Richard Rosenblatt
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There are some who believe that if major media outlets can reinstate a paid model for online content, there will be a reversal in the market for skilled journalists—in essence, returning to a subscription or subsidized model for news will provide revenue to publishers, who will hire quality writers and editors once again, and pay them.

But that seems unlkely. In 2009, Gary Kamiya contemplated this exact problem in Salon:

If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer . . .

But the story is more complicated than that. At the same time that newspapers are dying, blogging and “unofficial” types of journalism continue to expand, grow more sophisticated and take over some (but not all) of the reportorial functions once performed by newspapers. New technologies provide an infinitely more robust feed of raw data to the public, along with the accompanying range of filtering, interpreting and commenting mechanisms that the Internet excels in generating.

Journalists and newspapers have never lacked for opportunities to embrace new media technologies. So, what happened to their model? As early as 1999, Scott Rosenberg, also writing for Salon, prophesized in a piece entitled “Fear of Links:

While professional journalists turn up their noses, weblog pioneers invent a new, personal way to organize the Web’s chaos.

Were the newspapers not listening? Or were they sufficiently blinded by their own traditions and cultures that they could not take the best emerging technologies and ineffectively struggled to retrofit innovation into traditional containers?

Are we suffering from the same myopia?

Publishing institutions face challenges — trying to overcome infrastructure obstacles and established thought patterns to embrace new ways of thinking about content creation and scholarship.  Even a progressive publishing house will find re-tooling to be expensive, painful, and slow.

Companies that don’t have traditional models and structures have the benefit of having less infrastructure drag and can be agile enough to create niche businesses to zero in on market problems—sometimes solving them by irreverent means.  They have the added “advantage” of not embracing romanticized traditions or struggling with crises of conscience when contemplating radical change.

If you’ve watched the progress of Demand Media, you’re aware that Demand has set their sights on building relationships with major media outlets to supplement the content that the newspapers—under extreme financial strain—are commissioning less and less themselves.

Demand’s process for creating and vetting content and for compensating writers is nightmarish for those who have made their livings as journalists, editors, and contributors.  This month’s feature in Vanity Fair notes:

Demand pays roughly $15 for an original, well-written and researched 500-word article. That’s three cents per word, about one-tenth of what a writer would get from a frugal magazine or newspaper. Nevertheless, media professionals are signing up in droves . . .

According to an October 2009 article in Wired entitled, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model,” the process driving content creation is almost entirely technologically based:

Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

Are there radically innovative start-ups already moving in our industry?  Take a look at SEED Media Group.  SEED’s Research Blogging is an aggregated blog platform that provides free access and cross-searching of posts authored exclusively by scientists and scholars — who are also scholarly journal contributors.  In an open-access environment, making pre-publication research discussion freely available is not necessarily problematic, provided that we can deal with the fact that it the material presented has not been peer-reviewed.  What we lose in the review process, we make up for in terms of speed, availability, and our ability to customize results to our own interests.

The concept that free blogging by academics—not intermediated by a society or publisher—is suitable for our readership is a new one.  And, it’s potentially disruptive.  If embraced, will this content be additive or will it supplant the demand for something else?

If we allow that we are already seeing new models and new technologies from start-up companies in our own industry, is there room for a company like Demand Media to move in?

I think there is potential for commercial or non-profit companies with models like Demand Media’s in academic publishing.  There are aggregated academic content platforms being developed (Google Scholar and others) that will, in future, be able to leverage enough student usage data to interpret content demand on the basis of clicks.  From there, building a meta-community of academic authors and contributors is not a stretch, and assigning work dynamically on the basis of clicks is also within reach.

Is this a bad omen for our industry?  Not necessarily.  There are positive ways that scholarly publishers, libraries, and vendors can collaborate to leverage these sorts of opportunities.  This may be a signal to us to watch closely, disencumber, and stake out new directions — from within our community.

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9 Thoughts on "Lessons from a Neighboring Industry — Demand Media’s Disruptive Impact on Journalism"

I’m not sure that newspapers’ problems stemmed from ignoring technology and blogs. To me, their real problem was the high level of cost-cutting that went on in the industry, the firing of reporters in favor of the cheaper use of wire services for most reporting. That reduced the quality of what they offer to a point where any newspaper can be substituted in for another. So if a newspaper now tries to charge, they’re easily replaced with a free alternative.

I’m also not sure how the Demand Media business model would fit for a research journal. Demand commissions articles/videos based on search engine traffic, what information are people seeking? If we assume scholarly publishing covers discovery, new pieces of information, can the same system work? It’s one thing to commission an article on “how do I tie my shoelaces”, quite another to do “how do I cure cancer”. Research finds answers to questions that aren’t yet answered. Demand Media creates low-cost articles based on things that are already known.

And if you take a look at any given moment at the front page of Seed’s Science Blogs, very few of the articles are actually discussing scientific data. The vast majority are discussing policy, the day to day life of a scientist and of course, blogging about blogging and other forms of scientific communication. Blogs seem to serve a very different purpose than journal articles.

The business model aside, as someone who works on scientific search systems I find this popularity algorithm quite interesting. There are folks at Los Alamos who are gathering this kind of information for science journal inside traffic. Last I knew they had logged over a billion clicks. There should be value in knowing what the scientists are interested in when they go to a journal, and how that interest is changing over time.

Conversely, it is a journal’s job to say what is going on scientifically in their community. One thing that could be commissioned might be reviews and perspectives, of research areas that are getting a lot of scientific attention.

Yes, good point. I was thinking something about the first 30 pages of Nature or Science, the magazine portion, where this might be a useful strategy for commissioning reporting. But the actual research reports can’t really be commissioned, unless journals want to get into the business of funding and directing research.

Actually, check that, Demand strictly avoids “news” content. Their business model is based on generating ad revenue against their content, and news stories are too fleeting. They instead only produce content likely to have longer staying power. So yes your suggestions of reviews or perhaps methods would be more appropriate.

My mistake. Alix started off talking abut news journalism so I assumed that is what they do. Explanation of concepts and issues is a better fit with journal content.

ScienceMag is a good example. There are about a dozen different content products, many of which are commissioned (others are revenue generating). Content is divided 50-50 between research reports and custom material. Moreover, some of this stuff, like Policy Forum, Special Issues or Perspectives, can go on one’s CV.

Of course journals can’t commission research but the people who do may be interested in the popularity algorithm, as the scientists themselves should be. At OSTI we have added a “top downloads” list to several of our products. We have also added news feeds from federal science agencies and some scholarly societies.

So there are many ways a journal can move in this direction. I think of it as concentric circles of explanation and communication, with the research report at the center.

Demand Media’s model may well work for science journalism, if it works at all. At 3 cents a word no professional journalist can afford to do much of this, except as a volunteer, or maybe as a loss leader or a way to break in. If one does the research needed to do a decent 500 word piece from scratch they are working for less than minimum wage. Wikipedia demonstrates that there are legions of volunteer, vanity technical writers out there, so who knows?

But academics playing this game will be moonlighting. And no researcher in their right mind would report their results this way, unless they had tenure. Google Scholar distributes journal articles. Demand Media does news. There is no obvious combination.

There is a great need to find ways to get research results out faster than via the journal cycle, but this doesn’t look like one of them. In science the news cycle is tied to the journal cycle. Pres releases normally report peer reviewed publication. But it might work for interim events like grant awards and conference presentations.

So the real question is what might those 500 words of scholarship say?

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