TechCrunch Columnist Paul Carr Writes About the Affect of Too Much “Fertilizer” Online

January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

“The fact is, it’s almost impossible to find a single ‘content’ company on the web that maintains a horseshit:quality ratio better than 10:1,” notes TechCrunch columnist, Paul Carr, in a post (“NSFW: On the Internet Nobody Knows You’re a Journalist”) that Paid Content was alert enough to notice and link to in its Around the Web section.

Elaborating, Carr writes:

“Just look at the homepages of Yahoo! and MSN, boasting the respective top stories: “Why Clooney Won’t Marry” and “Five Things You Shouldn’t Do When You Propose”. For all its lofty ideals, even The Huffington Post has succumbed to the temptation of bolstering costly and time consuming think-pieces with an avalanche of linkbait crap and blatant cut-and-paste jobs from other blogs.”

And, further:

“Tina Brown’s Huffpo-rival, The Daily Beast, is at it too. Sure, today’s top stories include a piece on a possible Egyptian revolution, but what’s that right underneath? A slideshow of “Ashton Kutcher’s 10 Best Shirtless Moments”. Hell, even Salon – whose journalism I praised the other week – isn’t immune to the page-view boosting lure of the slideshow: today their front page boasts a pictorial guide to “Hotels with a dark past” (including the Bates Motel, which doesn’t even exist) while on Friday they bravely addressed the issue of the child sexualisation with a gallery of “shocking” but  “sexy” child images.

Paul Carr’s column could be a companion piece to the article by Nicholas Spangler in the Columbia Journalism Review about the 40 hours he spent as a Demand Media writer. As I described in this space back in November, Spangler is a journalist that worked for years for The Miami Herald, and wrote with open resignation, about the end of his journalistic world and the rise of the new one typified by Demand. It is a world of “commercial content,” driven by algorithms “without”, Spangler wrote (perhaps quoting Clay Shirky), “regard to civic value or subjective judgments about quality or any of the other sentimental trappings of the Murrow century.”

Paul Carr is more inclined to describe the absence of civic value and sentimental trappings in online content today as, simply, “horseshit.” But he is a realist: horseshit is what the people want and horseshit is what the people get.

He storms:

“AOL’s (and HuffPo’s and Yahoo’s) front pages are packed with celebrity-obsessed crap because that’s what people are searching for, and that’s what they click on. It’s a problem at TechCrunch too: in the past seven days, almost three times as many people clicked on our headline about famous people using Twitter as cared about Mike’s interview with Google’s three most senior executives.”

Last week I took note of the precipitous drop in American Idol’s TV ratings so far this season and, despite the fact it remained the highest rated show in its time slot, allowed myself to wonder if our long, (inter)national nightmare with reality TV was coming to an end. No more Real Housewives of Anywhere; The end of real horseshit.

Fat chance, because when media aspires to sustain bigger and bigger audiences in order to attract more and more advertising it winds-up looking half-naked, with a grease-painted stomach hanging over its belt, fist pumping in the air and yelling “More beeeer!” Big media slimes you.

This is true online and offline. But it is also true, online and off, that where media is not trying to be all things to all people it doesn’t need washing off. Case in point, the New Yorker, which Paul Carr turns to and hugs like an old friend in his TechCrunch piece:

“The joy I felt today flicking through the New Yorker – stumbling across Tad Friend’s wonderful piece about Lenny Bruce tribute actor, Steve Cuiffo and a short story by Woody Allen (Woody Allen!) before reaching the Armstrong profile – was easily the highlight of my day.”

(How ironic if new media sends us back into the waiting arms of old media, now leaner and more fit and more in touch with its true self.)

Every brand steward in the marketing business should give careful regard to Paul’s happy encounter with the New Yorker if they give any regard (or disregard) to the rub-off affect of media on their brand images. I know when I’ve been naughty or nice consuming media. I know when I’ve been slimed. And the truth is that the unquenchable desire for viewers, listeners, readers and users will slime you, every time.

Which was why it was such a good thing that the Internet came along to free audiences from the growing indignity and abuse of modern mass media, providing them with a nearly endless resource of content that seemed so incorruptible. It lacked production value, maybe was not always beautiful, but it was genuine, timely, real, likeable, in an across-the-fence-to-your neighbor kind of way. Now, even the inherent niche quality of the internet is being subjected to manipulation thanks to so-called content mills – not because they possess a vision for an agrarian new media economy with gardens in every yard, but because they, along with much of mainstream media, remain industrialists – old media wannabes – factory farmers spreading fertilizer from the sky.

Clear-Cutting the Search Environment: the (Over)Commercialization of the Internet

January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

It is an interesting lament by Gavin Dunaway at ADOTAS regarding changes to the fertile internet landscape that are becoming terribly obvious in places, notably Google. Indeed, with the arrival of content mills the industry has effectively turned to clear-cutting the search environment to make room for fabricated developments, adding to the impact of commercial new media land holders that have been paying for and burning search results as fuel for nearly ten years. No surprise, by now there are unfortunate signs of erosion and blight, and growing concerns for the atmosphere.

