they turn content creators into Chinese factory workers. I don’t like that, but if the market wills it, so be it. Rather, my primary objection is that vapidmedia clutters up search with low-quality content designed to game Google’s algorithms, making better-quality information harder to find.

To review, the article that kicked the issue into high gear is Dan Roth’s Wired magazine profile of Demand Media. A related piece is Farhad Manjoo’s takedown of Associated Content, from Slate. (Richard McManus of ReadWriteWeb has also penned two good investigations of Demand Media.)

Here’s the fusillade I wrote about Demand Media after reading those two articles.

What’s new: Over the weekend TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington waded into the fray, warning that “I think there’s a much bigger problem lurking on the horizon than a bunch of blogs and aggregators disrupting old media business models that needed disrupting anyway. The rise of fast food content is upon us, and it’s going to get ugly. … These models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.” Arrington’s conclusion is dour: Content creators need to “figure out an even more disruptive way to win, or die. Or just give up on making money doing what you do.”

New York City venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson is hopeful — as I was, albeit somewhat tentatively — that the antidote to vapidmedia is the rise of social search. Social search, he says, will help us decide what’s quality content and what isn’t, where search engines can’t: “It’s a lot harder to spam yourself into a social graph.” This fits with my own thinking that social search stands to eclipse the power of Google in relatively short order — Google’s empire is built on a clever recreation of social approval, hierarchy and relevance, but the Web has matured to the point where we can use those social tools instead of industrial substitutes for them. (This is also why, as I wrote, the drama starring Rupert Murdoch, Google, Bing and vengeance-minded publishers will make for great theater but not particularly matter before long.)

Jeff Jarvis spoke with Demand’s Steven Kydd about the company. Jarvis also sees social search as a way to prevent content farms from degrading search results, though he praises Demand’s algorithms as useful to discovering questions the public wants answered. His take is interesting, though I think he gives Demand too much credit by urging us “not to miss Demand’s key insight: that the public should assign the creators, including journalists.” I agree that Demand’s algorithms are smart and could be useful in spotlighting questions the public wants answered, but Demand isn’t part of any war of journalism ideology, and I think it does more public harm than good.

Coming nearly full-circle, ReadWriteWeb’s McManus looks at some ways Google can combat the content farms — and notes it’s quite likely that Google is already working to put some of these tactics in place. Here’s hoping.

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The Experimental Age Demands Patience

Posted in Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on December 9, 2009

Over on his personal blog, Benji Lanyado asks if hyperlocal is all hype, worrying that the ad dollars will never arrive to sustain it, or that the need for a lot of hyperlocal content will drag down the level of quality to unacceptable levels. “Hyperlocal has been talked about for years, but a eureka moment still hasn’t materialised,” he writes.

I think Lanyado has surveyed hyperlocal ably and asked some very good questions. I’m not out to bash him. But it struck me that his skepticism, while well-founded, seems entirely too early — just as it does when attached to other news experiments by other commenters. Take nonprofit journalism, about which I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus in Dumbo Thursday night. (Details here — come by!) If you read the nonprofit model’s detractors, you’ll conclude it’s clearly all hype too, whether the problem is that philanthropists’ agendas will distort things or that news organizations that don’t try to make money will wind up irredeemably flabby in allocating resources. Citizen journalists? Untrained hacks who can’t be taught the first thing about accuracy and fairness. Wikis? Poorly policed and prone to vandalism. Social media? Dooms us all to echo chambers of likeminded thought.

Skepticism is good, and we have to keep our revolutionary fervor in check lest our hopes for new journalism become cheerleading. But we also can’t let doubts and worries lead us to dismiss experiments while they’re still running. The newspaper industry’s current travails have taken a lot of these experiments off the back burner, and they’re now getting real attention — along with real money and, yes, an excess of hype. We need to resist excessive enthusiasm and cynicism and simply let the experiments run, giving ourselves time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what kind of worked — and then run variations on those experiments. And then do it again. And then some more. Right now we’re like biologists peering at the brew of lightning-stoked amino acids and grousing that this stuff will never produce a decent opposable thumb.

