Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Rise of the Machines: Why Demand Media Is Worth More Than the New York Times

chaplin-modern-timesThe New York Times’s model for content creation, which revolves around well-paid professionals who rely on their experience and judgment, looks increasingly threatened. What does a new model look like? Perhaps one where a computer spits out assignments to day laborers who work furiously for low pay.

That’s the worrisome conclusion you can draw from Dan Roth’s excellent profile of Demand Media in the new issue of Wired. The piece is well-worth reading, but here’s the very short version: Demand has figured out how to generate a massive stream of low-cost stories designed to extract the maximum dollars from Google’s (GOOG) advertisers.

The company has plenty of competitors that do similar stuff–Associated Content, Mahalo, and, owned by the New York Times (NYT)–but Demand’s secret sauce is an algorithm that helps it figure out the most valuable stories to assign, based on search terms and keyword prices. Which leads to stories like “Where can I donate a car in Dallas?”

Demand currently produces about 4,000 new stories a month, paying the freelancers who create them between $15 and $20 a piece. But CEO Richard Rosenblatt wants to up that to a million per year. At that point, Roth notes, “the payouts could easily hit $200 million a year, less than a third of what The New York Times shells out in wages and benefits to produce its roughly 5,000 articles a month.”

Which is why Demand is constantly floated as a potential acquisition candidate for the likes of Yahoo (YHOO), at price tags of $1.5 billion or more. Investors, who bid up Times stock a bit after the company announced plans to cut its newsroom headcount by eight percent, currently value the publisher at $1.3 billion.

All of that make you queasy? Then you’re going to hate reading paragraphs like this:

Here is the thing that Rosenblatt has since discovered: Online content is not worth very much. This may be a truism, but Rosenblatt has the hard, mathematical proof. It’s right there in black and white, in the Demand Media database–the lifetime value of every story, algorithmically derived, and very, very small. Most media companies are trying hard to increase those numbers, to boost the value of their online content until it matches the amount of money it costs to produce. But Rosenblatt thinks they have it exactly backward. Instead of trying to raise the market value of online content to match the cost of producing it–perhaps an impossible proposition–the secret is to cut costs until they match the market value.

I think there’s an equally worrisome story–worrisome, that is, from the admittedly self-interested perspective of content creators like me–about the pressure from advertisers, armed with their own technology, to push the value of online content down even further. But we’ll save that for later. One downer a day is plenty.

Want to know what the face of new media looks like? Here’s a 2008 interview Kara Swisher conducted with the preternaturally peppy Rosenblatt:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik