Editor: This is a guest post by Andria Krewson, a freelance journalist who has written for Demand Media. Given our recent focus on Demand Media and so-called content farms, we thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of a Demand Media writer.
I made $37.50 at Demand Studios in November. That money went directly into my Paypal account, on time, with no billing hassles. But it probably took me about six hours of filling out a profile, studying a style guide and learning how to navigate the system. So my hourly pay was about $6, for a writer new to the system.
Andria Krewson is a freelance journalist and consultant in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at newspapers for 27 years, focusing on design and editing of community publications. She blogs for her neighborhood at Under Oak and covers changing culture at Crossroads Charlotte. Reach her on Twitter as @underoak.
I had heard about Demand Studios from former co-workers before Wired wrote about Demand Media (Demand Studio's parent company) in October, and media pundits like Jay Rosen followed up with comments on Twitter and an interview with the company's CEO at ReadWriteWeb. [Ed: ReadWriteWeb's first analysis of Demand Media was in August.] Demand Media has been criticized for producing low-quality content designed for search engine optimization. It's not journalism, critics say, and it's clogging up Google searches, making good stuff hard to find.
But I suspect much of that criticism has come from people who haven't gone inside the Demand Studios part of Demand Media to see how it really works, or they haven't thought enough about what kind of content it provides, or they haven't thought enough about how it feels to swallow your pride and make a little money with your strongest knowledge and skills, no matter the global hourly rate.
There are differences between the user-generated content at sites Demand Media feeds, and the content generated by Demand Studios.
So let's get to it.
How it works
People sign up as writers, editors or filmmakers. I signed up as a writer. Contributors study the style guide, which gives specifics on allowed citations, and why citations are needed, and how to write for search-engine optimization without sounding too clunky. New writers can also consult forums and connect with other contributors with social-networking tools. Writers can then use keywords, pay rates and general content areas to search through available assignments. Generally, enough assignments exist that writers can find subjects of personal interest.
Fact sheets get $7.50 an assignment. I fulfilled one of those before I realized that rate of pay wasn't worth the effort. The next two assignments, for $15 each, both dealt with the same topic, with slightly different angles, and I chose them because I knew the subject well. Still, I had to do some research, to back up my statements and provide links to .edu or .gov sites. No Wikipedia allowed.
Once accepting assignments, I had a week to submit them to editors. While I could have written each piece without any research, citations and outbound links are required, as well as a summary (a nut graf, essentially, in newspaper terms). Frankly, the discipline of filling out boxes with words could help some professional writers improve the focus of their pieces. Certainly new writers can learn from the system. And the SEO tips in the style guide are worth study.
One piece I wrote was bounced back for further editing. The editor's comments were gentle but clear. I made fixes, resubmitted, and got paid, through Paypal, no invoices necessary.
What's the content?
The stories are usually how-to pieces, often broken into steps. They're evergreen, designed to be as relevant in a year or two as they are now. They're the kinds of questions I would usually get answered through a phone call to my contractor father, or my brother the car genius, or my mother the seamstress/cook/homemaker/gardener/early computer geek.
You can tell by the assignment headlines that they're generated from search engine queries, and sometimes those search terms provide some amusement. People are actually turning to Google to ask these questions? What happened to asking basic questions from friends and family?
But indeed, we're in a different world, and the criticism of Demand Media by some pundits strikes me as a bit elitist, as if the Internet weren't for everyone. A personal example:
(Daughter, 19, volunteers to help me with my eye shadow for a special event.)
Me: Where'd you learn this technique?
(And indeed, eHow videos, supplied by Demand Media, show how to apply eye shadow.)
Swallowing my pride
My friends who first told me about Demand Studios are wordsmiths, copy editors of the highest skill levels, who worked for Demand Studios for $3.50 a story.
Yes, $3.50 a story. But one friend, once he had the hang of the system, managed to work fast enough to raise his rate to about $20 an hour, from his couch, on his schedule, while waiting to get a full-time job elsewhere.
Another friend also edited for Demand Studios, as a supplement to a part-time job before eventually getting full-time work, after about a year of underemployment.
Demand Media doesn't need help with public relations from me. They're compiling comments in an internal forum from their writers about why they love Demand Studios. And plenty of people have commented. They appear to be overwhelmingly women, often with children, often English majors or journalism students, looking for a way to do what they love and make a little money at it.
Compare those demographics to Wikipedia: more than 80% male, more than 65% single, more than 85% without children, around 70% under the age of 30.
Admittedly, working for Demand Studios isn't a point of pride for most professional journalists. But the interface and the editing allow people with other expertise to share knowledge. I recommended the site to my father the contractor. It could be a good way for a retiree with a lifetime of knowledge to document life lessons for others.
People with disabilities, or people who have to fit their work around children's schedules, or people between jobs have a place to earn some money, from their living rooms. It's not the only "writer mill" out there, but it has been under fire lately, and a look inside might add a little light.
Jay Rosen's interview with the CEO of Demand Media, Richard Rosenblatt, done via IM, included this quote from Rosenblatt:
"What's more like a sweatshop: someone's living room working their own hours or a typical newsroom?"
Certainly some people in newsrooms are feeling pressure these days, but perhaps that quote isn't quite fair. For a newsroom copy editor to earn $28 an hour (not factoring in benefits), at the Demand Studios rate of $3.50 a story, they would have to "edit" 64 stories in an eight-hour shift. I don't know of newsrooms that are quite at that point yet, but then again, we're in a global economy, with global pay rates.
Some wordsmiths will choose to work from their couches. Take a good, broad look at what they produce before criticizing.
Check out ReadWriteWeb's entire coverage of Demand Media and content farms:
- Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried
- How Google Can Combat Content Farms
- Jay Rosen Interviews Demand Media: Are Content Farms "Demonic"?
- Demand Media Is a Page View Generating Machine - And it's Working
- Answers.com: 31 Million Copied and Pasted Web Pages Can't Go Wrong
- The Age of Mega Content Sites - Answers.com and Demand Media
- How Demand Media Produces 4,000 Pieces of Content a Day
- Ad-Driven Content - Is it Crossing The Line?