Demand Media Strikes Back at PBS and Writers Everywhere – Yawn

on July 30, 2010 in Freelance Writing Business
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Many of you probably caught this post on PBS.org about content farms last week. When I read it, I found it very interesting that Demand Media turned down the opportunity to be interviewed for the piece. Usually, they can't be tamed when it comes to spouting their really cool: Hey, we never said we were journalists... but look at our awesome brand of service journalism (not to be confused with actual journalism because we've added another word IN FRONT of journalism. It's like the difference between Soda and DIET Soda. Two. Completely. Different. Things.) rhetoric.

Instead, they decided to opt out of the interview and write a piece of their own discussing this article, as well as some of the other articles that have attacked them recently.

After reading their response and stabbing myself repeatedly in the eye as I did (it's an automatic response to Demand Media, I can't help it), I thought I'd go over a couple of things that they wrote which really annoyed me.

1.In their response, they state:

"While many of you took the time to weigh in on the conversations around the Web, one particular comment that referred to writers who have a "complete disregard for the craft and the reader” struck a nerve because, in spite of what people are writing about us, all of us here at Demand Media and the vast majority of you, do care about the writing craft and for the reader. The editorial rigor and process for creating content is just part of the equation; the other important piece is the pride in what we do and pride in the articles you touch."

Here's the thing---the, "all of us" bit about caring about the craft of writing and the reader doesn't ring true. First of all, many DM writers have spoken about how quickly they rush through assignments, "cramming" work in to a short time period and doing just enough research to "sound credible," etc. (be sure to read the comments of the linked articles to see these comments by DM writers). If DM actually cared about this startling trend they would pay their writers and copy editors more so that they could devote the time necessary to develop articles that are executed with care. I know you need a decent sized profit margin to go buy super expensive vacation homes on undiscovered islands and stuff (or whatever it is that rich people do with their moolah), but don't argue with every single self-confessed uncaring DM writer by saying the equivalent of, "Nuh-uh, we care about quality" and then continue to pay an amount of money per article that says you really don't care about quality. Your writers are saying they don't care. Stop denying that this is a problem and do something about it.


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2. In their response, they state:

"We are not a robotic organization that’s only concerned about numbers and data. We are a media company. We work together to tell stories. As the Dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television Teri Schwartz said, “Story is the driver. It’s the timeless classic, universal piece that binds us all together.”"

C'mon folks, we're smarter than that. They have an algorithm that determines what people are going to search for and they make sure that they can create quick content to answer that search request. They do this so they can make money---they have already said that they create the pieces based on the potential money around them.

When I wrote for them a couple of years ago, they had a disturbing number of articles to be written on anal bleeding. If they really were a media company, all folksy and wantin' ta tell stories and stuff, I don't think they would have needed hundreds of "stories" about writers' whose asses started spontaneously bleeding. Instead, they knew that the bloody ass How-To articles would result in sweet, sweet adsense links to possible real solutions for this problem which the readers would click and, by doing so, deliver dollars to Demand.

3. In their response, they state:

"Tonight, I will read my new issues of the New Yorker and Texas Monthly that showed up in my mailbox and that I look to for inspiration."

Oh come on. The New Yorker and Texas Monthly use human effort for inspriation on stories. They want to appeal to a target audience with articles that bring solutions, information and entertainment relevant to that audience. They use human brain cells to create twists and new ways of looking at topics. They do not use algorithms to create topics that will take over the entire reading audience of the internet.

4. The last thing they said that really put me over the top was this:

"We know that when we’re being criticized, you’re being criticized as well.  It’s a fight worth fighting and we’re not daunted."

Um, excuse me? What is this, like trying to manufacture Stockholm Syndrome in your writers? I'm not saying there hasn't ever been criticism of Demand writers, there has---and many articles that have done so have over-generalized and been unfair. But when an article criticizes a model or a pay scale that doesn't mean the writers are being criticized. Even if it includes quotes from writers who admit to writing poorly. It is criticizing the model for creating an environment in which writers feel that is their only choice.

Of course, playing the victim is one thing but stacking the deck against your critics is another. Many sites, including this one, have gone out of their way NOT to criticize DM writers. But, even when doing so, Demand company ambassadors and fans go and round up the troops to attack anyone who speaks negatively about the company or to respond to requests for input about the company and create a manufactured influx of "happy experience" letters and comments. They do so by posting links to negative articles in the Demand Media forums---which is also what happened with the comments on the PBS piece.

The reality of the situation is this: Some people like Demand Media. Some people don't. Some people like their model. Some people don't. Some people think it's ruining the web. Some people don't. And some people haven't even heard of the company (oh how I wish I was them).

