Is content really king?

Yesterday, we told J-Source readers to go check out Ira Basen‘s new article in Maisonneuve about algorithms and content farms. Today, Basen shares his thoughts on the top farm, Demand Media, and a little bit more of his experiences working for them.

Have you heard this one before?

“Content is king on the web!”

On one level, it’s impossible to argue with that statement. What would the web be without content?

There are now more than a trillion pages of content on the web.  Much of it is garbage, but in a virtually infinite universe, how do you determine the value of any one piece of content?

Answering that question will help unlock the secret of making money on the web.  One company that is trying to do that is California-based Demand Media.  But what they’ve discovered is not good news for content providers.  Content may be king, but the people who write for the web are expected to live like serfs.

Demand Media provides enormous amounts of content for the web; over 5000 articles a day scattered over more than sixty websites.  It is also the largest single source of YouTube videos.  All of it is advertiser supported, and all of it is supplied by an army of more than 10,000 freelance writers and videographers.

And how much does a Demand Media freelancer make?   Well, if your mind is still stuck on the familiar dollar a word formula that has been around for decades, you might not want to read any further.  That’s rarely available in print these days, and it’s pretty well unheard of online. 

But who knew things had gotten this bad?  Write for Demand Media and you’re looking at getting three cents a word!  And did I mention that Demand Media recently went public and raised a billion dollars in an initial public offering?  Somebody is living like royalty!

Here’s the sort of good news.  As a Demand Media freelancer, you don’t have to worry about coming up with story ideas.  They have hundreds of thousands of ideas for you to choose from.  All of them were selected by a highly sophisticated algorithm that matches reader demand, as expressed through search queries, with advertiser interest.  No advertisers, no stories.

Algorithms are becoming an increasingly important part of everyday life, and that includes journalism.  What can Demand Media teach us about the future of journalism?  I’ve recently been exploring that idea in print and on radio.

Here’s an article from the current issue of Maisonneuve magazine.

And here’s a radio documentary called “Content on Demand” about my experiences as a Demand Media freelancer.  It was broadcast on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition.