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Demand better media? Not with Demand Media

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."

Shallow content
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. "Becoming governor is no easy task," it warns.

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

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Comments (11)

I write for Demand. While you've pulled up a couple of old eHow articles from the time when they were user-written, today's articles are written much differently.

I had to laugh as I read your attack on Demand, mainly because your articles would not make the cut with all the grammatical errors.

And I make about $30 an hour...in my own home. Freedom.

You should be so lucky.

DMD is worth much more than $25 a share.

Wow, Demand Media must have an efficient rapid-response unit. You really got in there quickly with your defense. Thanks for joining the conversation.

Do Google have a duty of service to remove Demand Media content farm results from its index - not only for the poor quality for the content but also as a duty of care?

People trust the content Google delivers to them almost blindly and in the UK it seems the National Health Service (NHS) doctors even use results to help diagnose patients.

These results include Demand Media sites such as eHow.com and when these articles are factually incorrect, its is by proxy, potentially putting peoples health at risk!

See http://www.epiphanysolutions.co.uk/blog/nhs-show-support-for-demand-medi... for the full article. Scray stuff...

It would be nice if the ongoing collapse of newspapers and other news media could be blamed on online competition. In reality it represents a conscious decision to commit suicide by making themselves irrelevant.

The decision by major media to abandon the job of sorting out the truth of what they write as opposed to acting either as stenographers recording and passing on “he said/she said” blather or, worse, acting as propaganda agents for political views endorsed by media owners has destroyed the value of the media to the news-buying public.

The disastrous failure of American news media, including the “Gray Lady”, in the run up to the Iraq war is just the most spectacular example from the recent past. American media repeated the untrue sound bites of the pro-war faction while media elsewhere in the world reported accurately that the case for war was based on lies. Our country is paying trillions for that mistake.

Today is no better, with totally ignorant comments by people like Michelle Bachman given the same respect and more coverage than people who actually know what they are talking about, with the media almost never bothering to indicate that much of what she says is simply false.

The very existence of the “Minnesota Post” is testimony to the degeneration of formerly excellent news sources in Minnesota into worthlessness. Without the intellectual collapse of most Minnesota newspapers, the Post would have no niche, and its writers would still be working for their former employers in traditional media.

When Walter Cronkite died a friend of mine commented that the last American journalist was dead. Unfortunately, that was more true than not. Cronkite and his cohorts were believed, closely followed, and loved because they bothered to look beneath the surface and tell the truth. Their modern day successors usually cannot do that, whether from laziness, ignorance, or from being strangled by management.

In a world in which the news media will report that X says it is raining and Y says it is sunny without bothering to look outside and report what the weather really is like there is really no reason why people would prefer to pay for the major media rather than read free articles about how to pick blueberries.

I didn't really mean to come down on you, John, it's just that there are so many misconceptions out there right now.

I'm just a writer. I used to work for print publications and as a local reporter, before I started with Demand in 2007.

I'm not a part of any 'response team,' and, as far as I know, the Demand team is still under the "quiet" rule, so they're pretty tight-lipped right now.

My work appears on USAToday, the Houston Chronicle, SFGate and many other places.

We don't keyword stuff and folks are actually using the word "eHow" in their Google searches for 'how to' articles.

We have legal and medical writers with advanced degrees, and we have more than a few PhDs on board. We have experts in many fields. And we're far from the Associated Content-type articles.

I know it's popular to bash Demand right now, in hopes of garnering some of the net traffic, but while some are griping, their associates are joining our ranks.

Patrick -- unfortunately, there is much truth in what you say. The failure of the traditional media, including the Times, in the runup to the Iraq War has been well documented. The traditional media let themselves be stampeded by loud voices whipping the public into a frenzy.

I would argue that the teaditional media have also failed to make the root causes of the financial meltdown understandable, and have not reported on how the perpetrators have not only escaped punishment -- they continue to run the system and get rich.

And it's also true that the he said/she said model of journalism is a failure. Traditional media do not allow themselves to draw logical conclusions from their own reporting, for fear of appearing biased. This lessens their authority.

