We've seen the future of journalism, and it's a little scary. The old way has organizations employing reporters and editors who, according to their training and experience, decide what's worth covering — stories that hold politicians accountable, uphold shining examples of leadership, unearth wrongdoing, highlight the odd, entertain, and warn of problems to come. Even in the info-stream paradigm of today's online outlets, this one included, human, journalistic judgment goes into every post.
There is, however, an increasing tendency to focus on “hits,” or page views, and what gets read isn't often at the top of the must-cover list of most journalists. It's the fantastic, the odd, the sensational. It's not what's happening at city hall. It's what's happening on TMZ. But even TMZ has humans making creative, editorial decisions. A Santa Monica company, Demand Media, is taking the audience-driven, computer-created approach to a whole 'notha level.
Demand has created an algorithm that scours Google search terms, looks at what online key words advertisers want to target and takes stock of high-ranking content from competitors and spits out thousands of topics for articles and how-to videos each day. The resulting content, put together by freelancers across the country, is virtually guaranteed to draw eyeballs and advertisers. It's scientific.
The upstart is that its “articles” are fairly basic how-tos on sometimes-odd topics (growing avocado trees from pits; pole dancing; fly-fishing). Demand doesn't have seasoned journalists pitching it stories. It posts a list of algorithm-generated topics each day and assigns them to its roster of freelancers (Demand maintains they are screened, qualified writers). A fascinating feature in the latest Wired magazine on Demand describes its freelancers as “the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot.” They get $15 per few-hundred-word piece, and they don't necessarily have to be experts in the field. That would be impossible anyway. It churns out 4,000 articles and videos a day.
The model works, at least for business: Demand is valued at $1 billion, has partnered up with Google, and churns out $200 million in annual revenue. USA Today and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have contracted with the company to teach the dead-tree institutions how to focus their content on the future.
Steven Kydd, executive vice president of Demand, blogged recently that the company is a godsend for journalism. He noted that each article that Demand pumps out (the pieces end up at affiliated sites such as eHow) goes through a process of copy editing, fact-checking and anti-plagiarism research. He writes, “Media isn't dying, its story is just being rewritten. And, we're working to adapt the talents of traditional publishing to the opportunities today's technology brings – albeit with a sustainable business model the industry needs.”