Saturday, July 10, 2010

Revisiting 'content farms'

The Nieman Journalism Lab's Week in Review quoted something I wrote here last week on how newspapers can beat content farms at their own game by learning how to use algorithms as Demand Media does to find out what people want to read about.

I'd agreed with what Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Fry had told The Wrap, saying that the main problem with the Demand Media business model is that "people seeking information will have their time wasted reading crummy content produced for spiders, not readers.”

The problem with "demand" content is that it's poor quality content and doesn't build loyalty to the sites that use it. So I suggested newspapers can beat the content farms at their own game by using the business model to produce quality content created for readers.

The Neiman Journalism Lab's roundup countered my musing with an argument from Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman, who said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

He's right. We still need to tell people about things they don't yet know they need to know. Breaking news, investigative journalism, consumer reports, scientific breakthroughs, analysis of the impact environmental degradation and industrial agricultural practices are having on our lives ... all these fall outside what an algorithm will likely discover from web searches.

But clearly, if we aren't also providing them with timely access to information about the things they are searching for, we won't have an engaged audience that considers us a destination - which is precisely how we CAN beat content farms at their own game. Poorly written content won't inspire people to return or spend very much time reading it.

But if news organizations aren't drawing people in with solid, well-written information about the things they are searching for - and doing it better than the content farms - then:

1) we won't be able to get the other "important" information in front of them in a timely manner, because even if we publish it they won't be on our sites to see it, and
2) they will turn to us only during moments of crisis for "important" information and we can't build a business model on that.

News organizations shouldn't abandon our mandate to beat the content farms at their own game. But we can adapt -- learn to use technology to keep a finger on the pulse of what people want to know about -- in order to become a destination that can still tell them about what they need to know about, and fulfill our mandate.

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At 7:52 AM, Blogger Michael Banovsky said...

" find out what people want to read about."

I wish I got paid for being idyllic, but isn't that the exact opposite strategy of real journalism?


At 9:10 AM, Blogger Liz-Metcalfe said...

I don't think it's the opposite of real journalism; it's a strategic deployment of technology to accelerate what we know about our audience.

It's the job of journalists to report on and examine not just breaking news and events but also issues and trends. Analyzing web search patterns in real time (the part of the Demand Media model we can adopt) is not dissimilar to the way websites analyze what gets clicks and making sure we continue to provide more of what got the most clicks. But it gets ahead of that curve, rather than following it.

If a huge part of our potential audience is interested in something, it's strategic to offer them information on that. Newsrooms can tag-team research to publish something quickly that will be much better quality than what Demand Media can produce. And once search has landed them on our page, we have an opportunity to engage them with content and breaking news that tells them the things they need to know but don't yet know they need to know.

And that is how we become a destination, in addition to regularly landing on top the search engine queue.


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