But the main problem faced by the traditional media is the loss of revenue from Web-based alternatives. And the problem with the Web-based alternatives is that nobody makes any money from them, except a handful of their owners.

Arianna Huffington is no doubt making money off the Huffington Post, but few of the people who provide content for the site do.

The failure of traditional media was that it's bias was finally revealed, at about the same time that the failures of the social policies it espoused became too large to ignore.

Thanks for the excellent piece John. I find the comments rallying to Demand's defense to look kind of fishy. As a freelancer myself, I would say the first rule of freelancing is don't defend the bosses, much less the stock price, and I can't imagine defending bosses who are anonymous and cheap. Here is another take on Demand, offered up by a guy who worked for them and then wrote about it in CJR. http://www.cjr.org/feature/in_demand.php?page=all.

Plus who has the time you have to work pretty fast to make $30 an hour out of an operation that pays $15 an article.

Patrick, you said it all.

Patrick "said it all" for those who want to believe that there's some vast, dark "truth" out there that news people and those for whom they work are concealing it or are too lazy or stupid to go after it. (Or that if almost everything said by a government must be a lie.)

As John says, a more-realistic explanation lies in the attraction of readers to other forms of news, and to entertainment (and often a combination of those masquerading as news), which has had three big effects:

1. Some newspaper owners have struggled to retain readers by trying to compete with television and the Web, making themselves look more like those media (big pictures, busy layouts with lots of "entry points") and by changing the ratio of so-called hard news to features and entertainment. Maybe this works and has slowed the decrease in subscriptions -- who knows? -- but it also means proportionately less space for news -- that is, the 10-point type that carries the news content.

2. Readers have, or are believed to have, shorter attention spans than those of two or three generations ago. So many newspapers try to keep most of their news reports short. Less space means less information. Coupled with an attention-span reduction is a smaller subscriber base, as more people are content to get their news -- what there is of it -- from TV (which is very good at some sorts of news and bad -- or ignores -- others) or from the Web. I particularly cringe when I hear (usually younger) people say, "I don't read the paper; I get all my news from the Internet." I just stare at them and gently ask: "And where do you think that comes from?"

3. Television has been drawing revenue away from print for decades, and now the Web is, also. (The collapse of want ads has been a disaster.) Less revenue means fewer pages for news, smaller staffs to gather and process it, and less time for reporters to try to verify the accuracy of what is being said (and good reporters *do* try). Putting stories on a newspaper's Web site helps a little, but yet a lot. Only large, successful papers -- of which there are fewer and fewer -- can afford to detach people for months to see if there's some hidden "truth" to be uncovered. (Often, there is, but finding it and being able to prove it is simply beyond many news outlets' means.)

So who's to blame? Just ourselves, the public that is content to know less than it really needs.

Neal --

No, I am not suggesting "that there's some vast, dark 'truth' out there" or that the news media are not suffering from loss of revenue hurting their ability to function. However, the media have done a terrible job with many very important issues, ranging from the Iraq war to the economic collapse to health care issues to current management of the economy. Sometimes that appears to be because they have new ownership that has changed policy due to special interests, sometimes because they believe the issues are too complex and boring to be interesting and saleable, sometimes because they believe the public is tired of some issues, sometimes because they do not want to risk alienating important sources, sometimes because they have a mistaken idea that objectivity requires parking their intelligence at the door, or -- as was the case for the New York Times' top reporter on the Iraq issue -- sometimes because they are literally in bed with important stakeholders.

The media are in financial distress, and have become very insistent that they deserve a special consideration to protect their position in the world of competition and commerce. To raise our concern about that, they must be sure they actually are special enough to merit that consideration. There was a relatively brief time -- in the 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's -- in our history when important American media outlets had matured into a role that deserved that special position. Unfortunately even some of the most prestigious news outlets have allowed themselves to be seduced away from that role with disturbing frequency. That makes their pleas of abuse by "lesser" media much less convincing. Too often they appear, in the words of Paul Simon, to be "just out to capture my dime."