Much media coverage has been recently devoted to so-called 'content farms' such as Demand Media, Associated Content and About.com. The goal of these companies is to produce vast amounts of content on topics that readers have been searching for that will attract large numbers of readers, and they have been described at 'robotic' 'sweatshops' or 'factories' that produce work that critics insist is not journalism.
These content networks use an algorithm to study and analyse web searches and behaviour to identify what is popular and what gaps in coverage might exist, and it then commission their networks of freelancers to write on these topics. Demand Media, the most prolific, publishes its content on properties including eHow.com, LIVESTRONG.com and Cracked.com, among others.
Executive VP Steven Kydd described Demand's output as "service journalism, or sidebar content" in a speech at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in April, explaining that it does not hope to compare to serious investigative journalism. Demand Media freelancer Andria Krewson explained on ReadWriteWeb that "The stories are usually how-to pieces, often broken into steps. They're evergreen, designed to be as relevant in a year or two as they are now." She added, "You can tell by the assignment headlines that they're generated from search engine queries, and sometimes those search terms provide some amusement."
Demand Media publishes about 7,000 articles a day, and the company's chief revenue officer Joanne Bradford told AdAge that over 50 million unique visitors per day see Demand content on its top site eHow.com. She insisted that every article is vetted and fact-checked, with 1,000 copy editors. CMO Dave Panos told AdAge that each piece of content is touched by "11 qualified professionals."
As well as filling its own sites with content, Demand Media supplies articles for others, including USA Today's travel section. In April the Travel Tips section of the newspaper's site was launched with about 4,000 items from Demand Media's freelance writers. Demand Media supplies the content and sells keyword advertising, USA Today is selling display ad inventory and the two are splitting the revenue, AdAge reported at the time. USA Today travel journalists still produce more in-depth, expert articles, but these are supplemented by those provided by Demand. The Atlanta Journal Constitution also uses Demand Media, but only for a story a week.
Associated Content, which was acquired in May by Yahoo!, produces around 1,500 pieces of content a day. Articles from AC contributors, including (according to the AC blog) "compelling personal stories and expert insights" are appearing throughout the Yahoo! network of sites.
A less well-known site is Suite101, a publishing platform that manages to product 500 new pieces of content per day on niche topics, focusing on beginners articles on thousands of topics. According to ReadWriteWeb's Richard MacManus, who spoke to Suite101 CEO Peter Berger, it currently has 5,000 active writers and four different language sites, with 24 million unique vistors per month going to the English language site. Berger told ReadWriteWeb that he did not see Suite101 as a competitor to traditional journalism, but rather as competing with "non-fiction publishing." Its articles answer users' questions about practical matters in their lives, rather than providing them with news.
Giving the audience what it wants, and fast
The existence and swift growth of such sites has provoked much debate about what they mean for the future of journalism. The first issue is that of giving the audience the content that it wants: the Internet has made this far easier to do, but is it something that news organisations should be considering? As Nieman Lab recently pointed out, in any other industry, offering the customer what they wanted this would be an approach that no one would question. But in the news industry, the idea that the editors know best has always prevailed. Providing news is a public service, and only trained professionals are capable of deciding what is most important.
This is undoubtedly a valid principle, and the experience that comes with working in the news industry makes an editor's opinion extremely valuable. However, at news organisations there have always been concessions to giving the audience what they want. For many, that is what sells papers, and editors are fully aware of the necessity to sell papers.
Online it has finally become possible to track what readers actually read. And with news being effectively sold in micro-form, even if not directly, there is clearly an enhanced motivation to give readers what they really want to read. Who knows how many articles a print newspaper buyer reads and how many they discard? Now that it is possible to tell what people are reading, is it surprising that publishers want to give them more of this?
Clearly, just spewing out stories about Lindsey Lohan because they get a lot of hits is not an editorially ethical decision. But as Nieman Lab's Laura McGann points out, what the public wants is not always junk. She highlighted a Pew Research Center study that showed that the public's interest in coverage of the Gulf oil leak remained relatively high even when the amount of coverage dropped significantly in early-mid July. The same study reported that many people believed that news organizations were giving too much coverage to stories about Lindsay Lohan and LeBron James, however.
It is not just 'content farms' that have come under criticism for looking at what readers want to read. In a recent article about Yahoo's blog 'The Upshot,' the New York Times discussed how the top-down editorial model was being 'inverted,' with reporters looking at search statistics to help decide what to cover. As the NYT noted, the Yahoo blog is focused on news rather than the 'how-to' topics that Demand Media and others specialize in. Editors at the Upshot were clear however that the information from analyzing search data is supplementary and does not "lead Yahoo content."
The shifting relationship between content creation and SEO
A related concern, as recently highlighted by the Financial Times, is that Google's algorithm is beginning to have a significant effect on content that is produced. In the quest to attract large numbers of readers, content-creators are not only looking at what readers want but at what appears high in search engine results.
Obviously news organisations all use search engine optimization to a certain extent, and it makes sense that if you have good content you should make it easily findable by your audience. But ideally content should come first, and SEO after, and the concern is that SEO, in particular how to manipulate the Google algorithm, is being prioritized over the content itself.
Low-paid journalists = low-quality work?
Contributors to 'content farms' are paid a low price for each article, and the companies make it clear that this is not intended to be a full-time job, but something to supplement your income. The pay at Associated Content (for at least some writers) is based on page views - $1.50 for 1000 views - and at Demand Media it is around $15 an article, with copy editors receiving $3.50 per article. Evidently the fact that writers can work from home and in their own time must be taken into account, but this figure is still low.
The idea, as explained in a Wired article by Daniel Roth in November 2009, is that rather than "trying to raise the market value of online content to match the cost of producing it -- perhaps an impossible proposition -- the secret is to cut costs until they match the market value." CEO Richard Rosenblatt clarified to Jay Rosen that this is part of an attempt to build "a sustainable business model"
The fear, as TechCrunch's Michael Arrington aptly put it, is that "anyone who spends their time and effort on their content is pushed out of business." Journalists will be paid less and less and journalistic quality will be forced down.
Despite staff's insistence that articles are fact-checked and edited, and the fact that writers are required to reference their sources, the general impression is that the quality of content at content farms is low, and the audience doesn't seem to mind that much.
But is this really "the end of hand crafted content," as TechCrunch concludes? Should professional journalists at established media outlets feel threatened by an excess of content on the Internet? Is it actually competing directly with what they do? The majority of content farms' content is not news-related, and those searching for news topics are unlikely to come across it. Everybody in the media industry is aware of the differences between hard news stories and the content farms' how-to pieces, making it doubtful that the latter will devalue the former. A critical eye on such developments is justified and indeed necessary, but how much of the concern is actually rational? Demand and others have found a hole in the market and they are seemingly successfully filling it, and news organisations should probably continue to focus on producing the best content they can.