Demand Media’s Richard Rosenblatt and ProPublica’s Paul Steiger Live at D8
What’s the future of the media business? Demand Media, the Google-savvy “content farm” that generates thousands of computer-assigned, low-cost Web items a day? Or ProPublica, a nonprofit that produces deep-dive investigative pieces and publishes them on its own site and in the pages of high-profile partners?
Good guess: Some of both. But let’s allow both parties to make their own case.
Below is the full video of the interview, followed by the liveblog:
9:41 am: Kara asks Paul Steiger to explain what he’s up to.
Steiger: Stories are aimed at abuse of power and empowering people to make change. I started there because when I was leaving the Journal in 2007, the traditional news business was collapsing. We had $10 million in funding and that wasn’t something I could turn down in that environment. I didn’t have time to be worried–I had to leave the Journal because of mandatory retirement age, and my wife said I couldn’t wear sweatpants during the weekday.
9:44 am: Kara to Rosenblatt–Please explain the controversy regarding Demand.
[WARNING: Rosenblatt speaks very quickly. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to get more than impressionistic stabs at what he’s saying.]
“We only write content that people want….We’re not journalists, all right? The only people that call us journalists are journalists.” That said, what we do is “more like service journalism….There’s no piece of content made that we think is good” because we only make content that people tell us they think is good.
9:46 am: Rosenblatt–We do no marketing. All traffic comes from organic search.
I don’t know why people call this “dreck.” When you do something 6,000 times a day, it always looks like it’s of low-quality. We’re okay with that; we’re continually trying to prove to people that we’re doing good stuff.
We have a deal with USA Today and others that we’ll be announcing.
9:47 am: Kara to Steiger–What do you think of all this?
Steiger: I see this as a reordering of the environment that we’re all going to have to live in. You [Demand] make stuff people want; you control costs, and it’s working. Another model is the Politico model, with a combination of tightly controlled print plus a big Web site. We do the most expensive, the most important journalism for democracy.
Steiger: A story we did with the Los Angeles Times about nurses getting bogus licenses. A story about police in New Orleans killing people. There are five or six things like that in the past year where we can point to changes that have taken place because of our stories. These things can cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands to produce.
In the old days, that could be a loss leader for for-profit newspapers. Can’t do that anymore, so we need philanthropy. “Silicon Valley, come on in!”
9:50 am: Kara to Rosenblatt–Will you do “Top 10 nurses that beat people up”?
Kara: Wait a minute! People may want it!
Rosenblatt: I think journalism is important, and the problem is trying to pay for it. We can help publications like USA Today, where we generate content and revenue for them, and they can take that money to fund other reporting. We’re not going to save journalism, but we can help it.
Kara to Rosenblatt: You employ a lot of journalists.
Rosenblatt: Not journalists.
Kara: Former journalists?
Rosenblatt: They may have been former journalists, and they may do journalism somewhere else. We call them freelancers, content creators.
9:53 am: Kara asks Rosenblatt to explain editing/oversight.
Rosenblatt: Eleven people touch this stuff before it gets published, etc. Anyway, let’s say we do 7,000 pieces of content a day. That’s 77,000 individual touches per day, with 10,000 freelancers around the Web. That’s amazing. That’s what the Web is made for.
9:54 am: Kara–How do they get paid?
Rosenblatt: They can get paid by piece or by revenue-share. But most of them prefer to get paid by content, because it’s guaranteed.
9:55 am: Kara–at The Wall Street Journal, we had people who worked for months on a single story. Is that done?
Steiger: The Journal, the New York Times and Washington Post are still vertically integrated and have powerful enough brands and talent that I think they can make it into the next generation.
Kara: Two of those are in dicey shape.
Steiger: Remember that there are two things going on right now. There is a secular shift, with the business model being destroyed. But there’s also a recession. So as that eases, we’ll have a better sense of who can survive.
9:58 am: Steiger–I’d love to go back to 10 years ago, or longer, to the golden age of journalism. But not even Silicon Valley can produce a time machine.
