News Ex Machina

Friday, October 30, 2009


Online content provider Demand Media has found a formula, literally, for generating its many, often instructional, articles and videos. Think of it as a cut-rate Associated Press, except instead of human beings thinking up story ideas an algorithm does. Wired magazine’s Daniel Roth explains.

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Comments [15]

Kyle McClaggan

"Framing a charge like that without waiting for the evidence is the sign of a rank amateur journalist, or someone with an agenda.

Or both. "

Ding.Ding.Ding. We have a winner.

Nov. 20 2009 09:03 PM
Liz Barrett from Alameda, California

Forgive me, it's a foggy morning. What I meant to say is that the pay rates are HIGHER than Daniel Roth suggests. Mea culpa.

Nov. 16 2009 12:21 PM
Liz Barrett from Alameda, California

P.S. The pay rates quoted by Daniel Roth are not correct. They are slightly lower than he suggests.

Nov. 16 2009 12:18 PM
Liz Barrett from Alameda, California

I am a freelance copy editor for Demand Studios. What looked like a ridiculously low piece rate turned out to average $30-plus per hour for me, significantly higher than the $20-$25 per hour the company suggested it would amount to. Their topics are based on what people are searching for on the Internet, which is exactly what editors are scrambling to interpret in so-called legitimate news media. I am an experienced journalist who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. My job was one of many that were eliminated more than a year ago in a mass restructure of the newspaper company I worked for -- and I took the job at Demand Studios out of desperation. I find that this company is trying diligently to upgrade the quality of its articles and to treat its freelance contractors with respect. I also write freelance for a "respected" news site and can assure you they offer no benefits whatsoever to their freelance contractors. And like most such sites, they do not employ a single copy editor to monitor quality.

Nov. 16 2009 12:13 PM
Rob Jackson

As a daily surfer of the web and apparently Demand's target market, I do not appreciate reading something that you know was made strictly to fill space and to catch my attention.

As someone said about Demand -
"spam the Web with search engine optimized content to turn a quick advertising buck."

I have heard that Google does not like "mini" websites,
where the owner only wrote something to catch Google's viewers. How is this different?

I just stumbled onto this article from a search engine.
I am not a journalist and don't have a dog in this fight.

Nov. 06 2009 05:24 PM
Martha H.

I do write for Demand, not often, and my experience has been completely positive. I also earn around $30 an hour because I stick to writing about what I know. The guidelines the company provides makes it easy to fulfill the format, and the editors I've dealt with treat me with respect. From what we've heard so far, the insurance plan will be announced in detail shortly, and it sounds like an enormous benefit for someone like me. I noticed that the woman who criticized Demand offered freelancers unions and a guild as organizations who provide insurance at group rates, but that's comparing apples with airplanes. How many contect providers, on or off the net, provide group medical insurance to freelancers? I don't know of any, although I imagine some will start doing it soon just to keep up with Demand.

Nov. 05 2009 05:35 PM
Michael Kunner from Atlanta

I have two students who write for Demand. They don't feel the company is using the insurance announcement to compel anyone to join the organization. They each spend 10 hours or so a week writing articles for various Demand sites, and they tell me they average around $350 a week. Not a fortune, but excellent "walking around" money for two college students on partial scholarships. They each save their parents around $15,000 a year, money those families badly need. My students often mention the company's head of editorial, an accomplished writer with 19 or 20 published books on his resume, and someone who as enhanced their prose and work habits with his patient mentoring. They tell me many of their fellow writers are single moms and retirees, people who have no aspirations to be professional writers, but who write decently and have knowledge to share in exchange for money they use to enhance their lives. I don't think Ms. Mattern realizes that many of these people have no intention of entering the "higher-paying client pool." They apparently find great benefit in working for this company. Writers are getting their work published under their bylines, they are honing their craft and when they are in a position to earn more, they simply can move on. Those sound like plusses.

Nov. 05 2009 10:44 AM
Helen Innes from Newark, New Jersey

I don't know if Ms. Mattern has an agenda and I don't work for or with Demand, but I agree this certainly represents shoddy behavior. Cry foul when you have some evidence. In essence, she's writing, "I think this will happen, therefore it will and so I condemn it." I just visited her blog. I won't comment on quality--that opinion is subjective--but it's one long rant after another; the continual anger is palpable, and it carries over to this posting. This "push-back" is so strong, considering the paucity of facts, it does make you wonder what's behind it. It should be noted that Dan Roth wrote a piece about Demand in "Wired" that took pains to emphasize the cons as well as the pros about the company. Unlike Ms. Mattern, he seems to be even-handed. I don't understand her argument that "writers don't have to accept low pay." No one is forcing them to accept anything. They don't have to write for Demand. I haven't read about Demand abducting writers from the streets and forcing them to work in sweat shops. People choose to write for the company.

Nov. 05 2009 10:24 AM
Jennifer Mattern from Pottstown, PA

To address your points Harold:

1. From the example rates posted by a spokesperson for the company, and the fact that NOTHING official has yet referred to this as actual insurance, both the freelancer's union and Media Bistro's avant guild offer similarly-priced offers for "health plans." Neither requires writers to accept low pay just for the privilege, and even the yearly price of avant guild membership "costs" less than what you potentially lose by opting for DS gigs instead of securing independent clients.