Personally, I'm starting to think of Demand Media as the corporate equivalent of Sarah Palin. Too much hubris, faulty logic, flip-flopping stories and marketing attempts and in the long run, unimportant and forgettable if we simply stop talking about them. Which is what we at All Freelance Writing are going to do.

It's like the Speidi thing---notice how they got divorced when people stopped talking about them? So we at AFW pledge to stop talking about Demand Media.

Starting...

NOW!

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Yo Prinzel
Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express, Covestor.com, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.

Yo Prinzel

36 Comments

  1. Matt Willard July 30, 2010 Reply

    You’re right. Let’s stop talking about Demand Studios and segue instead into a conversation about Author of Fortune, the fantastic new comic serial updating every week here at All Freelance Writing.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 30, 2010 Reply

      I’m going to read that this weekend Matt, can’t wait :) I’m sure it’s a lot more interesting than my never ending obsession with… well… the unmentionables (and no, I don’t mean underwear).

    • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

      You dirty little publicity whore….

      Love it. ;)

  2. Lori July 30, 2010 Reply

    Okay, I won’t say a thing. :)

    Okay, I lied. One thing – looking for inspiration from other magazines? That’s great, but the head honchos over at Demand aren’t the ones writing. And they don’t really care about quality or we wouldn’t have issue with payment and hey, the quality of what comes out of fast-and-dirty writing.

    I’m shutting up now. :)

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 30, 2010 Reply

      I can’t say anything. My lips are tied.

      • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

        Your lips are tied? And are your hands sealed too? ;)

        • Yo Prinzel Author
          Yo Prinzel July 30, 2010 Reply

          My lips are tied and my hands are wrung. Also, my brain is making funny noises.

    • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

      If their head honchos need something to read, they should try reading the interviews of themselves and their colleagues. Maybe then they could keep their stories straight.

  3. Clint July 30, 2010 Reply

    But if Demand Studios goes away, how will I get quality articles on HOW TO CALL CUSTOMER SUPPORT?

    Fine. I’ll shut up now.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 30, 2010 Reply

      Ask your mom to start a How-To series on AFW for practical, everyday questions like that. I hear there’s a market for them.

      • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

        Shhh Yo. Stop giving our top secret plans away. The AFW mill conversion was supposed to be hush-hush. Damn it.

    • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

      … or how to get away with taking illegal drugs? I mean Clint… how are you going to pass our next drug test?

      • Clint August 1, 2010 Reply

        I’m bringing in a little person to pee for me. You’ll never see him beneath my trench coat.

  4. Wendy S. Johnson July 30, 2010 Reply

    I’ve said many times that I wasn’t going to get involved in any of these discussions and I have found that I still do pretty much every time. Because, somebody, somewhere says something that sets me off.

    The whole DS defense actually had me laughing this time. They need to get out of the how-to game and into writing comedy skits. Thanks, Yo for giving me a laugh today. I sure needed it.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 30, 2010 Reply

      I know, I know, I know! It’s like every time I say I’m going to stop eating fast food. It’s bad for me, has no nutrition and doesn’t improve my life at all… but I always end up going back for more.

      BUT NOT THIS TIME. I’m DONE!

      Thank you for enjoying the post and not being bored with the topic… I suspect we are in the minority :)

  5. Jessica Mason July 30, 2010 Reply

    I think it’s best if people think of Demand Studios as what it is: a semi-crappy work at home opportunity. That way journalists and serious freelance writers don’t have to get their knickers in a twist about it and people who are willing to work for $4 an hour if it means they don’t have to leave the house, can do so without being made to feel bad about it.

    • Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2010 Reply

      I think if anyone sees it as much more than that, they’re delusional. But the pay is far from the only issue. Personally, for example, I take issue with their blatant lies and half-truths used to pull in content producers (the folks who later come to me and colleagues looking for help getting out of that rut). They like to pretend everyone is happy there, but they’re not. When I offered to coach a mill writer for free to pull them out of mill work, some of the applications were downright heartbreaking. There were people who really needed to do better, but they believed the hype and lies in this company’s marketing efforts. They got in, and they were struggling to get out (to put in the time to work for better, they’d not be able to earn enough to get by in the meantime because the low pay system put them in a position where they had to rely on Demand pretty much completely full-time). These are the folks who don’t speak out publicly because the Kool-aid crowd’s been known to jump all over any critic out there, and they don’t want the drama. And now we have Demand reps themselves blatantly lying and saying that criticisms of the company are criticisms of the content producers themselves — that’s bullshit, and they’ve been called on it. It’s just an easy way to rally the troops and make them take even more personally when there’s nothing personal about much of it. Is there occasionally? Sure. And that’s ignorant. But to encourage writers to paint critics in the broad stroke they claim others paint them in, well, that’s equally ignorant (not to mention hypocritical).