Gavin appears to have been pushed to this despair by Professor Vivek Wadhwa, who wrote a piece in Tech Crunch titled, Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google. In it, Professor Wadhwa writes,

“Google has become a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers. Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money. There’s no way to do a meaningful chronological search.”

Yup. That’s pretty much true. Fortunately, the internet is a renewable resource and new shoots are starting to sprout, such as Blekko, which Gavin and Professor Wadhwa mention. A little balance in the eco-system going forward with attention to sustainable media practices would be a good idea now, for which a reliance on organic content is always the key component.

Milling Around Content: Demand Media Makes A Deal With SFGate and Forbes Launches New Blogging Platform

August 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

We are long tail web publishing advocates here at Burst, happy in the trenches of the internet. The right set of words might be staunch advocates. We reject the hubris of the short tail and rather think McGeorge Bundy’s admonition to technology, prominently featured as part of Answers.com’s definition of the word hubris, applies equally well to journalism: “There is no safety in unlimited journalistic hubris,” a notion that should land like a blow to the head today.

In that regard, we are watching the evolution of the content mills such as Demand Media with mixed reaction. On the one hand, it is all good that companies like Demand (and Aol.) are investing in thousands of free-lance writers to cover issues and neighborhoods in the spirit of a new media economy that is people-driven. We recognize the model. On the other, it is bad that the market needs to mimic the people-driven model that exists in the first place: the one represented by countless writers, bloggers and web publishers that built and now sustain the internet, and make it – frankly – interesting.

One model is authentic, and one is contrived – not the content, we’d assume, but the initiative, which is driven by a lack of trust in things bottom-up. It is a control(ling) thing. It is parental. It is journalistic hubris lurking in the decision tree.

And in reality it is hard to distinguish between Demand and, say, the AP with deals such as they’ve struck with SFGate and Chron.com as reported in MediaPost and Ad Age. It’s harmless, but is it earnest? Is it new media?

Burst works for Dwell Magazine and its Dwell Partner Network made up of numerous design blogs, such as Design Crack, ColourLovers, DesignMom and Better Living Through Design. These publishers are devoted to design. (The CEO of Colourlovers, Darius Monsef, wants the “whole world to find colour enlightment.” And, I think he’s serious.) SFGate enjoys connections with bloggers in the San Francisco community. Why not more? Why not for its new Homes Guide that it has turned to Demand for instead? Why not resort to what already occurs in nature, which is driven by desire not “Demand”?

By coincidence, pick-up in Morning Briefing from Media Bistro points to the announcement by Lewis DVorkin about Forbes’ intention to launch a blogging platform for “content creators, consumers and marketers alike” derived from the True/Slant start-up that Forbes purchased recently. This sounds different. Writes Mr. DVorkin:

“We recognize and embrace the need for an all-inclusive conversation. Consumers want their voices to heard on an equal playing field with content creators. Marketers want to get their message across in new ways that enable them to form relationships with both the audience and journalists.”

This platform somewhere will include editorial control that protects the Forbes brand. Fine. Provided that consumer bloggers get a chance to participate in the capitalist conversation, however, driven by their desire and knowledge to do so, advertisers will indeed benefit from the intimacy and rapport that is possible online. As we argue, there’s nothing like relationships that get formed in the trenches.

The Washington Post Company Buys iCurrent: Old Media is Dead. Long Live Old Media.

July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Washington Post Company reported (see story in Paid Content) that it has acquired iCurrent, a company in the business of helping internet users assemble and organize online information according to their specific interests. As described in a couple of places, iCurrent is to news and information what Pandora is to music.

The iCurrent business model appears to be in fairly vivid contrast to the notion of content mills, which have been stabbed at in this space several times (here and here, for instance).  Content mills create more supply in a market that doesn’t need help creating supply. Content mills are a disguise hiding the desire of producers to control information. In contrast, iCurrent wants to help users control information. It is supply v. demand. It is push (old media) v. pull (new media).

Let’s skip over all the arguments in the middle of that conversation, and cut to the assertion that Aol. should have bought iCurrent. Or, Yahoo should have bought iCurrent instead of Associated Content. They are two substantial new media brands that could, thus, have been aligned with new media user value. Except, they don’t really want to be in the “new” media business. They want to be in the “old” media business. Push vs. pull.

This is the only factor that makes the rise of the online industry different from the rise of the cable industry. Fundamentally, cable was always going to grow-up to be TV. The fact that new media giants such as Aol. and Yahoo, and all the rest, have also always wanted to grow up to be TV has been a critical hindrance to establishing a unique online selling proposition aligned with what users want. So, instead, we sell audience data at a discount to the media space.

Congratulations to iCurrent and the Washington Post Company.

Old media is dead. Long live old media.

Old Media Wannabes

July 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

An extensive piece in Bloomberg Business Week on Henry Blodget and his company, “The Business Insider” (TBI), ends featuring a quote from Nick Denton of Gawker, as follows:

“This is like the early days of cable,” [Denton] says. “High—surprisingly high—startup costs. But eventually advertisers move across, and the margins are lavish for the leading players in each category. Jezebel becomes Lifetime, HuffPo becomes MSNBC, and Henry becomes CNBC.” In that way, and that way only, Blodget would happily be right back where he started.

There you have it. This is a teachable moment to sharply illustrate that the striving classes (“leading players”) of new media are bent on being like old media. To be rich and powerful is a key driver, as always. To be thought of as big and important is another. But sharing with old media the same contempt for new media (and possibly its audiences) is really the hidden, dirty secret of new media’s old media wannabes.

To explain:

The latest initiative of the new media wannabes (see also: the rise of content mills) is to contrive content in favor of what the people want, as if old media content has been determinedly against what they want. Sadly, reality TV says it has not. Morning news programming says it has not. Four-color newsprint, says not. Howard Stern says not. Cage wrestling, pretty Russian spies in blue corsets, “If it bleeds it leads”, “NFL’s Red Zone”, Hannity and Colmes, Glenn Beck, and 800+ programming stations by cable or satellite, all say it has not.

The former editor of USA Today, John Quinn, addressed a Rhode Island Ad Club event in the late 80’s while I was the newspaper’s New England Sales Manager. During Q&A, to break the silence, I asked what story sells the most newspapers.

“Elvis”, Quinn answered without taking a breadth. “The papers fly off the newsstand when Elvis is on the cover.” Indeed, USA Today’s legend begins with the story of Al Neuharth, its founder while CEO of Gannett, tearing up the front page of the first issue to lead with the story of Grace Kelly’s death instead of an airplane crash because that’s what patrons were discussing in the bar downstairs where he’d been taking a break that first night.

Old media gets it. It is doing nothing to save them. What is it about new media wannabes that blinds them to that fact?

(Answer: old media ambition.)

“Blodget sees it as a simpler matter of being responsive to readers, something he believes the traditional media do a poor job of.  “I think in 10 years people won’t look at newspapers as the only model for real journalism—you’ll have native companies built on the Web who have a very collaborative approach with readers and sources,” he says. “Gawker and Huffington Post are both examples of companies that have had it tough and have had to be a lot more focused on what people want to read.”

Really? Had it tough? Compared to what?

Truthfully, the wannabes are working on the same problem relying on the same formula as old media. The fact that search exists to replace conversations in the bar changes nothing about the facts. It may make it more efficient. It may also make it less thoughtful (though that should seem impossible). Whatever. Give the people what they want. Unfortunately, we already know what that looks like.

Underneath this conversation, fueling the likes of companies such as Google and maybe even Facebook, is the internet, the fabric of which is created by the authentic new media class of publishers. They are ambitious, sure. Most of them would like to give up their day job and send their kids to college. On their own they are small and singularly focused. But, in aggregate their work offers something for everyone, on demand, and renders unnecessary the pandering of old and want-to-be-like-old-media. Which is why, as people, we like online.

The Bloomberg Business Week article suggests, however, that Blodget doesn’t see it that way, which I’d contend is true for all wannabes. “He and his investors don’t see established websites like TechCrunch or paidContent as their competitors, which might explain Blodget’s fixation on the Times”, it reports. And it continues:

“I think Henry sees the real competition as established financial journalism that itself is moving away from print, like Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters (TRI), CNBC,” says [former AOL exec and TBI investor, Richard] Hanlon. Some see TBI’s coverage of the troubled print media to be less reporting than Holy War. “I remember a horrible New York Times earnings report came out, and they were all laughing about it,” says Damian Ghigliotty, a graduate of City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism, who left TBI after interning there for two days in 2009. (Blodget was not a party to the joking.) “It was hilarious to them that the traditional media companies were tanking.”

Jealousy has only one source: desire.

The internet industry is like the early days of cable in the time it will take to mature and gain acceptance with advertisers. To the extent its striving classes measure success in relation to the faded glory of those days, however, new media’s ultimate break-through on value will be postponed.

Content, Content Everywhere And Not a Drop to Drink? Yahoo Buys Associated Content.

May 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Yahoo! has bought Associated Content (ADOTAS says for a $90 million, which is information it pulled from Tech Crunch), giving it 350,000 freelance writers that gin-up stories from “neighborhoods” across the country, according to the story in the Wall Street Journal. The move is clearly aimed at Aol.’s content-assembly-line initiative which plans to roll-out stories based on search algorithms.

Polite Internet society would have us regard the content mill phenomenon as democratic: thousands of freelance journalists with keyboards at the ready to do the informational bidding of the masses. Except that if democracy has proven anything over the years it’s that people aren’t that naive. Content milling is about the advertising. People be damned.

The Internet already spill-eth over with the authentic voice of the people. It doesn’t need the help or contempt of a bunch of media industrialists. Nor does advertising which must – must –  in order to bear fruit, be planted in authentic conditions.

Authenticity is food to advertising, and advertising’s roots are starved already by the factory farming and overcrowding of traditional media.

We’ve moved on. It’s not about content factories any more. It’s about small gardens in the yard. Home grown. No fillers.

Read the box.

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