“Real” Writers Hate Demand Media, Suite101, etc. – But Should They?

There is a common enemy in the world of freelance writers and it is Demand Media (and Suite101, and About.com, and Examiner and…) – the “content farms” that pay writers literally pennies (sometimes less), per word, and distrbute their content to the growing masses of online sites hungry for new content to fuel their SEO efforts, build traffic and-ultimately-general ad revenue.

Writers are *really* angry about these sites as evidenced by the long threads generated in online forums whenever the topic is raised. Recently, for instance, in a journalism organization’s LinkedIn group, the following comment was posted:

“There are so many sites out there that allow freelancers to compensate their living by writing short, research-driven articles for content sites that turn around and deliver the copy to other Web sites. These sites are providing a lifeline to many struggling journalists between jobs, but what do they mean for the future of real journalism and the dissemination of misinformation?”

It has so far generated 56 responses, most blasting sites like Demand Media. Those of you who frequent online forums know that 56 responses is a *lot* of responses, so clearly it’s a topic that resonates.

I’ve researched and written about these “content farms” for a few publications including Information Today and MediaBistro, and have also written some pieces on the changing trends in the media industry. While I have to admit that my bias when beginning this research was also very negative, I’ve developed a more balanced perspective.

From what I can tell I don’t believe that these sites, regardless of how much content they generate, really represent a threat to traditional journalism, journalists or freelance writers. They simply serve a growing–and massive–demand for content that is not otherwise being met. This generic content meets the needs of certain clients (those looking primarily for web traffic), but not for many, many other clients who are willing to pay for more specific content, based on more detailed research to meet their and their readers’ needs.

There have always been debates about freelancers willing to write “for free” and these “content farm” debates are very similar (although the scale has certainly grown). The fact of the matter is that this is just the way our economy as a whole works. The demand/supply curve will establish a price for services. Freelancers will each need to make decisions about what makes sense for them in terms of who they want to write for and what they want to write about.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, I think, and I’ve been trying to come up with examples from other industries/settings that would be similar. I haven’t been able to. Generally, when a new need emerges or demand shifts new options are provided by existing or new (entrepreneurial) businesses to meet that need or demand. But we don’t demonize the provider of the new product or service-do we? Although, I suppose, maybe those *working* in the industry might.

  • Did those who made their livelihood in the horse and buggy days decry Henry Ford’s attempts to develop a motorized vehicle?
  • Did candlemakers feel threatened by the advent of the lightbulb?
  • Did workers at AT&T attempt to diminish the value and impact of mobile phone companies?

Maybe. But seems like folly to me. I think that old adage is pertinent here: “Adapt. Migrate. Mutate. Or die.”

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