Kara: So do you think even the big newspapers that survive will switch to audience-driven content creation? That’s not what journalism is about.
Steiger: No matter what you’re doing, you’re still making stuff with an idea of what the people who are reading you want. It’s a broader way of thinking about it than Demand, but there’s a common thread.
9:59 am: Kara to Rosenblatt–Where is your actual business? Is it domains?
Rosenblatt: We have two main businesses: Registrar/domains. It’s steady, recurring revenue, and it generates a lot of data. Almost 10 percent of the Web hits our servers via these domains. It’s an exciting source of data.
Then we have the media business. That’s 50 percent bigger, in revenue, than other business and growing fast.
Of that business, less than 10 percent is domain advertising business. Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) stick ads on tenniselbow.com, etc. We think that’s a great business also.
Kara: Is your media business profitable?
Rosenblatt: Can’t talk about that.
Kara: Does that mean it’s not profitable?
Rosenblatt: Can’t talk about that.
Kara: But you’re going public, right?
Rosenblatt: Can’t talk about that.
10:03 am: Kara–you’re dependent on Google, right?
Rosenblatt: In the way that everyone is dependent on Google. Or that the iPhone is dependent on AT&T (T). But everyone searches on the Web. So some of our sites, like eHow, are getting traffic from Google. But others aren’t.
If Google changes their algorithm, we think about that. But we spend a lot of care on what we do, and we think there’s a move to quality long-tail content that Google values.
10:05 am: Kara to Rosenblatt–AOL is doing what you’re doing. Yahoo just bought Associated Content. It has more distribution than you do. What does that mean for you?
Rosenblatt: We love that AOL (AOL) and Yahoo are validating what we’re doing. “In a market this big, that’s in the first inning, there’s plenty of room for all of us.”
10:05 am: Kara to Steiger–How do you feel about the kind of journalism you do becoming nonprofit work? Does that depress you?
Steiger: “I’m the opposite of disheartened. I’m very excited.” Yes, the business is shrinking and people are losing jobs, and I don’t want to make light of that. But we’re attracting great people; we’ve won a Pulitzer Prize. The work will get done. The work is crucial to our society, and it needs philanthropic support. But so do orchestras and clinics and universities.
10:07 am: Kara–Is there a way to actually make money doing this?
Steiger: “Conceivably, but I can’t think of what it is.” If you’re focused entirely on this, “at this stage, you need philanthropic help.”
Kara to Rosenblatt: Can you think of how to do this?
Rosenblatt: You can hold a conference and charge people $5,000 a head. [Applause in conference room and in D8 cave.]
For Rosenblatt: Why won’t you call your people “journalists”? Steve Jobs was full of venom for “bloggers,” too. Why not call people who write for money “journalists”?
Rosenblatt: If our writers want to call themselves journalists, great. But they’re not doing reporting from Afghanistan. We’re content creators, making things that people want.
Steiger: I just think that the labels get in the way.
Q: Who are those 11 people that touch Demand Media’s content? What do they do?
Rosenblatt: Some people are involved in “titling.” For SEO or social media purposes. Three people are involved in checking each title. Then people involved in each property select stories, depending on the voice. Then copy editors, copy chiefs, writers. We’re actually going to be adding more. We can make it so efficient, that we can add more roles, and everyone can keep making the same amount of money.
Q: What about rolling out content on the domains you run?
A: Not yet. Maybe in coming years. It’s not a focus right now. We do think the assets that you own and we own, we think those assets “have great optionality later” to put content on.
Q for Steiger: Do you share Steve Jobs’s distaste for bloggers?
Steiger: I sleep with a blogger! My wife blogs from 11 pm to 2 am. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of blogging. They bring a lot of audience to ProPublica’s Web site. I think what Steve was getting at is that there’s a danger of too many people commenting and not enough people finding out what’s going on. [I don’t think that’s entirely what Jobs was complaining about, btw.]
This content-creation session is now over.
A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as possible. It is not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.