Thursday, June 17, 2010

Content on demand: Is this the future?

Writers and editors need to keep their eyes on Demand Media, which for the last four years has been perfecting the art of producing content on demand. Run by Richard Rosenblatt, who also founded and sold MySpace, Demand Media uses algorithms to troll search engine data and traffic logs to find keywords advertisers will pay for. Those topics are then offered up to a small army of freelance writers and videographers.

This has been a successful strategy for Demand Media, which has become the single largest video contributor to YouTube, and has gone from a startup to $200 million in annual revenue in four years.

That success is probably why Yahoo bought Associated Content, a Demand Media competitor. And why Google has applied for a patent that it could potentially use to stop Demand's use of search statistics to determine those topics, and develop its own content model.

Success for operations such as Demand Media and Associated Content, however, could be the death knell for freelancers. They get paid so little to pump out this "content on demand" that, as Wired pointed out when it wrote about Demand Media last fall, freelancers have to produce an article or video almost every hour of a work day to earn a living from it.

Similarly, websites such as Verbumsoft, where freelancers can bid on content contracts, have sprung up. At first blush, they look like a good idea - a way to connect someone who needs editorial or writing services with someone who can get the work done.

But the people offering the contracts are willing to pay only pennies per word - sometimes as little as $1 per article, so paying to become listed as a freelancer on such a site (you have to pay an annual fee of $100 to respond to posts at Verbumsoft) is a waste of money for trained journalists. The people offering the contracts don't care that you can't research and write something for $1. All they care is that it won't trigger red flags in plagiarism-detecting software. Which means all they really want is for "writers" to steal someone's work and change it enough so that plagiarism software won't flag it.

You don't need to be an editor to understand that the quality of content produced at that speed isn't very high.

Yet this trend is even being seen asserting itself at establishments like Forbes, which his increasingly dependent on "Top 10 auto death traps" photo galleries and such to drive traffic. Forbes laid off most of their reporters last fall and brought them back this spring as freelancers on contract (without benefits). But reporters who used to write an article a day are now being asked to write as many as four pieces a day. You know as well as I do that when you research and write that quickly you're not producing quality content.

This growing economic pressure to produce cheaper and cheaper content could deep-six news operations already working on shoe-string budgets. Only a few of the strongest brands with national audiences (and a smattering of niche publications producing content their audience can't find elsewhere) will survive and will probably have to charge a premium for their content.

And we might be getting closer to the day when a computer program will write and edit these things and post them without the help of humans. We aren't there yet, according to Google.

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