      • Jessica Mason July 30, 2010 Reply

        I have to admit I signed up with Demand and almost wrote an article for them on “Night Clubs in Idaho City”, however, I realized pretty quickly that in order to do the night clubs in Idaho City justice (and there were only like one and a half of them) I’d be working for less than minimum wage. It was easy for me to walk away because I have a day job and a husband to pay half the expenses but I can see how someone who doesn’t have those things might feel that Demand Studios was their only option.

        Demand Studios seems a lot like many other offline companies who expect the absolute lifeblood and loyalty of their employees (lots of talk about being “your Walmart family” and other such nonsense) in exchange for barely providing for their subsistence. Having worked for brick and mortar companies of this type I know that most of the employees are just biding their time until something better comes along but there are always a few who swallow the company line hook, line and sinker. Still, I’m always flabbergasted by the people who claim they make a living at DS because they can write three top-paying articles an hour and not have any rewrites requested. Maybe their DS editors died and nobody noticed or something?

        • Yo Author
          Yo July 30, 2010 Reply

          Like Jenn said, the real problem with the Unmentionable company is that they and their supporters sucker new web writers in. I know because I wrote for them a couple of years ago thinking it was the best I could do.

          If your eyes are open and you know what you are doing writing for them instead of clients who pay decently, then great. But if no one calls them on their BS then some new writers will get suckered in and WON’T know any better. That’s why these posts (as annoying as they are) are still important. Point and counterpoint.

          And now I have visions of dusty skeletons lining an office–thank you :)

  6. PoeWar July 30, 2010 Reply

    I’m sorry to hear you won’t be writing about DS anymore. While I don’t agree with all your points, I have to say that this was the most entertaining article I’ve read all week.

    “If they really were a media company, all folksy and wantin’ ta tell stories and stuff, I don’t think they would have needed hundreds of “stories” about writers’ whose asses started spontaneously bleeding.”

    I practically fell out of my chair. Nice stuff.

    • Yo Author
      Yo July 30, 2010 Reply

      I know you don’t, but I’m glad you got something fun out of it :-)

      • PoeWar July 30, 2010 Reply

        No problem. I hope your eye heals soon.

        • Yo Prinzel Author
          Yo Prinzel July 31, 2010 Reply

          Did you know that I actually glued it shut on my first date with the now hubby? My poor right eye goes through so much, I’m just not sure why it stays with me.

  7. LaToya Irby July 30, 2010 Reply

    So wait…this girl (the one in the PBS story) graduated from a top journalism graduate program and she “…was completely aware that [she] was writing crap” and chose to do it anyway??? WTH?? There’s no way I’d work my butt off earning a graduate degree then go do some “crap” job and later brag about it anonymously. This is evidence (to me at least) that the writers who knowingly submit crap are just as guilty as the company.

    Putting crap out on the internet isn’t something you should go laugh with your friends over a Flirtini. People depend on this information, sometimes to save their lives. What if someone really did follow that gin recipe and really did get poisoned, would it still be funny?

    I don’t have a fancy degree from a top journalism school, but I do have a sense of pride in what I write, whether it’s attached to my name or not. If you don’t know the topic and you don’t feel you’re getting paid enough to research and write it, then.don’t.write.it. If I pick a topic from that company, it’s something I know and can write easily.

    Newbie writers who are sucked in by the “half-truths” get a pass, but the writers who know better and write crap anyway deserve one of these posts too.

    • Lian July 30, 2010 Reply

      People depend on this information, sometimes to save their lives. What if someone really did follow that gin recipe and really did get poisoned, would it still be funny?

      Crap =/= inaccurate. I write for DS and I get pretty annoyed about inaccurate articles. That doesn’t mean I spend half as much time researching, organizing, and editing DS articles than I do for work I actually care about. I don’t expect that of anyone, any more than I expect a cook at McDonald’s to put in as much effort as a chef at a five-star restaurant just because of the principle of the thing.

      The fact that DS has such little concern about inaccurate articles is a separate issue entirely from both the writers’ commitment to accuracy or lack thereof and the overall quality of the writing. Which is another issue entirely from the inability of Web readers to distinguish reliable from unreliable sources.

      • LaToya Irby July 31, 2010 Reply

        I agree. But I wouldn’t expect a five-star chef who happened to work at McDonalds (for whatever reason) to haphazardly flip hamburgers, drop them on the floor, and serve them up anyway simply because it’s McDonalds. That’s the impression I got from the female writer mentioned in the PBS story.

