Monday, December 14, 2009

'Fast-Food Journalism' 2nd update

It takes a couple of paragraphs for Michael Arrington to get to the key point, or at least, the point of most interest to mainstream/traditional journalists.

But he lays it out from a new-media perspective and he knows what he's talking about. He's an important player on the Web; as he says, the disrupters are now being disrupted.
The rise of fast food content is upon us, and it’s going to get ugly.

Yes, precisely. And for just one moment, let me say that traditionalists have been warning about this for a little while.

Unfortunately, our leaders failed to act in any sensible way, to adapt our newspapers for the new marketplace. Instead, many just took their money and fled, leaving their staffs to the tender mercies of bottom-line publishers and left journalism in a state of chaos.  Back in 1996, I had a friendly debate with a top-level editor at what was then a major newspaper, where we were debating the effects of the Internet. He was worried, said it was going to kill journalism, especially long-form stories. I said no, not if we seize control, respond and adapt. Well. We were both right.

But it's time to move on and to figure out what to do in the new marketplace and even to decide whether that's a marketplace worth joining.

You can feed the junk-food production machine if you want, in hopes of generating a few dollars. And you might. Here's what happens there:

 Story farms, as they are known, pay for stories based entirely on SEO results. Tom Cruise is a hot topic on search engines? Great, write something about him. Doesn't matter what.  And of course, you can't, of course, go wrong with anything related to Tiger Woods for now or the foreseeable future. Or Lady Gaga. or Adam Lambert.
Update: Whenever someone writes about some of these story factories, some of its writers turn up and bash the author. That's fine though I don't know why people think that insulting another person's intelligence advances the discussion in anyway. But, to keep the peace and the focus on the real issue of story farms, and not any one site in particular, I've removed specific topic references to emphasize the SEO drive behind those stories. And added this link:
It works like this: Demand uses an algorithm to scour the Internet, focusing on ads, keyword searches, and other publishing platforms, in order to determine the topics that people want to read about. A second algorithm then generates story ideas, predicts how much ad revenue they will generate, and determines how much they are worth. Freelance writers and videographers write or film the pieces for either a one-time payment, generally in the $10 to $15 range, or a cut of the ad revenue.
And here's a Jay Rosen interview with Demand Media. and other sites pay you per hit and you have to collect quite a few before you see any money., for example, pays you once you have earned $25. That's a hell of a lot of hits before you see any return. I suspect they have a lot of people who come to the site, write 100 or stories but not enough to earn any money, and then give up. But if you write there, your work will share space with that of the Gun Rights Examiner, or the Atheism Examiner or the Jennifer Aniston Examiner, and with people who are simply rewriting their local newspaper's stories. That's not to say it's all nonsense; it's not. It's just that there is a lot of stuff being generated of no known value.

Many these story-generating sites are the same, with crap stories clogging the--how quaint--information superhighway.

You can sign up for work at any number of freelancer sites, where pay is plunging. Why? Because you are competing with people from India and the Philippines who will work for far less. You can argue that the quality isn't as good, especially for those sites demanding American English skills, for example. In the end, that doesn't matter because the price governs everything. Or you can, say, bid on a job but be prepared to do endless amounts of "samples" or "outlines" of how the job could be done and then possibly see the offer vanish, with the buyer absconding with all your ideas or coming back, asking you to lower your bid. Some  of these sites offer real assignments that don't simpy add to the volume but too many are.

But suppose you find a reliable content buyer and you're willing to work dirt cheap. You'll accept writing, say, five 250-word stories for $50 because there's little challenge--they want a list of Top Ten Ways to Wax Your Car or Five Things You Wished You'd Known Before Going to Grad School.

 Be prepared to write those stories and then rewrite them just enough to pass a Copyscape (plagiarism) test and then watch for your stuff to show up on numerous web sites, all using the same basic story. That's junk-food journalism. That's noise and volume passing for reporting and innovation.

I say this  as a warning to both those who think they can survive a buyout from mainstream media and to those worrying about the future of journalism. You may well be able to if you're positioned correctly but the market has changed so much in the last year, favoring quantity over quality, that I don't know what it will be like in five years. Or even next year. Reporters will probably do better than editors because they are established. And editors can and will find some jobs working as freelance or online production editors, no doubt about it.

And, on a tangential note, here's a little plea to our big-name high-paid colleagues still doing just fine. If you're holding down more than one job, doing TV guest appearances, writing books, columns, hosting cable TV shows, how about if you give up just one of them and let someone else have a shot? You know, share the wealth from the diminishing pool of wealth? This has no effect on me but there are a lot of people out there desperate for a livable wage. Do you all really need to be on the air six days a week?

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