Reinventing the Newsroom

Just When I Thought I Was Out, Demand Media Pulls Me Back In

Posted in Content Farms by reinventingthenewsroom on August 3, 2010

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.

6 Responses

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  1. Gil said, on August 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Nice post, Jason. You should definitely apply to speak at SMX East on the “Content Farms Or The Smartest SEOs In the World?” session. The conference should also help you meet some good people, get some interesting perspectives, and make contacts that could help your consulting business. I just hope you don’t get my speaking slot 🙂

  2. Dan Wallace said, on August 4, 2010 at 8:57 am

    A good article, Jason. I see echoes of the same movement in this Fortune story on celebrity endorsers:

  3. Jason said, on August 7, 2010 at 8:45 am

    USA Today and are buying the wrong thing from Demand. They should be paying for Demand’s content management and SEO tools rather than the content Demand produces from those tools. Legit content producers can learn tons about how to commission, manage, and pay freelancers from Demand’s tool set. It’s this part of the business that old-school publishers are so terribly lousy at. If they had this piece of the puzzle they could pay more than the $5-$15 Demand does and get decent content they don’t have to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, most of the people making decisions at these newspapers don’t have the skills to see what Demand could teach them, they just want cheap content.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 18, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      Yes, exactly! This is why the idea that newsrooms should be suspicious of algorithms about what people read makes me crazy. There are things that Demand and its ilk are quite good at it, and that we ought to learn from.

  4. Kevin Dugan said, on August 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Jason: Really learning a lot from your coverage as I try and keep up with the changing world of content and the business behind it. Thank you.

    On a much lighter note, I have a free idea for you — a Facebook app around content farms. The name?

    Wait for it….Content Farmville!

    Thanks again.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 18, 2010 at 12:40 pm

      That’s hilarious. I love it!

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