To borrow Clay Shirky’s line, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” It’s going to take time to find the mights and iterate them into some part of some successful model. And I bet that model will have little resemblance to what we’re thinking about now, here at the end of 2009 amid the early winter of the print age. The daily print paper as we knew it for generations isn’t exactly an obvious mix either: Who’d think to take news about distant lands and news about nearby towns and political editorials and sports and lifestyle pieces and advice columns and humor and cartoons and horoscopes and comics and crosswords and help-wanted ads and for-sale signs and coded personal messages and kids’ drawings and movie reviews and entertainment listings and neighborhood gossip and lots and lots of retail ads and present it as something that people would not only pay for but come to cherish as part of their morning routine? Yet that worked, and it worked for a long time. We need to bear that in mind, and be patient in figuring out what will work next.

Another Vote for Personality

Posted in The Journalist as Brand by reinventingthenewsroom on December 8, 2009

Over at his editor’s blog for the Greensboro News & Record, John Robinson laments the disconnect between quirky newsrooms and the often-dull news they produce: “One of the great journalism paradoxes is that newspaper people are a whole lot of fun, newspaper Web sites aren’t. Newsrooms are full of prankers, jokers and larger than life characters. Yet, we tend to take our news content seriously…often ponderously so. Too often we squeeze the humorous life out of what we produce.”

Amen.

I earned my Web-journalist spurs at the Wall Street Journal Online in the mid-1990s, when it was a small, scrappy newsroom-within-a-newsroom, an experiment conducted (and viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm) within the traditional confines of the print Journal. We dot-commers were serious about our mission, and keenly aware that we were representing the Journal in a new medium then viewed as not generally living up to its standards. Yet for all that we also had an enormous amount of fun. The news desk was populated by characters — bitingly funny, canny journalism veterans and newcomers who were quick studies — and the news cycle was a never-ending, free-spirited conversation and debate about motivation, agendas, spin, market reaction, politics, posturing and everything else. It was cynical and savage, sometimes, but almost always informed and wise. When big news broke and I wasn’t in the newsroom I felt cheated — the conversation was going on without me and I was left out.

One of the things that most excited me about blogs’ acceptance in mainstream journalism was the idea that some of that conversation could be captured — that a less formal setting would allow some of that personality to come through instead of being sanded away by caution and copy editing. Sometimes that’s proved true and sometimes it’s hasn’t; these days, Twitter is the vehicle by which you get some sense of journalists as raconteurs and wits and thinkers. Either way, it’s welcome.

My formative experience at WSJ.com — which I hadn’t realized how much I missed until I wrote the paragraph above — came on the heels of another such experience, the last time I really identified myself as part of a community centered around a daily print paper. Living in Bethesda, Md., in the early 1990s I read the Washington Post every day, and the section I loved best (and dreamed of working for) was the Style section. The Style section offered a lot of terrific, finely crafted journalism, but it also felt like the daily minutes of a strange and wonderful club. There was a rollicking glee to the writing, with off-the-wall story ideas turned (usually successfully or at least interestingly) into long-form stories, biting commentary and an enormous amount of humor — from dry, sophisticated fare to lampshade-on-the-head goofiness. The section was full of in-jokes and running gags, but it never felt exclusionary — you could become a member of the club just by continuing to show up.

I haven’t been in WSJ.com’s newsroom in some time, so I don’t know if the news desk is still an entertaining free-for-all. I sure hope it is. But I still love the Style section for Gene Weingarten and Tom Shales and Robin Givhan and its other sharp, smart writers. I love reading what the baseball beat writers I follow on Twitter say when their brains get a little frazzled by the mad spectacle of the winter meetings. I like the twinkle in the eye you can sense when reading the tweets of ColonelTribune, the Chicago Tribune’s Twitter persona.

There’s still fun to be had in journalism — and like Robinson, I’d love to see it given freer rein. And I think within the bounds of responsibility, readers would respond to it as well. The torrent of information generated by countless publishers new and old produces an enormous amount of disorienting noise; within that, personality stands out as welcome signal.

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My latest sportswriting column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the coverage of Tiger Woods’ travails, and ponders how online news organizations might handle stories they think are beneath their journalistic standards, but are being discussed by an audience that’s read all the gossip.

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Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn!

