Proposed Internet Guidelines Unlikely to Fill Content ‘Doughnut with an Empty Center’

From the Making Sense of the News blog at Poynter.

The article examines whether the Internet, specifically content farms, need guidelines on journalistic integrity.

When a minor earthquake struck central Oklahoma last month, the state’s media did a commendable job responding to the unexpected event. The Oklahoman reported the tremor almost immediately on one of its blogs, then followed up with more than a half-dozen thorough stories. Local TV stations posted quake videos, and the Web soon was awash with stories that included interviews with witnesses, geologists, and public officials.

But when I searched Google News for the words “Oklahoma Earthquake” two days after the tremor, the story listed at the top of the results page wasn’t from a traditional media outlet, but from Associated Content — a so-called “content farm” owned by Yahoo that allows free-lance writers to post articles about almost any subject.

The article uses this as a following example of the issue with content farms.

The 396-word Associated Content earthquake story — written by a self-described stay-at-home mom in Southern California — contained no original reporting; its account of the earthquake was cribbed from the Oklahoman and other online sources. It contained more than a half-dozen grammatical errors and a factual mistake. (It said five people were killed when tornadoes struck Oklahoma earlier this year, but failed to note that officials later revised the tornadoes’ death toll to three.) After making a tenuous connection among the earthquake, the tornadoes, and this spring’s Midwest flooding, the story concluded, “In the end, natural disasters are all around us.”

A suggested solution such as a ISCS seal of approval have been seen as another volley in the war between major media organisations and content farms.

The ICSC’s proposal is the latest volley in an ongoing rivalry between content farms and other media organizations. As noted in a recent Adweek article, most Web publishers “harbor a special vitriol” for content farms, which include not only Associated Content, but also AOL’s Seed.com, and a family of websites owned by Demand Media. The sites churn out literally thousands of articles, photos, and videos a day, paying free-lancers an average of about $20 for each one.

Relatively little of the content consists of hard news. More common is “evergreen” material such as how-to articles and videos (“How to cover up a pimple“), recaps of TV shows (“Dancing with the Stars results from week five favor Brandy and Maksim“), and opinion pieces (“Domino’s Pizza is not the best pizza and was not my favorite place to work“).

For advertisers seeking eyeballs, the sites are alluring. Associated Content attracts more than 17 million unique visitors a month, mostly through search engines; Yahoo acquired Associated Content earlier this year for a reported $100 million. Demand Media — which owns such sites as ehow.com and livestrong.com — claims an audience of 80 million; it filed for an initial public offering this summer.

Associated Content — which calls itself “the people’s media company” — makes no apologies for its business model or lack of editorial oversight. “AC is a publishing platform; it’s people-driven, not editor-driven,” founder Luke Beatty told the Online Journalism Review in 2007. “While that may be scary to people in traditional media, it’s not scary at all to regular people.”

For the full article, click here

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