Reinventing the Newsroom

More on ‘Content Farms’

Posted in Content Farms, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on July 7, 2010

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.


8 Responses

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  1. Gil said, on July 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Hey Jason, good piece, but I disagree with your conclusions. I share Danny Sullivan’s optimism on this. Google will work it out, and influence the sites to do the same. I work at and I can tell you that our top focus right now is increasing the quality of our content. Other Q&A sites are doing the same. We all know that authority & trustworthiness are essential to our long term success. Wikipedia was once ridiculed for its low quality and they turned it around. The winners in this game will be those that successfully follow in Wikipedia’s footsteps and build trusted sites. My full thoughts are here and BTW, I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while because I enjoy your Mets Tweets and posts but never realized you were a WSJ journalist & social media expert.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on July 7, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks Gil — though I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. From your comments, I don’t think we really disagree all that much. I hope you’re right about the role Google will play, and that other sites will follow in your footsteps, either on their own or because Google forces them to.

      Re Wikipedia, my question would be whether the quality would ever have emerged if it followed Demand Media’s business model. That’s a site where the work is done for love, not money; with DM, AC and the others, it seems like the pitiless math of the money squeezes out any opportunity for love to be a motivator of quality….

      Appreciate your thoughts!

  2. […] More on ‘Content Farms’ « Reinventing the Newsroom said, on July 7, 2010 at 10:13 am […]

  3. Perry Gaskill said, on July 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    One could argue that content farms are part of a broader systemic failure in the online news business brought about by a couple of factors which may prove to be temporary. The first is that we seem to have moved into an era that now has the search engine tail wagging the content dog; the second, somewhat related and mentioned by yourself in the past, is a predominant Internet business model which, like Tom Sawyer’s, is based on getting somebody else to paint the fence.

    And the big problem with the Tom Sawyer model, whether incarnated by Google, or the Huffington Post, or Demand Media, is that although you might wind up with a well-whitewashed bunch of boards, you’re not likely to wind up with a Picasso.

    All of which would be moot except for the fact that, at least it seems to me, we’re standing at a technical threshold where the ability to build semantically-driven contextually-aware expert systems has the potential to change the content landscape. That we will be able to create more valuable content seems a given; what’s less clear, no surprise, is how to get anyone to pay for it.

  4. […] quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession […]

  5. […] quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession […]

  6. richard@contentetc said, on July 12, 2010 at 3:34 am

    Yes, it’s not if a journalist is doing it or a non journalist, or even a piece of software. It’s if the content is exclusive, original and up to the quality standards required. Even small news teams can break big stories, as long as they are organised for it. We will increasingly have a separation of news: the farms generating the “run of the mill”; and the teams of newshounds creating the agenda, I suspect. Or, that’s a hope.

  7. […] clash between content farms and journalism are made by Jason Fry in his reinventingthenewsroom blog. Jason sees the impact content farms have on journalism as the result of cost cutting in news […]

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