< News Ex Machina


Friday, October 30, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, is co-author of “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”. News may be taking a hit, but there’s no shortage of content on the Internet. One of the largest content providers is a company you've probably never heard of. Based in Santa Monica, California, Demand Media churns out thousands of articles and videos every day for its own network of websites and places like YouTube. Like many Internet successes, Demand Media has a formula, literally a formula, for generating its brief quasi-news items. Here’s how it works: A specialized computer algorithm finds the most popular search terms on the Internet, crosses those with a list of keywords paid for by advertisers for adjacency to those searches and then crosses those with – Well, Daniel Roth is a senior writer for Wired magazine, and he wrote about the company recently. He can explain it better with a real example.

DANIEL ROTH: The algorithm sees that people are searching for these two words: “cake” - “butterfly.” For some reason the keyword rates are pretty high, and there’s not a lot of content out there right now that has “cake” and “butterfly” in it. It then takes those two words, sends it off to another algorithm, which then looks to see what other longer searches have used the words “cake” “butterfly.” They might find something that says “cake decorating, butterfly, free, how to make.” A proofreader, this person who gets eight cents a headline, looks at it and comes up with a headline: “How to Make Cake Decorating Butterflies.” Another proofreader gets another eight cents –


BOB GARFIELD: Cake that, computers!

[LAUGHTER] Take that!

DANIEL ROTH: The humans, the humans come in and save the day.


BOB GARFIELD: Only humans can create poetry, my friend!

DANIEL ROTH: Right. [LAUGHS] And then another proofreader comes in, for another eight cents, and changes it to “How to Make Butterflies for Cake Decorating.” Demand now has its title. It knows that this is something that will make it money. A freelance writer goes to Demand’s website, sees that Demand is asking for someone to make an article about how to make butterflies for cake decorating, they write it up as quickly as possible to get paid 15 dollars. A copy editor gets two dollars and 50 cents to copyedit it, and then it shows up on one of Demand’s websites.

BOB GARFIELD: Demand Media has a channel on YouTube with the how-to stuff, where you interview experts. They've had almost a billion views for their videos.

DANIEL ROTH: Demand is the single largest publisher of content to YouTube. YouTube loves it because they have a lot more advertisers than they have space to put the advertising. Demand gives them a place to put their advertising. And what this company is talking about doing, what the CEO thinks he can do by next year is produce one million pieces of content a month. Right now they're doing about four thousand pieces a day.

BOB GARFIELD: But the content is produced in such a quick and dirty way. And are people satisfied, viewers, with the content that they have clicked on?

DANIEL ROTH: Well, some of these videos and some of the articles are horrible; they're worthless. Some are pretty good. None of them are great. None are rules to live by. But if you want to know how to get rid of wasps in your pool, this is a pretty good seven-step program to figure out how to do that. Demand just announced that they're going to start offering health insurance to their freelancers. There’s a lot of laid-off journalists out there looking for work. You can imagine many of them migrating to Demand, as they try to figure out something else to do with their life. I think that the quality of the writers and the producers are going to actually improve for Demand. If they raise their prices, I think they'll improve even more. And you could see these videos and the articles going from horrible and good enough, as the scale, to okay and maybe a little bit better than good enough. You know, these things could move up. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used Demand to find, for 15 dollars, an article about seven great spots near Atlanta.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so there are feature stories about traveling the country roads of Georgia, and then there’s actual journalism. There’s actual political and governmental coverage and all the stuff that’s most important about what we do. Can you imagine a day when this is a conduit for actual news?

DANIEL ROTH: Yeah, I could see that happening. Right now the money’s not there. Advertisers aren't willing to pay to be next to breaking news or political news. Keyword advertisers want to be next to things that are going to push people to buy something. If you’re traveling Georgia’s roads you might want to know where to get new tires for your car. You might want to know where to stop and get Mason jars, I don't know. You don't have that with hard news. On the other hand, Demand says they could see a, a time in the near future where they're not selling just on keyword and, in fact, you get people who are willing to sponsor or put a banner up next to a certain type of content. You pay a certain amount of money and I'll cover the campaign trail. It’s not as incredibly scientific as Demand has it right now, but I'm sure that they are thinking along those lines.

BOB GARFIELD: This is all extremely fascinating. It is the highest expression of digital technology, and no animals were harmed in its making. Why am I horrified?

DANIEL ROTH: Because the machines are, are ruling us all. Demand used to have editors decide what it was going to have its freelancers write about. When they put in the algorithm, they found that the machine was able to come up with headlines and titles that were worth five times more than what people who were trained for years and went to journalism school, or - or just had been in the industry for forever, your gut told you what people should be writing about, what people wanted to see. It turns out our guts are worthless. Algorithms are worth a lot.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Dan, thanks - thanks for nothing.

DANIEL ROTH: [LAUGHS] Thanks for having me.


BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Roth is a senior [LAUGHS] writer for Wired magazine.