In Demand

A week inside the future of journalism
November 4, 2010

I spent eight years at The Miami Herald, mainly writing features, and when the paper laid me off in 2009, I was humiliated and sad. But people told me getting laid off could be a good thing and I listened to them. “Invent” and “take charge” and “define” are some of the words I remember from those conversations, which left me, in hindsight, manically deluded about my prospects.

I moved to New York, where I’d always wanted to live. I thought I would polish off a few story ideas and a friend’s idea for a screenplay I’d been toying with (it featured, unwisely, a terminally blocked romance novelist); then, after a suitable period, reinvented and redefined and fully in charge, I would find another job as a reporter.

But the screenplay foundered. The story ideas turned out to be not very good and I could not think of new ones. The well was dry. So I started looking for a job, at first confining my search to New York and Washington. There were reporting jobs of a peculiar sort in these cities, and my cover letters included lines like, “My knowledge of the nuclear power industry is admittedly scant” and “Although I speak no Japanese, I know New York City intimately.”

For a long time I did not come close to any job, and then I found Demand Media, which ran help-wanted ads on JournalismJobs.com and Mediabistro.com. Demand’s own site featured a picture of a laptop on a table in front of a beachfront tiki bar. Sometimes instead there was a picture of a good-looking woman sitting with her laptop in a comfortable chair. She looked happy. She was beaming. I wanted to look like that.

Demand, which launched in 2006, doesn’t do news, which is expensive to produce and perishable. It does “commercial content.” If you’ve watched a how-to video on YouTube or read an instructional article on the web, you’ve probably consumed Demand content. More than 2 million pieces were online by mid-summer, with more than 5,000 new ones appearing every day. In September, Demand attracted nearly 59 million unique visitors, according to comScore, the Internet marketing research firm (Nytimes.com, by comparison, the nation’s top newspaper site, had 33 million), to its company-owned websites like eHow and Livestrong, and more to its 350 client sites, which incorporate some of Demand’s content. Among Demand’s clients are websites operated by USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Houston Chronicle.

Demand and its competitors—there are several, including AOL’s Seed and Yahoo’s Associated Content—rely on algorithms and search data to determine what content consumers are seeking, what content advertisers are willing to pay for, and what content can be profitably produced. There are no news meetings. There are no newsrooms. The editorial workforce is freelance, compensated by the piece, at a rate that varies but is never far from skimpy.

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Demand and the specter it represents—what Clay Shirky calls the radical “commodification” of content, without regard to civic value or subjective judgments about quality or any of the other sentimental trappings of the Murrow century—have inspired loathing and awe, but mostly loathing, in the class of people that pays attention to such things. Which is to say, mainly journalists and those who love them. “We’ve got former members writing this stuff,” says Bernie Lunzer, of The Newspaper Guild. “Some are just glad to have work. They’re becoming just a raw commodity bought at the cheapest price and that, essentially, is what Demand stands for. It spells the end of what we consider journalism.”

Or take Ken Doctor, former newspaperman turned news futurist and author of the book Newsonomics: “This is the logical extension of a long-time strategy to eke out profits by squeezing labor and overhead costs.”

Most news organizations already use search-engine-optimization strategies to push their content on the web. Within five years, says Doctor, SEO and advanced metrics will play a prominent role in decisions about what to cover and how heavily to cover it, with reporters and stories graded by the number and value of the consumers they attract. “It’s a box that, once you look inside, you can’t not look,” Doctor says.

One possible consequence of looking in the box is that news organizations will increasingly turn to companies like Demand for their evergreen content. Quality may suffer, at least initially, but the money news organizations save could be redirected to actual newsgathering, benefiting not just readers but the commonweal. If, in the future, consumers demand higher-quality content from the evergreen material, wages may stabilize for the para-professional workforce producing it, as Demand and others compete for a limited number of skilled content producers.

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.

I was an unhappy camper from the start, when I realized my debut story, about the medicinal uses of the Thuja occidentalis plant, took three hours to research and write but earned me just $15. It was possibly wrong, since I spoke to no doctors, and my research consisted largely of sifting through a study sponsored by a German drug company that seemed to have cornered the world market in Thuja homeopathic remedies. It was also stunningly boring, the sort of writing that would sit comfortably on the side of a medicine bottle, which was exactly the point.

Soon, I began to search for topics that seemed easy and to stint on research. My triumph was a piece on Troy-Bilt lawnmower recalls, completed in about twenty minutes with probably no risk to the consuming public. That piece, like several others I wrote, was flagged for plagiarism by an automated detector whose workings I never understood. I never plagiarized—deliberately or inadvertently—but each time I got a “Flagged” notice I got heart palpitations.

The unpleasantness would be dispelled by the pony story, I hoped. Can a pony ride without a pony exist? It’s the rare metaphysical problem that can be resolved by just renting a pony, and my first draft relied on that strategy, drawing on material from the websites of several pony-rental firms. Several days passed and my draft was returned, with comments from an editor whose name and location I never learned. “I referred this draft to a DS editorial lead given your advice to rent ponies. The title specifies running a ride without a pony, and the editorial lead confirmed this.”

My next draft explored the possibilities of animatronic ponies, equine alternatives to ponies such as small horses, and yaks and dromedaries. From the editor: “Thank you for your efforts, but this article still lacks the authoritative views that would actually recommend hiring a yak (except in Mongolia), llama or a camel. The International Yak website notes all sorts of activities, and riding isn’t among them.”

At Demand, a story gets only two strikes before it is canned; I’d wasted another three hours. My Demand experience, which I conceived of partly as an experiment and partly as a way to make money, was earning me less than minimum wage (for my forty-plus hours, I earned $360) and revealing little about the particular kind of writing it required, except that I was bad at it. Also, I missed my old job.

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.” 

Nicholas Spangler has been a staff writer at Newsday since 2010. Prior to that, he was a reporter for the Miami Herald. On September 11, 2001, he was a student at the Columbia Journalism School, reporting in Lower Manhattan.