Friday, February 11, 2011

Media by Demand

My first real magazine job was as an associate editor for Prevention magazine. One of my first assignments was to write an article about the health benefits of running (This was before Rodale acquired Runner's World).  I was an experienced runner and had run a couple of marathons. I knew how to wade through all the medical journals that the company subscribed to, teasing out the right support and quotes for my position. I was also a poet so the editor let me get away with an opening sentence like this: "Like a deer I told  myself so quick and nimble was my gait."

I know this writing would not be up to SEO snuff today in part because it lacks the requisite metadata. Actually, this would not have been much of a leap at Prevention, if the technology had been available. I had studied linguistics and generative grammar that focuses on key words and phrases that we build our language around. Language provides all sorts of hints and modifiers so we really know what someone means when she says: "The car turned into a driveway."  My thanks to Professor Ianni for that.

For the last year or so I have watched Demand Media that recently enjoyed a successful IPO. The company is often referred to as a content farm. The image this conjures up for many of the editors I've spoken to is not the idyllic organic farm in Amish country where words are nourished at their roots but a factory farm where chickens are stuffed into very small crates.  The mixed metaphors are intentional. 

When I brought a Demand Media executive in to speak at an MPA luncheon about a year ago, editors present seemed quite hostile. If I remember correctly, the trade press told the company to go to hell.  I fully understand this concern. The editor provides a particular angle on a market, is keeper of the brand, and an advocate for the readership, keeping pesky business interests at bay.  So I too had a lot of concerns about content farms that for many were a race to the bottom.

I have visited Demand Media's offices and was quite surprised how scrupulously the company married Art (live editors) and Science (algorithms) and how diligently they researched an article, outlined it, tested it, fact-checked it, and measured the value to the reader.  They offer a ton of very short and simple articles describing, for example, "How to Climb a Step Ladder." But there is also every indication Demand will be moving up the food chain tackling topics other than superficial how-to.  To be sure some of this seems like painting by the numbers. How else can a writer churn out in a couple of years more pieces that most of us can write in a lifetime.

I am not a Demand booster and own no stock.  Nonetheless, there is something instructive here for editors and publishers about how many consumers wish to receive and consume content. Frankly   
since the second digital wave hit I have thought that special-interest magazines would best weather the
threat from outside content producers and aggregators because of their very close relationship with the consumer and the special community they make possible.  After all, how can an outfit like Demand provide the very special, hyper-local content with the requisite tone, point-of-view and intimacy?

To  test this I asked someone from Demand to use their "farm" to write an article about growing, organic Big-Boy tomatoes for the suburbs outside of Atlanta on a shady lot.  I provided a lot of additional instructions.  This was meant to be a trick question because I had served as publishing director for Organic Gardening Magazine. But the joke was on me. They did a credible job.

With the Demand IPO, the purchase of the Huffington Post by AOL,  and AOL's plans to generate more than 600,000 articles a year, content produced outside traditional media companies willl take on greater significance. 

Or not.  Writing articles based on trending Google search may become less important over time. Some search engines, including Blekko, limit search engine results to a finite list.  Google is reportedly working on a variety of algorithms to address this issue.  What is one company's spam is another company's IPO.

And just when media companies are becoming very adept at SEO, they are being told the next big thing is Social Media Optimization.

What's an editor to do?

Right: get on board!   

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