Damnation and Creation: Is Demand Media Devaluing Content?

Demand Media is evil. Or so Folio: magazine general manager Tony Silber implied yesterday in a blog post entitled “Demand Media Can Go to Hell.”

Silber’s beef with the so-called content farm is like that of many others from traditional publishing:  to pay freelance writers a paltry 3 cents a word, on average, is to  “demean and abuse professional content creators.”

Word that the company is looking to partner with magazine publishers was apparently enough to push Silber over the edge:

Tony Silber

Tony Silber: Damned Media

“I hope no magazine ever partners with Demand Media. In fact, I hope Demand Media and any site like it goes out of business. They demean and abuse professional content creators, leveraging them to generate revenue from Google ads.

They’re sweatshops. No magazine should accept content from a company that treats content with such disrespect. In the end, too, you get what you pay for.”

I sympathize with Silber’s outrage and admire the frank way he expressed it. But is he right to demonize Demand?

I’ve argued previously on this blog that we should not fear content farms.  If they succeed—and so far that seems likely—it will be because they have accurately assessed the value of online content.

In Daniel Roth’s otherwise negative article on Demand Media in Wired last October, he observed that Demand has based its model on a persuasive belief that “online content is not worth very much.”  Rather than fight this cold hard reality, Demand is adapting to it:

“Most media companies are trying hard . . . to boost the value of their online content until it matches the amount of money it costs to produce. But Rosenblatt thinks they have it exactly backward. Instead of trying to raise the market value of online content to match the cost of producing it—perhaps an impossible proposition—the secret is to cut costs until they match the market value.”

Now maybe Demand is wrong, or maybe they are the exploiters Silber takes them for. But as content creators, freelancers would be wise to hedge their bets. Like Demand, they should be prepared to adapt to new-media reality.

What does that mean in practice?

First, think like an entrepreneur, not like a contract employee.  If the rate you’re offered isn’t good enough, start up your own Web site. It might not make you rich, but it could well bring you more than 3 cents a word.

Second, build up the value of your personal brand. If contributing pieces to a popular Web site for little or no pay helps you do that, it may be a worthwhile option.  Perhaps content is not worth much, but your perspective and expertise could be.

Third, look for multiple ways to channel your content, which can offer multiple streams of revenue. People like their content in a variety of formats, and if you’re not looking at podcasting, video, iPhone apps, and other ways of distributing your content, you’re not maximizing your earnings potential.

Finally, look beyond traditional advertising-driven media. Content marketing, as Paul Conley and others have argued for some time, is a compelling alternative for freelancers, even with the uncertain ethical issues involved.

So if Demand Media and their ilk offend you, by all means vent your rage. But don’t count on them, or the trends they represent, going away anytime soon.

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UPDATE 2/5/09–Tony Silber offered the following comments via e-mail:

I . . . understand your point, and Jeff Jarvis’ in his comment on my post, about the economic reality.

I just think the Demand Medias of the world represent one type of content and one type of view of consumers. They’re one step ahead of natural economic forces, which I believe will produce higher value for quality content. As you say, they’re exploiters first, not true community creators and nurturers. They exist because Google has search-oriented ad-revenue programs.

Then there’s the practical question: if that is the true value of content—essentially worthless—what does that say about the future of content? If you can’t make a living creating content, then who’s going to create it?

Hey, people should go right ahead and sell their work for $15 if they want to. Good luck making a living. I’d rather do what you suggest: create your own web site and have a go at it. If you end up making peanuts, at least you know you’re paying yourself and some exploiter isn’t playing you for a sucker.

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