Content farms. Search Engine Optimization. Algorithms. These words have become ubiquitous in the world of online journalism. They’ve also been the focus of many articles about the current quality and quantity of content on the web—from the fears of writers who think such driving forces will be the end of high-quality journalism to supporters who claim that these are the tools to deliver content that readers actually want. Gone are the days, the latter claim, of being told what you should read and when; the internet will be a place fueled by reader demand. On the other hand, the former group sees the bygone good ol’ days of 75 cents a word replaced by the going rate of 3 cents—something apparently more in line with what those words are actually worth in terms of advertising dollars—and stories having to do with topics like, oh, Afghanistan. Until people become interested in how to build an Afghan-style home or the place becomes a vacation hot spot, chances are advertisers aren’t going to be chomping at the bit to get their ads displayed next to the search results for “War in Afghanistan.”
No matter which side of the discussion you land on, Ira Basen has a good overview of the matter in the current issue of Maisonneuve. Basen doesn’t necessarily take a stand himself, though he does try his hand at writing for a content farm—and gets paid a whopping $5 for his first article, which he spent nearly two hours researching and writing. Despite the low pay, Basen writes, “On one level, I appreciated—and was, frankly, surprised by—the editorial rigour that Demand Media displayed. Fact-checking and line-editing are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream journalism.” And in regards to the larger picture, Basen writes,
Not surprisingly, the most vociferous critics of content farms are people currently working in mainstream media. They mock the poor quality of content farm production, and decry their appallingly low pay scale. But big news outlets could learn a lot from Demand Media. For too long, newsrooms have been run as closed shops, with companies relying on polls, surveys and focus groups to find out what audiences want. This disconnect has undoubtedly contributed to mainstream media’s declining fortunes. Search engines are more precise, and likely more reliable, than focus groups, and companies like Demand Media are unapologetic about their focus on what readers ask for.
Still, Basen ultimately questions the quality of the content being produced, even admitting that with one article he wrote—and presumably had accepted—he had “no idea whether [he] got it right.” Basen also points out that the “closed shops” have simply shifted from newsrooms to the algorithms themselves:
One of the defining features of the age of the algorithm is that we are being asked to trust decisions made through uncontrollable processes. The keepers of these secrets can assume enormous power for good or mischief; the inner workings of their creations are legally protected as intellectual property, far from the glare of public scrutiny.
In the end, one of the comments in response to the story online pretty much nails it. “The irony of this article,” writes commenter Guppy Tranta, “is both laugh-inducing and heartbreaking: a beautifully-crafted, well-researched piece of long form journalism is used to decry the advent of algorithmic determination of content.” I have to admit, I felt the same bite of irony as I was filling in the keywords for this blog post.