The dilemma of Demand Studios

By Amy Green

Perhaps you’ve noticed advertising for Demand Studios on the Society of Professional Journalists’ Web site or in Quill, SPJ’s bimonthly magazine for members. Maybe you noticed Demand Studios at SPJ’s convention last August in Indianapolis.

Demand Studios is the creative arm of Demand Media, an up-start Web enterprise that has undertaken the Herculean task of providing answers to every question any Web user might ask. The start-up uses a mathematical algorithm drawing from Web data rather than editors to anticipate these questions, generating some 4,000 articles and videos a day with titles such as “How To Draw a Greek Helmet” or “Dog Whistle Training Techniques.” WIRED magazine published a thorough article on Demand last fall.

Already the start-up is among the largest suppliers of content to YouTube, where its 200,000 videos comprise more than twice the content of CBS, The Associated Press, Al Jazeera English, Universal Music Group, CollegeHumor and Soulja Boy combined. Demand also posts content to 45 other sites, includingeHow.com and Livestrong.com, which attract more traffic than ESPN, NBC Universal and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) combined. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently commissioned Demand to produce travel articles that ran online and in print.

To pen and shoot this massive volume of material Demand has reached out to freelance journalists during a time when the recession and fast-moving technology have left our industry in chaos. The catch? The pay. The average Demand writer earns just $15 for articles that top out at a few hundred words, and filmmakers generally earn $20 a clip. Other freelancers copyedit for $2.50 an article, fact-check for $1 an article, transcribe for $1 or $2 a video or offer themselves up as experts to be quoted for free.

I don’t have to tell you how terrible these rates are for freelancers, and understandably some of you have complained about the advertising, reasoning the relationship supports an enterprise that is unhealthy for quality journalism and undermines SPJ’s reputation among freelancers. So I’d like to clarify precisely what is SPJ’s relationship with Demand, and that is Demand is an advertiser for SPJ and nothing more, infusing SPJ with revenue during a time when revenue of course is down. SPJ does not endorse Demand’s business model in any way.

“We are treating them as any vendor who wants to buy ad space on SPJ’s Web site, who wants to sponsor an exhibit at the convention or who wants to buy memberships for their employees,” SPJ President Kevin Smith wrote me in an e-mail about the matter. “We have never denied a media group the right to advertise based on their corporate philosophy. Rupert Murdoch is controversial and does things that violate our Code of Ethics, but we’d afford him the right to advertise and sponsorship, if he chose. In some ways, as a journalism group, we have to create an opportunity for free speech.”

This column is the product of a thoughtful conversation among SPJ’s freelance committee and the organization’s national leadership.

Today the journalism crisis has raised fundamental questions such as what is a journalist, and SPJ aims to be an organization for all journalists including citizen journalists who perhaps lack the training we traditionally receive in journalism schools. The frustration we feel for organizations such as Demand is natural, but really we feel frustrated with an emerging business model that has upended our industry but that is gaining ground. Remember, we are journalists who champion a free exchange of information and ideas. We feel frustrated we no longer hold a monopoly on this.

Whether to embrace Demand is a personal decision on your part akin to embracing, or not, Geico, another SPJ advertiser. If you are a seasoned journalist then I believe, in fact, that you should not work with Demand. I believe the model is unhealthy for quality journalism and takes advantage of struggling journalists. I believe journalists who work for such low rates only depress rates for everyone. Web start-ups offer these rates because they can. People do it. The marketplace supports it. So don’t do it. But perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you feel an enterprise such as this represents the future, and that by turning out a high volume of work you can make the model pay. Perhaps you are a citizen journalist, and the pleasure of seeing your work in print is payment enough.

While Demand might not offer high rates, the start-up does offer reliability, Jeremy Reed, Demand’s senior vice president of content, told me during a phone interview. Demand freelancers can bank on steady pay checks, which in itself is valuable.

“For us it was the principles of SPJ,” said Reed, a former freelance writer himself who was at SPJ’s convention in Indianapolis. “The people that are attracted to that society and career are exactly the type of writer and copy editor that we wanted to attract.”

No matter how you feel about Demand remember that SPJ offers many valuable resources for freelancers, including a lively committee of knowledgeable freelancers and an online database where freelancers can show off our work for editors. Also remember it’s possible this trend eventually will exhaust itself as unsustainable. I mean, how long can a business survive without appropriately compensating the people who drive it?

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Amy Green is chairwoman of SPJ’s freelance committee. She is a journalist in Orlando, Fla., whose stories have appeared in PEOPLE, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. She specializes in faith, the environment and social issues. Visit her Web site at www.amybgreen.com.


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