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Wired has a fascinating look at a growing business — the outsourcing of content creation. That's a fancy phrase for a system of buying stuff from freelance writers, you might think. But what we're really talking about here is nothing like the freelance-writing profession on which national magazines have long relied.
No, we're talking about a lean, mean text machine. We're talking about Demand Media, whose Demand Studios doles out freelance assignments to thousands of writers everywhere — really poor-paying freelance assignments.
In "The Answer Factory: Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell," Daniel Roth walks us through a 21st century process by which high-priced search terms define the assignment and creation of content — and whose few human intervenors are paid inversely. This system requires limited human involvement:
That’s not to say there isn’t any room for humans in Demand’s process. They just aren’t worth very much. First, a crowdsourced team of freelance “title proofers” turn the algorithm’s often awkward or nonsensical phrases into something people will understand: “How to make a church-pew breakfast nook,” for example, becomes “How to make a breakfast nook out of a church pew.” Approved headlines get fed into a password-protected section of Demand’s Web site called Demand Studios, where any Demand freelancer can see what jobs are available. It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40.
Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline. Coming soon: photographers and photo editors. So far, the company has paid out more than $17 million to Demand Studios workers; if the enterprise reaches Rosenblatt’s goal of producing 1 million pieces of content a month, 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.
This is depressing reading for anyone who has been paid well to report, research, write, or edit, but it's also reality, and we need to deal with it. Certainly some of this technology could be employed in a more highbrow context. But it does appear we are headed for complete automation of news creation, at Demand Studios and elsewhere. Yikes.