2. Actually, the phrase I used was "marketing ploy," which was accurate the moment any spokesperson from the company provided incomplete information while in the same breath using the promise of health plans as an incentive to get people to sign up to write for DS before that information was released in full.

3. Hmmm. Funny thing is nowhere do I claim to be a "journalist." And there's no agenda. I've never worked for Demand. If anything they keep writers out of the higher paying client pool. It's in my interest to encourage as many writers as possible to accept those low-paying projects -- more of the better gigs for the rest of us. But my mission is and always has been making sure writers who want to do better for themselves can, and to help them learn how. Watching people make a half-assed case for working for low pay with no real evidence of the benefits they're talking about is precisely the problem. Lack of evidence is something we clearly agree on.

Nowhere did I say this isn't insurance. Nowhere did I say it couldn't be a good deal for some writers. What I've said is that it's beyond irresponsible for anyone to try to get writers to sign up under this deal until ALL details have been released publicly BEFORE getting them to start writing for these low rates. And it's equally irresponsible for any "journalist" involved in this story to discuss it WITHOUT mentioning the exact commitment of writers required in order to meet eligibility.

Nov. 03 2009 10:34 AM
Harold Roman from Oklahoma City

Demand Media is offering health insurance at discounted group rates that will, from what we hear, represent significant savings for its writers and editors. Can Ms. Mattern name many organizations that bother to secure group rates for freelancers? Provide a list with your reply.

She also claims Demand is using the promise of health care for a nefarious end. Does she have any evidence of that? I doubt it, since the announcement was made only two weeks ago, and the roll-out with details won't occur for another month or so.

Framing a charge like that without waiting for the evidence is the sign of a rank amateur journalist, or someone with an agenda.

Or both.

Nov. 02 2009 03:38 PM
Erin C

I've been working for Demand as a (very) part-time copy editor since its inception. And the reason I've stayed is that they pay quickly and the pay has gone up. Dan Roth was incorrect saying that each edited article pays $2.50--they now pay $3.50 each. So if you can do 10 in an hour, you're making $35 an hour, which is above market rate, that is, mainstream trade publishing. Demand treats its people well, as far as I'm concerned.

Nov. 02 2009 02:24 PM

1. isn't that algorithm called google news?
2. i already get my how tos off youtube and others: this wknd it was "how to reformat an external hard drive for mac"; "how to synch an ipod" and "how to make chicken sausage."


Nov. 01 2009 11:01 PM
Jennifer Mattern from Pottstown, PA

As a freelance writer I found this segment rather ill-informed.

1. Services like Demand Studios spam the Web with search engine optimized content to turn a quick advertising buck. The fact that NPR would even give exposure to these kinds of companies (which pay absurdly low rates to their contractors) is absolutely below you.

2. Your guest mentioned that Demand Media will be offering health insurance to writers. Unless they were privy to something the public (and writers with the company) were NOT, that's not necessarily accurate. If you actually read the press release issued by the company, NOWHERE is the term "insurance" used ( For all anyone knows, it could be just another discount plan. Therefore making such claims and even hinting that it's a worthwhile option for professional journalists who are out of work is ridiculous unless you can provide verification that it's actually "insurance."

3. Even IF these are real insurance plans, your guest also neglected to mention that writers have to meet quotas to be eligible for it. The last I heard, that was 30 articles on avg per month (3 months tenure). In other words, 90 articles at obscenely low wages just to be eligible. So basically here's how it works: let yourself be taken advantage of and accept crap pay for a lot of work and then you can spend a good portion of your pay each month on "insurance" through them. Writers can certainly earn more elsewhere by pursuing independent clients, and STILL get similar insurance or discount health plan rates through other organizations (based on example rates published by someone acting as a spokesperson for Demand Studios).

The worst part of this is that Demand has been using the promise of health coverage (WITHOUT releasing full details!) as a marketing ploy to suck in new writers to write at dirt cheap rates in the meantime, basically telling them to get a jump start on their 3-month requirement for eligibility.

Shame on you.

Nov. 01 2009 12:52 PM
Doug Fisher from Columbia, SC

Of course, there is always the argument that journalism's job is to uncover things that people don't know they want.

The truth is somewhere in the middle - people do know what they want at that moment. They are pretty bad at predicting what they will want in the future.

Despite all the hand wringing over "infotainment," the reality is that too much of journalism actually had become elitist - see for example John Temple's recounting on his blog of the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and the comment from the Scripps exec about how the fatal flaw was for too long the news org's feeling that it could tell people what was important without listing to the people as well.

The challenge for journalism and society is to learn how to satisfy - and be sensitive to - people's information desires while finding a way to support the discovery of things people don't yet know they will be interested in. It's really a problem as old as the age when patrons, not governments and corporations, were the primary supporters of scientific discovery.

Oct. 31 2009 08:26 PM
Judy H. from NJ

This story does not play - what's the problem?

Oct. 31 2009 01:30 PM

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