A pony ride with no ponies

by January 13, 2011

When journalists and editors wake up at 3am and with clammy brows ponder the future that may await their professions, one of the shadows that they see in the darkness is a company called Demand Media. Demand is what is referred to today as a “content farm”: an operation that pays thousands of home-based and usually part-time freelancers piece rates to produce short articles on an immense variety of topics — most of them practical and service-oriented — and then sells highly targeted advertising matched to the topics and anticipated readership of the articles. In short, it is about as far from All the President’s Men that journalism can get. Demand is not yet profitable, but it seems likely to be (it lost only US$3 million on $179 million in revenues in the first nine months of 2010), and it has just filed for an IPO that values the company at a more than respectable $1.24 billion. Demand Media is four years old.

When Miami Herald feature writer Nicholas Spangler got laid off by the newspaper in 2009, he searched fruitlessly for another reporting job, eventually signing on with Demand Media “partly as an experiment and partly as a way to make money”, as he recounts in a recent essay in Columbia Journalism Review. “In Demand: A week inside the future of journalism” tells the tale of what he saw and did there:

Most days there were around 270,000 story topics to choose from, typically paying between $3 and $15. In their span and dullness and fascinating particulars, they reflected a more granular portrait of twenty-first-century American interests than the trending search topics on Google or Yahoo ever will. We are not deep in wonder. We are bankrupt and considering divorce in Oklahoma. We want to know how to make money with candy stands at miniature-golf courses. We want do-it-yourself plans for an electric unicycle and for dog wheelchairs. We are curious about Hungarian customs regulations and how to use a spinal-cord monitor during scoliosis surgery. Also, please, we would like instructions on How to Set Up a Pony Ride with No Ponies.

This last one fascinated me. I wondered if many people had run into this problem, or if it were just one person somewhere, some not-very-good dad trying to make it all up to the kids with one great party, already cutting corners.

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