Or not. Doctor envisions not so much a race to the bottom as a race to mediocrity, the “good-enough” that is all consumers may really want, which would mean the end of most quality journalism and the end of journalism as a middle-class profession.
In August, Demand filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public stock offering that could value the company at $1.5 billion. Forty-five percent of the company’s $198.5 million in revenue in 2009 came from a domain-registry service that is the world’s second-largest, with more than 10 million names. Besides the cash it throws off, the registry is a valuable source of information on people’s search habits, and a list of potential outlets for Demand content. The other part of that $198.5 million, the part everyone talks about, came mostly in pennies and fractions of pennies earned on video and search advertising.
For most of its brief existence, Demand has been a money-loser, and it finished 2009 with a $22 million loss. But its sec filing contains numbers that would make newspaper executives salivate: every dollar spent on written content in 2008’s third quarter, for instance, is projected to return $1.58.
Demand views its contributor-vetting process as a competitive advantage that separates it from less-discriminating web publishers, and before I could work there I had to submit a writing sample. I chose a story I’d written for the Herald about a young Iraq war veteran who came home burned almost beyond recognition only to have his fiancé dump him. A day later I was hired, joining a freelance workforce of 10,000 writers, videographers, and copy editors. My colleagues included Emmy- and Society of Professional Journalism-award winners, according to Demand. They also included, according to a blog Demand set up so its freelancers can tell others about why they loved working there, mechanics who’d always wanted to do creative writing, laid-off sports editors, and one ex-Special Forces soldier/ex-cowboy who likes his new job because he doesn’t have to get up “before daylight to go out in sub-zero weather to break ice to water cows that want to kick my head off. Best of all, I don’t have to see people.” For reasons he didn’t go into, this guy was writing under a Scandinavian-sounding alias, but he did say that before finding a home at Demand, he’d written for Tactical Knives magazine and various Army field manuals.
Most days there were around 270,000 story topics to choose from, typically paying between $3 and $15. In their span and dullness and fascinating particulars, they reflected a more granular portrait of twenty-first-century American interests than the trending search topics on Google or Yahoo ever will. We are not deep in wonder. We are bankrupt and considering divorce in Oklahoma. We want to know how to make money with candy stands at miniature-golf courses. We want do-it-yourself plans for an electric unicycle and for dog wheelchairs. We are curious about Hungarian customs regulations and how to use a spinal-cord monitor during scoliosis surgery. Also, please, we would like instructions on How to Set Up a Pony Ride with No Ponies.
This last one fascinated me. I wondered if many people had run into this problem, or if it were just one person somewhere, some not-very-good dad trying to make it all up to the kids with one great party, already cutting corners.
The pony story, in its weirdness, suggests that there is a point where traditional news organizations, which target to a greater or lesser extent a mass audience with advertising to match, will always fail: that failure to meet the needs of someone, somewhere, is built into their business model. Consider: The Miami Herald usually runs a story about the Kentucky Derby. It might also run one about pony-rental businesses in South Florida, and if magazines like Ponies Illustrated and Children’s Parties Monthly existed, they might do something similar. But no publication could afford to devote regular space to topics such as pony rides without ponies. Besides, no writer could conceive of such a story and no editor would assign it, because nobody could anticipate the need.
This is the famous “long tail,” an example of what Shirky calls the “nichification” of the media landscape, unfeasible under the conditions of twentieth-century oligopoly but happening now before our eyes. I am pleased that people’s information needs are being met, but I hope they get met by someone else. The pony koan, along with some stories on strength training for sports, were among the few stories that truly engaged me during my forty hours working for Demand last July.