Posted in Content Farms, Digital Experiments, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on December 4, 2009

July 2010 Update: I have more thoughts on content farms here. I took a look at Demand Media’s travel articles for USA Today here. And here’s a roundup of posts about the issue.

I don’t know how I missed this Daniel Roth article in the October Wired about Demand Media the first time around, but it showed up in my Twitter queue this morning, and came on the heels of my reading and thinking about Farhad Manjoo’s evisceration of Associated Content in Slate. (I was kinder about Associated Content back in my Wall Street Journal days, but then I was mostly interested in them as a different way to build a brand.) From there, I read Sage Ross’s very good take (channeling Jay Rosen) on Demand Media vs. Wikimedia.

And then I tried and failed to calm myself down.

Journalists, the Web is not how our profession ends. The Web is a wonderful vehicle for storytelling, explaining, doing civic good and empowering readers who want to dig for information. If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media, starting with Roth’s poignant portrait of an experienced video journalist shooting noisy, out-of-focus footage for $20 a pop. This is the journalist as Chinese factory worker — except for a lot of rural Chinese the factory is a step up. You know the old joke about the sign that reads Good, Fast, Cheap — Pick Two? Demand Media took that and turned it into an irony-free business plan. The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.

I’d encountered material from Demand before, along with stuff from other vapidmedia factories such as Associated Content and eHow. But I’d written it off as the usual Internet stupidity breaking the waterline thanks to an unfortunate alignment of search-engine tumblers. I hadn’t grasped that the visibility of this stuff — indeed, the sole reason for its existence — was the product of a Google-dependent strategy, or processed that its bland stupidity was a direct consequence of a pitiless, bottom-line business model. Wired’s Roth describes the consequences aptly: “To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, 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.”

Now that I’ve spluttered and raged, an attempt at perspective. It’s good to understand what information people are searching for, and by all accounts Demand Media has done a terrific job at that. Journalists have spent far too long uninterested in questions like that, maintaining and sometimes even cultivating an air of artistic disconnect from readers and the business side of their publications. It’s an understatement to say that hasn’t served them well in trying to adapt to the seismic changes in our industry. Smart algorithms like Demand’s are a way to bridge that disconnect, and a potential source of story ideas to boot. (Check out the interesting exchange about people donating cars in Dallas.)

Nor am I saying that you’ve got to be a member of the journalistic priesthood to impart useful information or tell good stories. I’m sure there’s some good, even great stuff produced by Demand Media and Associated Content, just as I rejoice that millions of people now produce commentaries, explainers and, yes, new stories without journalistic backgrounds or affiliations.

But Demand Media isn’t just an algorithm, and the confines of business models like Demand’s work against the production of good stuff. I’ll choose to believe Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt that he wants to improve quality, but if he’s true to what’s made his company successful, he’ll have a lot of trouble doing that. Similarly, this article by Demand’s Steven Kydd, touting that The Future = Art + Science + Scale, has some valuable lessons for publishers, and it sounds reasonable enough. But the Demand equation sure feels more like The Present = Science + Scale – Art than what Kydd came up with. (See the sign up above.)

A couple of weeks back I had an interesting conversation with a first-class digital-media experimenter in which we talked about how systems are constructed, and how the starting points you choose will allow users to do interesting, unexpected things with those systems, or prevent that. Twitter is an obvious example — it’s slightly out of control, which has allowed its users to turn it into a hotbed of innovation. Demand’s system strikes me as so rigidly controlled that it’s a poor fit for any kind of innovation. Which would be fine if Demand weren’t the kid waving his hand in class with an obvious, not particularly edifying answer to everything.

Granted, it’s very early — too worried, probably, for me to get as worked up as I have. As Manjoo notes, vapidmedia is basically an exploitation of a weakness in search engines, which suggests its success could be temporary — the vapidmedia business model is perilously close to that of spam blogs, which Google battles all the time. As Manjoo notes, “once Google and co. wise up to [Associated Content]’s schemes, its business model is toast.” Still, I worry that’s wishful thinking. In class, the pushy kid with his hand up all the time would get pulled aside by the teacher and told to wait his turn. But there is no search-engine teacher. Google is hard on the crooked, but much as I dislike Demand Media and its peers, they aren’t crooked — and Google’s democratic, Hero Engineer mentality doesn’t lend itself to punishing the merely dumb.

