I missed the middle-aged guys I used to sit next to, who took me fishing. I missed seeing my stories in print. I even missed my desk. My new one, since a string of heat waves rendered my apartment uninhabitable, was in the worst reading room of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. When I looked up from my laptop to the shelves around me, which was often, I saw titles like Best Résumés and Letters for Ex-Offenders and Thriving After Divorce.
I asked Demand to put me in touch with one of its best writers. The company put me in touch with Hayley Harrison, a thirty-year-old woman from Pittsburgh. She’d quit her job at a bank last year to stay home with her son, who is six and has autism, and writing freelance for Demand let her work around his therapy appointments. She was making $60 an hour when she pushed herself, writing mainly about finance and travel, and had published around 7,000 pieces. I asked her what her secret was. For one thing, she said, don’t ignore the $3 articles; you can get into a good rhythm with them. But how can you do something so thankless? I wanted to ask. I said something less rude than that, but she got the point. “I will do my best on every single article, even if I realize it will take me longer,” she said. “I’ll even call on the phone.”
I read some of Harrison’s stories. They were not to my taste but they were clearly better than mine: concise, easy to understand, full of what one nameless Demand editor called “actionable verbs.” An army of Harrisons would make Demand—or any media company whose business model depends on producing an ever-increasing amount of serviceable if not sparkling content—a success.
Clay Shirky doesn’t take issue with that. But he suggests that Demand could get into trouble if faced with a competitor that produced slightly better content at the same price. And Demand’s business model has an endemic problem. As long as people can type inquiries into search engines that go unmet, Demand has room to grow. But what happens when we get to the end of the tail? Not every question can be profitably answered. “At a certain point,” Shirky says, “the time-value of money suggests a limit. What I don’t know is, is that limit reached in two years, twenty years, or fifty years?”
He has a few ideas about the vitriol accompanying much news coverage of Demand. It’s hard for journalists to watch outsiders doing what they alone used to do. It’s worrisome to see important news go unreported. Most of all, though, Demand’s very existence is incontrovertible evidence that someone has found a way to take advantage of the way the web works, and it is not journalists or the people they work for. The companies that come after Demand, with refined algorithms and better search data and content, will suck advertising from news outlets. Market forces will sever the link between advertising and news that, for more than a century, gave us jobs and the resources to do them well. “If commoditization can do well,” Shirky says, “it really is a revolution, not just an adjustment.”
I didn’t need him to tell me that—my own proof came with unemployment benefits, more than a year ago.
One night not long ago, I e-mailed some of my recent stories to Heidi Carr, my boss for most of my eight Herald years. I waited twenty minutes and called her. Would these stories get me a newspaper job? Based on them, would she hire me back, if it were in her power?
Heidi always had trouble saying hard things, and she paused now. “No,” she said, after a while. “I don’t see any real reporting here. I don’t see anything.”