|With so much space to fill on the Internet and the cable dial, not to mention satisfying the seemingly endless needs of iThis and iThat, it’s all about content. I’ve sat through lengthy industry dissertations about how media can’t get enough video content, audio content and, of course, written content, but I don’t ever recall anyone mentioning “good” content.
Imagine going to a restaurant hoping to get a culinary treat and instead learning you’ll be served a plate of “kitchen content.” How about if you went to pick up your suit at the cleaners and were handed a bag of “laundry content.”
If this were only a semantic shortcut it would be no big deal. But lumping together the efforts of writers, musicians, videographers and so many other hard working creative folks and calling it content is not only demeaning, it’s also part of the mindset that devalues creativity - by under paying, plagiarizing and repackaging it to the disadvantage of reputable creators.
Much of what’s published on the Internet these days comes from companies known as “content farms.” It’s difficult to imagine a more abhorrent term for what passes as journalism, but it’s a billion-dollar business at places like Demand Media, a leading farm that harvests roughly 4,000 “pieces of content” each day.
On its own sites, such as eHow.com and Golflink.com, as well as for outside clients ranging from the newspaper USA Today to the fashion guru Tyra Banks, Demand develops its content by monitoring words and topics sought in Internet searches, then paying freelancers to write short articles and videos to address the supposed need.
One eHow contributor named “Jenajera” describes herself as a mother of four living in the Pacific Northwest and a “paralegal-turned-SEO-writer.” (SEO is a slick term meaning “search engine optimization.”) She has written such reports as “How to Determine the Value of Scrap Gold” and “How to Choose a Site for a Backyard Chicken Coop.” But perhaps her most enlightening piece is “How to Make Money Writing eHow Articles,” in which she notes that her most recent story “has earned me nearly $1 in less than a week” - from ad revenue that Demand Media shares with some writers on top of a fee of about $15.
Her advice: “The key to optimizing your earnings is to create a large cache of targeted, keyword heavy articles quickly.” Also: “You will make more money from your eHow articles if you choose topics that are well supported by advertisers.”
I have no beef with Jenajera or thousands of others like her, who undoubtedly work hard for each dollar Demand Media pays them. But, as the axiom has it, you get what you pay for, and it’s fair to say readers of Demand’s content aren’t getting much.
Still, low-cost, low-quality content has certain appeal. Media analyst Tish Grier, writing for the respected Poynter journalism site, goes so far as to suggest that companies like Demand Media could help struggling newspapers stay afloat by providing “edited, optimized evergreen content at reasonable cost.”
That’s true, I suppose, just as optimized toys can be purchased at reasonable cost from China.
It remains a possibility that as new media become more established, and the fascination wears off, things will change for the better. After all, the earliest material for television involved harvesting content from radio, until viewers demanded more. And when cable emerged as a programming force, ESPN, for example, cared so little about the quality of its fare that it devoted hours to rugby and Australian Rules Football, until fans grew tired of cheap sports content.
In the end, it’s not all just “content,” anymore than it’s all just laundry, which is why the public must continue to demand the most from its media.
© Peter Funt. This column was distributed by Cagle Cartoon Syndicate.