A more hopeful sign, for me, lies in another Web truism: The cream rises, and over time talent wins out. As social search eclipses industrial search, the cream should rise faster. Right?

Well, maybe. Like a lot of current journalism debates, that becomes a referendum on one’s faith in people. Do you think people can produce accountability journalism without the framework of big journalistic institutions? Well, having thought about that a lot … I don’t know. Do you think if people move to the fore in finding information and sharing it we’ll get better information? I don’t know that one either.

This gets back to something said by Sage Ross about Wikimedia vs. Demand Media, which he describes rather poetically as “media driven by love versus media driven by money.” That’s a bit too simplistic for me, but I’d like to agree with his overall point. Now that I’ve calmed down some, I’d like to conclude that this too will pass, that people will make algorithms a complement to their own choices, that the cream will rise, the vapidmedia factories will be shuttered, and we’ll all be the better for it. I’d like to have faith, in other words. But media driven by love isn’t always so edifying, either. Have you been to Yahoo Answers lately?

More Google Sound and Fury

Posted in Fun With Metaphors, Social Media, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on December 2, 2009

In the last two days, Google has made some changes to Google News, allowing publishers more control over how articles can be viewed for free. Yesterday, Google said it will let publishers limit readers to five free articles per day, a modification to its First Click Free program, and offered to crawl and index preview pages made available, labeling them in search results as Subscription.  This morning, Google unveiled a web crawler specifically for Google News, allowing publishers to tweak their robots.txt file to exclude Google News but not regular search, or to further slice and dice what’s visible where.

All very interesting given the war of words between Google and publishers calling the search engine giant all manner of nasty names (nobody likes being called an intestinal parasite), a charge now led by Rupert Murdoch, who’s elbowed the Associated Press aside to head the brigade. This war has intensified of late, with word of talks between Murdoch’s News Corp. and Microsoft that could see News Corp. remove its news from Google in favor of Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine — and mutterings that News Corp. might challenge whether fair-use laws apply to aggregators. Google has fired back, in its blandly live-and-let-live way — I was amused to note that Google couldn’t resist making publishers look backwards by noting that they’d already been able to request being left out of Google News.

This is interesting political theater, but like a lot of political theater I maintain it doesn’t mean much.

First off, publishers’ paywalls aren’t fixed now, but then they weren’t cracked before in any meaningful way. On Computerworld, Seth Weintraub notes that “it is only going to be slightly more difficult to get around paywalls using the Google trick” — for instance, you could evade the five-articles-per-day limit by using a different browser in which you’re not logged into your Google account. Weintraub notes that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it on the NBC primetime show the Office,” which naturally leads to an embed of the now-famous clip in which Jim gets through to a paywalled Journal article in seconds flat. All true, but I think this misses something: In the show, only two of the assembled Dunder Mifflin employees know the paywall trick. As long as those percentages hold up, publishers with paywalls aren’t actually concerned about leaky paywalls, except for their usefulness in crying woe and trying to extract something from Google. This is the same misconception I objected to when NBC consultant Jeff Gralnick recently raised the specter of “some smart 12-year-old” getting around technological barriers — folks interested in digital journalism like playing around with technology, and so we tend to forget that most people don’t. (And I bet Computerworld bloggers run rings around us.) The idea of technological barriers isn’t to keep out the Jim Halperts of the world — that never works. Rather, it’s to keep out the Oscars and Dwights.

Nor am I worried that alliances between publishers and Bing would lead to a world of Balkanized search, a scenario raised by Ken Auletta in a New York Times conversation between him and Fred Wilson, moderated by John Markoff. The reason is the growing power of social search, which I explored in my last post. Auletta discusses social search too, asking, “Would you rather have the advice of 20 friends whom you know and trust and who share their experience with cameras, or 20,000 or so links from a Google search?” He’s right that we’ll opt for the former, but it’s not an either-or scenario: As Wilson notes, “I don’t see search and social as disconnected islands. I see them as connected important features that complement each other.” I’d take the metaphor a step further and say social search is the water that will connect all the islands. The speed of social search is uncanny — a good Twitter news feed will deliver the desired information from a vast range of sources, making the question of which engine indexes that information irrelevant.

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