Wednesday, July 07, 2010

'Demand' content isn't the problem

"Demand" content isn't the problem. It's the execution.

The era of "demand" content is upon us, and news organizations need to take note. Newsrooms can learn a lesson from companies using algorithms to find out what people are searching for, and then write about it.

Most criticism of Demand Media and Associated Content and their ilk devolves to calling them "content farms" that are to journalists what factories are to Chinese workers. Can "content farms" kill real journalism? Sure. If all you can get for an article is what you usually get paid for 15 minutes worth of work, you're going to spend only 15 minutes writing it. Which may or may not provide enough time to check more than one source, discern whether the source is full of BS, or write something captivating enough to hold your reader.

But discerning readers can tell the difference between churned out, formula-written copy and in-depth reporting. "Demand" journalism isn't the problem. It's the execution. Content derived from non-original research that results from formula writing can't inspire or hold readers' interest. The holy grail for content websites is to increase engagement - the amount of time spent on the site. and repeat visits "Demand" content doesn't tend to encourage a return to the site and readers don't spend as long reading it as they do on better-written and more engaging content. Well-researched, captivating content keeps a reader online and clicking for "more" longer.

The bigger problem is that search engines serve the pablum first.

“What bugs me is that this stuff essentially games Google to show up high in search results, making it more likely that people seeking information will have their time wasted reading crummy content produced for spiders, not readers,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Fry told The Wrap in an article posted yesterday. “That makes search worse for all of us.”

It will also have an impact on whether talented people become journalists or decide to do something else that will actually earn them a living. The squeeze is on freelancers, in particular, by websites such as DirectFreelance.com, where freelancers are asked to bid on projects for which clients are frequently unwilling to pay more than $1 for a 400-word article. That comes to a fraction of a cent per word. Essentially they're looking for "writers" to find an article someone else wrote on the topic they want for their website and rewrite it just enough to fool plagiarism software.

The other trend is aspiring writers getting sucked into writing for free for "exposure." While it's true you can't sell your work unless you already have bylines to show as samples, this trend goes much further, in that some sites suite as Suite 101 have enslaved small armies of writers and pay a pittance of pennies only if what you wrote gets clicked and displays an ad. You could starve writing for Suite 101.

Derek Finkle launched Canadian Writers Group to combat that trend, representing freelancers to magazines to get them better rates than they could ostensibly negotiate for themselves. A recent article by the Ryerson Review of Journalism that talks about his battle lamented how magazine rates have been at $1 a word now for decades. Of course, he takes a cut. Because a lot of people are really terrible at negotiating, he might have a solid business model.

But freelancers now being paid pennies per word would love to get $1 a word.

What's needed is for newsrooms to adapt to the demand model and use it to produce quality content that will blow the content farms out of the water.

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