While Google is busy figuring out how to save journalism, some entrepreneurs are going ahead and doing it on their own using unconventional techniques that may make some traditionalists shudder. Writing in The New York Times magazine, Andrew Rice surveys the landscape of recent media startups that are confronting the reality of plummeting margins by crowdsourced news operations.

Lewis Dvorkin of True/Slant

They range from Demand Media, which generates assignment lists based entirely on search terms, to Global Post, which hopes to charge readers for direct access to its foreign correspondents. A few themes are apparent through many of the business models. One is their reliance upon search as both a guide and a source of revenue. New-age publishers see Google as the pulse of reader interest and have tuned their models to respond, in some cases, in near real-time. Another is that they pay very little for journalism.

Rice visits True/Slant, an operation that uses a digital speedometer to match content on its site to trending topics on Google and Twitter. Thousands of writers contribute to the service, which posts about 125 articles a day. Journalists are paid a fraction of what that would make at traditional media organizations, but at least there’s a little money in the work. True/Slant has only five full-time staff and about 300 contributors. “It’s not so much a unified publication as a loosely connected commune of bloggers, who generate a continual stream of content with minimal editorial intervention,” Rice writes.

The 125-story-per-day figure may sound like a lot, but it’s a pittance compared to the daily output of Huffington Post (500) or Examiner.com (3,000). These publishers produce news in the kind of volumes meant to serve picky advertisers, who only buy proximity to certain keywords. Since advertisers don’t have to waste money on audiences they don’t want any more, the publishing model being built by these new companies is to churn out huge quantities of content and serve lots of niche advertisers.

Everything is search-optimized and, in some cases, search drives the boat. Demand Media actually assigns stories based upon search popularity. Freelancers pick from a list of topics culled from popular search queries and turn out articles and video that post to sites like eHow, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with Demand. No story is assigned unless there’s a high probability it will pay for itself.  Demand “says these mathematically generated ideas are 4.9 times as valuable as those devised by mere human brainstorming,” Rice writes. Journalists get $15 to $20 per item and Demand Media booked $200 million in revenue last year.

The new economics of search-driven publishing have thrown open the question of how much journalism is worth. Contributors to many of the sites Rice describes are paid anywhere from $10 to $25 per contribution. Search advertising is such a low cost-commodity that one publisher estimates a journalist needs to attract 1.8 million monthly page views in order to earn a $60,000 annual salary.

If all of this makes you slightly nauseous, you’re not alone. Many of these emerging business models play to popularity as measured by search volume. Nor surprisingly, sex and sin sell. “Writers and editors know that click-driven Internet economics tend to reward lowbrow gimmickry. They have to decide whether to work around that or to embrace it as a fact of life,” Rice writes. Some new models play directly to the will of the crowd, such as Henry Blodget’s (yes, that Henry Blodget) gossipy Business Insider and Demand Media.  Other new operations, like GlobalPost, The Politico and Awl, are attempting to produce thoughtful journalism and make money at it, mostly through creative use of alternative funding sources.

The elephant in the corner is the rising interest of businesses in inserting themselves into the media stream. Nearly everyone Rice interviews agrees that the companies that pay the bills want – and deserve – a role in determining  content. True/Slant, which is run by 57-year-old former newspaperman Lewis Dvorkin, gives its advertisers the same tools to contribute to the news stream as its reporters. “It’s the way the world is moving,” Dvorkin says.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 2:44 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, OnlineMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment

  1. May 28, 2010 @ 10:09 am



    There is another elephant in the room all of a sudden: the oil spill in the Gulf.
    What is coming with this is BP’s advertising and PR strategies, which were rather
    devious, intended to deceive. And ever since such advertising, PR and corporate
    strategies are not that popular, to say it mildly, it is quite possible that this really
    is going to affect the media and ad industry in caae the consumers simply continue
    to vanish. For instance simply cancel magazine subscription in order to kill the
    messenger of ads and PR.
    If somebody is likely to prophetic about this industry’s future then it is, among others,
    the Mad Avenue Blues. A very well done song parody and fun about the woes of that industry:
    “… the day that media died …”, “… bye bye those big upfront buys …” “… the industry
    has gone to the dogs …”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CqRcCHk_Pc

    Posted by Joe