Demand Media Makes Piles Of Money With Piles Of Crap

February 1, 2011

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com.

In today’s media world, an online news service that pays writers $10 to $15 an article to churn out  mountains of crap is worth more than the New York Times Co.

Demand Media went public last week, and first-day investors bid up its stock from an opening of $17 to around $25 a share, giving the young company a greater market capitalization than the Gray Lady.

In case you haven’t heard of Demand Media, it’s among a group of “content farms” that churn out massive amounts of Web fodder written specifically to rank high in Google and other search results. I wrote for MinnPost last year on my experience with another content farm, Associated Content.

In the Web world, showing up in search results is the Holy Grail. Writers for Demand Media are instructed to pack their articles with specific, search-engine-friendly phrases. This leads to masterpieces of journalism such as “How to Pick Wild Blueberries in August in Northern Maine.”

As this particular article was published in September, however, its readers will have to wait 11 months to profit from such helpful tips as “Fill your bucket and go back to the beginning to pay your fee.”

They can spend some of that time reading another Demand Media article, “How to Fix a Hole in a Plastic Container.” It offers this wisdom: “Try tape. Regular duct tape can work wonders in restoring a holey bucket.”

I don’t object to this kind of content being on the Web. I guess the life of someone, somewhere will be better because they learned that duct tape can fix a leaky plastic bucket. That’s a positive.

But this shallow content is crowding out quality journalism and helping to destroy the economic model that has allowed newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations to pay professional journalists a living wage to report on matters of substance.

There’s always been fluff in the traditional media. But the fluff was offered with a generous helping of meat and potatoes.

Demand Media and other content farms use algorithms to determine what people are searching for on the Web. Then they create articles that fit those searches, and sell ads alongside the articles. Next to the blueberry article cited above, for example, was an ad from a nursery selling hardy northern blueberry bushes.

It’s a great business model – and in business terms, it’s hard to be critical of those who conceived and executed it. In fact, they should be congratulated, which is exactly what Wall Street did last week.

But as journalism, it stinks. And it’s helping transform the news business from a career that paid a middle-class wage into a sweatshop occupation where workers make peanuts for churning out piecework dreck.

If you value real journalism that informs your life, I urge you to support the news outlets in your community offering that kind of journalism. You’ll be the best judge of which ones they are.

Because if they go away, you can look forward to more articles like “How To Become a Governor,” with seven steps guaranteed to land you in the mansion. [http://www.ehow.com/how_2296718_become-governor.html] “Becoming governor is no easy task,” it warns.

Really? I had no idea. Thanks, Demand Media.