        • Jennifer Mattern August 1, 2010 Reply

          I’d expect them to do the bare minimum McDonald’s required of them, and to think of it as just as pathetic as some of the folks ripping on their own DS work do. That’s what they’re paid to do. No more. Is pride in work important? Sure. But when a company treats you like crap by telling you your skills and work have very little value to them, I can’t blame the writers who do choose to do the bare minimum to get by. Besides… that’s what editors are for. And frankly if the company wants to brag constantly about their high quality editorial process, there is absolutely no excuse for any of these articles to have gotten through in the first place. But their focus is not on editorial quality… it’s on keyword-stuffed pages that generate traffic and ad revenue. If the editors in general there were qualified to do their job and could actually catch glaring factual errors and poorly written content, writers would be caught the first time and either weeded out or forced to improve their work. Problem solved. Pay for what you want, or you lose the right to bitch about the crap you get. If they can’t afford people who care that much about their work, the problem is primarily on them. Easy crap pay is a good way to attract the types who don’t care, and that gives a bad name to the ones who actually do there (and I’m sure there are plenty).

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 31, 2010 Reply

      I think I’d let technique suffer before accuracy. My concern is that there are many writers speaking out about how ill-executed their articles are, and the unmentionable company seems to just ignore it. If they would just own up and say, “Yeah, we just want money and the barest thread of believability in our writers’ work” I’d actually feel better about them. But instead they deny that there is a problem and then have the nerve to invoke images of Wilfred Brimley on the front porch sipping Country Time lemonade telling a story–as if that is what they are trying to give “consumers.”

      At least, that’s the image that I got while reading their response.

    • Lori August 1, 2010 Reply

      LaToya, that’s exactly the thing that made me say “Huh?” She basically wasted her time, perceived talent (because we don’t really know if she’s any good – just good enough to spot crap when she writes it), and fed the meter over at DS.

      I agree – newbies can’t often discern good from bad. That comes from being burned a few times. But someone who knows and continues – that speaks to the character of the person.

  8. Meryl K Evans July 30, 2010 Reply

    … nah. Not gonna beat a dead horse. But I agree with John — though we don’t want to put a spotlight on youknowwhat, it’s informative to get the facts of what’s going on out there because youknowwhat ain’t going way anytimesoon.

    Another winner, Yo! Thanks for helping me reach my milk through the nose quota.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel July 31, 2010 Reply

      But if you beat a dead horse, you keep the flies off it!

      Thanks Meryl, I’m always here to give your nostrils a milk bath. I hear it makes the nose hairs grow longer.

  9. Wendy S. Johnson August 4, 2010 Reply

    A couple of my friends, work at fast-food type places for extra cash. They don’t care for the job, but they still work hard and perform the best they can during their shifts. They even go above their required duties (to a point, obviously) in order to make the best of what they have.

    I was always taught that you should do the best you can do, no matter what kind of work you’re doing. As LaToya said earlier, to admit that you write crap and to practically brag about it, shows where their priorities really are. That, coming from a journalism graduate.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 4, 2010 Reply

      In the end, yes they should take responsibility for the work they provide. Then again, everyone’s definition of “crap” is different. If it’s blatantly factually inaccurate, there’s no excuse for that on the writer’s part. Then again, it should still never make it to the public eye given that Demand claims to have such a rigorous editorial / fact-checking process in place. If nothing else those writers do highlight the gross falsehoods in Demand’s claims on that front, show readers of the sites precisely why the content shouldn’t be trusted, and show Demand what they need to work on. And those at least are good things, rather than having the editorial problems completely below the radar.

      More than that though, Demand is getting precisely what they’re paying for — far from someone’s best effort, and clearly lacking editorial work. So if anyone’s truly that concerned about the content being published on their sites, that’s where the bulk of the blame belongs. If they’d pay professional rates they’d likely increase the quality several times over.

      Here’s something else to consider. WHY are people willing to write crap content for Demand in the first place? It’s not like they have some driving urge to publish bullshit. If they did, they could create their own site much easier, write under any name they want, and not have to deal with any editorial guidelines whatsoever. It’s about making a quick buck. And DS opens the door to that when their entire model (from a content producer’s perspective) revolves around being as quick as humanly possible because you have to churn articles out in quantity. You emphasize quality or you emphasize quantity. Their business model determined the type of people they attract, and that apparently includes those who will do anything for a buck. And while there’s no excuse for those who do write garbage intentionally, it falls on Demand’s shoulders to fix the underlying problem.

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