Reinventing the Newsroom

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?


26 Responses

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  1. Sage said, on December 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm


    I agree that “love versus money” is an oversimplification (I blog a lot about the many different perspectives for making sense of how and why Wikipedia works), and I’m also hopeful that “vapidmedia” will pass.

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on December 4, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Me too. And very much liked your post — will look forward to more.

  3. Twitted by BoraZ said, on December 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    […] This post was Twitted by BoraZ […]

  4. uberVU - social comments said, on December 5, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jasoncfry: On Demand Media, the rise of vapidmedia, and what (if anything) can be done about it.

  5. […] “Journalists … If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media” (see Fry’s post) […]

  6. mark botinsky said, on December 5, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I’m not a journalist, but it seems like demand publishes stuff that journalist don’t. when was the last time a journalist did a story on how to format a hard drive in XP? this story doesn’t seem like very good journalism to me.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on December 6, 2009 at 7:52 am

      OK. Sorry it didn’t work for you, Mark, but appreciate your reading regardless.

  7. Leeza said, on December 7, 2009 at 5:15 am

    It is not journalism. Nor does it claim to be.

  8. mark hardwick said, on December 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Demand’s logic is fine, which is to create content for a sensible fraction of the revenue they estimate they can derive from it via online advertising. Otherwise you don’t have a business (which is what’s killing newspapers).

    I completely agree that they’re failing to benefit from their community. They’re producing reams of crap, static content. If they allowed the content to be improved by the community over time rather than just splurging out more of it, they could do a lot better. A videowiki approach if you like.

    Problem is I can’t see what the revenue share would be for the wider community. What’s the incentive for people to improve another person’s video? Perhaps they would share a pot of secondary revenues?

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on December 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm

      Yep, that’s the problem. Crap content and no incentive for anyone to make it better. Agree that the business logic is sound — and I think their work on locating undeserved topics seems strong. If only it were used for good instead of ill….

  9. […] the fusillade I wrote about Demand Media after reading those two […]

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. Rob Levine said, on July 7, 2010 at 8:20 am

    It’s interesting to note that the most prominent defenders of this model are tenured professors like Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, whose jobs are guaranteed for life. If someone does my job for free, they call it a revolution. If someone does their job for free, it’s a lawsuit for breach of contract.

  12. reinventingthenewsroom said, on July 7, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Defenders of which model — Demand’s? Rosen has repeatedly taken Demand to task in posts and interviews. Jarvis has expressed admiration for some parts of their model, particularly the algorithm for determining what people are searching for (a part I admire as well), but was asked to be part of their advisory board and refused. Apologies if I’m misunderstanding….

  13. […] 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 […]

  14. Rob Levine said, on July 7, 2010 at 11:23 am

    @ reinventing
    I was talking more generally about Jay and Jeff’s faith in the concept that a business can get good work out of people without paying them. They could be right, but it is interesting to note that they, and most people who believe this, have tenure.

    As far as I know, Jeff admires the idea of assigning by algorithm, which is foolish. First, you’re completely dependent on a search formula that can change at any time. Second, you end up following the crowd, which doesn’t produce any brand value. Third, you really get pushed into a commodity market that has a very low cost of entry, which is a bad place for any business to be.

    Basically, this is arbitrage – you buy eyeballs for X and sell them for Y. But, like most arbitrage opportunities, it will eventually close. And, if Google enters this business, you’d be competing against a trader who works for the exchange. In the long run, the house has the advantage here.

  15. Rob Levine said, on July 7, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    @ Reinventing
    Rosen says:
    “I think editorial companies can learn from how Demand Media determines what people are interested in now.”

    First, this is a total fallacy because they’re NOT learning what people are interested in now, they’re learning what they’re searching for now – there’s a big difference. And the subjects they want to engage with now are something else entirely. A few weeks ago, were you interested in what General McChrystal thought of Joe Biden? I bet that changed – but not because of an algorithm. Jeff and Jay just like the idea of journalISM without journalISTS.

  16. […] you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media," wrote Jason Fry, a former Wall Street Journal columnist who edits Reinventing the […]

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. […] you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” wrote Jason Fry, a former Wall Street Journal columnist who edits Reinventing the […]

  19. […] Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn! at Reinventing the Newsroom […]

  20. geomark said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Manjoo needs to read that article, because when he says “once Google and co. wise up to [Associated Content]‘s schemes, its business model is toast” he doesn’t realize that YouTube (which is Google) loves Demand Media and actually solicited them to produce more of their low grade product in order to fill out areas that were thin on content so they could show pertinent ads alongside.

    My prediction is that these schemes aren’t going to end up toast, it’s the search engines that will eventually end up toast if they continue this way.

  21. Brandon said, on July 28, 2010 at 4:58 am

    I have “worked” for several of these sites or content farms as you call them. Demand Studios and Associated Content happen to be the worse in my opinion due to rigid mindsets and editing schemes. Demand simply pays too little and I find it hard to believe that the bulk of eHow’s horriffically written material and explainations actually go through Demand’s supposedly tough editors and standard writers rules.

    Anyone that has tried to read through this huge array of “fast food” style articles posted to many of these sites should easily be able to tell that the majority of their writers are not professionals, don’t adequately research their content and many times even just rewrite articles that they have come across online that have strongly popular keywords. As many a “get rich writing online content” blog owners proudly boast that anyone looking for a quick buck online should do.

    I have also found that creativity without direct focus around their all important keyword mindset is not tolerated or looked for at all. It is not about crafting a perfectly honest, well researched and skillfully written article piece on these site. Sadly, it is all about SEO, in fact, many of them advise you to use keyword generating tools that tell what the most searched for keywords are on any given phrase or topic prior to actually writing your desired article.

    This is then pushed further by the sites telling its writers to purposely craft their articles around only the top producing keywords and to find ways to include the actual keywords within the titles, descriptions and article content itself for greater SEO.

    Sadly, Google News is even partnering with many of these sites, so don’t expect them to change this game too much. Massively cheap labor and massive product development 24/7…looks like the Walmart-way has reached even the world of online content creation. 😦

  22. […] je wilt weten hoe het met ons beroep afloopt, moet je naar Demand Media kijken”, schreef webveteraan en voormalig WSJ-columnist Jason Fry eind vorig jaar op zijn blog. Hij had net een […]

  23. Demand Media: A Story in 5 Numbers said, on August 9, 2010 at 4:36 am

    […] Jason Fry of Reinventing the Newsroom weighed in with Hey Demand Media Get Off My Lawn […]

  24. […] to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” Jason Fry, a former reporter, wrote in a post on the blog Reinventing The Newsroom. They’re also contributing to declining rates for freelancers, critics like Roth say, making it […]

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