Putting Demand Media to the Test
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.