Tish Grier

Tish Grier began her freelance writing career in 2005 with a huge leap of faith and a couple of blogs. Since then, she became the Editor of the Corante Media Hub (http://media.corante.com), has published several articles on blogging and interactivity, and was a panelist at the 2006 SXSW Interactive conference. Tish graduated from Smith College in '01 where she received highest honors for her critical analysis of American religious films of the 20th century. Along with her editing and writing, Tish consults and speaks on blogging and interactivity, and is a member of the selection committee for the 2006 Northampton Independent Film Festival. She maintains her own media-centered blog at the Constant Observer (http://spap-oop.blogspot.com).


From Open Mics to Buzz Brokers, ‘Content Farms’ are Not all Created Equal

They are called a variety of euphemisms, from “content mills” or “content farms” to “content creation houses” and the Fifth Estate, but make no mistake: sites that specialize in the production and distribution of user-generated content are influencing the news industry and journalism.

The evergreen content produced by Demand Media, Helium.com, and Associated Content finds its way from these platforms to a variety of media partners, including newspapers, magazines and online news providers seeking to add local or evergreen content to their sites.

These partnerships generate low-cost content for publications and revenue for the content provider. And for some writers, these opportunities provide them with credibility and a small amount of regular income.

In a recent webinar hosted by Poynter’s News University, Mitch Gelman, Vice President of Special Projects at Examiner.com — a relatively recent addition to the stable of content creation houses — discussed the differences between these sites.

Gelman introduced three basic models that describe the writers drawn to the sites and the content that they provide.

  • Open Mic sites have their roots in the “Speaker’s Corner.” People drive the content production on these sites. Both Associated Content and Helium.com have Open Mic components to their content production models. Demand Media may be adding this to their offerings in the near future as well.
  • Buzz Brokers analyze search trends and put out calls for stories. Associated Content has incorporated this model, and this is the primary content model at Demand Media.
  • Pro-Am sites reach out to people in neighborhoods who can contribute. Its roots are in the stringer model of local newspapers, and these models seek to develop their contributors’ skills. Helium and Examiner.com make use of aspects of this model.
The three pieces in this series touch on elements of each model. The partnership between Demand Media and USA Today for travel content reflects some buzz brokering. The purchase of Associated Content by Yahoo! may demonstrate the value of a local open mic. And Helium’s strategy of credentialing writers underlines a distinct pro-am influence.

Key to how each of these develops will be the evolution of their contributor communities. Their respective page views make it clear there is a huge demand for the content produced. And if contributor participation and collaboration continue, maybe these upstart disruptors will begin to replicate a virtual newsroom experience while expanding their business models. Read more

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Why USA Today Partnered with Demand Media

As more news organizations begin to consider integrating user-generated content into their daily offerings, several traditional news publishers (Hearst) have started using various forms of user-generated content from content production sites like Helium.com and Associated Content. Demand Media is the newest and perhaps most closely watched of the content production sites.

Concern over Demand comes not just from its 2008 merger with blog syndicator and aggregation software developer Pluck, but also due to its proprietary algorithm that is said to help content producers generate keyword-rich content that increases reach into the first pages of Google and other search results.

In the deal between Demand Media and USA Today, Demand provides 4,000-plus keyword-rich “Travel Tips” articles and other types of content that will be cached in USA Today’s Travel Section. Demand Media will also provide keyword-rich advertising to accompany the content. While the article content will be free to USA Today, the revenue generated from the ads will be split between the news organization and Demand.

Recently, I had the opportunity to correspond with Victoria Borton, General Manager of the Travel section at USA Today, on the decision to partner with Demand Media and the benefits.

Tish Grier: Were other content outlets considered before Demand Media was chosen?

Victoria Borton: USA TODAY had a long-standing relationship with Pluck through our integration of their social media tools on USATODAY.com, enabling community as part of our Network Journalism launch in 2007. Pluck introduced us to Demand Studios about extending our relationship around their search optimized content model, we agreed travel was a category where creating a co-branded section using their approach made sense.

… We’ve had a positive relationship with Pluck since the launch of Network Journalism on USATODAY.com in 2007.

How important was Demand’s ad production and placement plan to the deal?

Borton: Demand Media’s system to create content based on search trends and the corresponding advertising model provided a strong business case for entering into this relationship.

Why was the Travel section chosen over other USAT sections that feature evergreen content? Is there an expectation that Demand’s content will help the USAT Travel section become a “destination site” known for its travel info?

Borton: Travel is an area where consumers are always looking for functional, actionable tips and information around a wide variety of topics. It’s an ideal area to offer travel tips. USA TODAY Travel is already a popular destination site for original, trusted travel information, and the addition of Travel Tips is one way to broaden our overall content offering.

What might be expected earnings from the travel section now that this deal is in place?

Borton: We are most excited about the demand-driven, search friendliness of this content, and its ability to bring new users to our site. As traffic increases over time, advertising revenues will follow those traffic increases.

Are there any plans to extend Demand content to other sections in USA Today, or to use them for any news or investigative reporting?

Borton: We will watch the performance of the section over time and make further decisions on whether to extend to other areas if it makes sense for both our audience and our business. While Demand Media’s co-branded content expands our overall offering to our audience, there has been no thought that it would replace our existing content coverage, news and investigative reporting in any way.

Much has been made of the possibility of Demand’s content not meeting with prevailing journalistic standards. Could you comment on Demand’s standards and how those standards relate to the journalistic standards maintained by USA Today?

Borton: We worked with Demand Media to share our overall editorial guidelines, and they selected their top writers with existing travel experience for our project. USA TODAY reserves the right to remove content we don’t feel is up to our standards. For this type of consumer service content, we are happy with the quality to date.

How might you describe the relationship between “content” and “journalism”?

Spacer SpacerBorton: Journalism is core to the USA TODAY brand — it’s our unique investigation and reporting around timely events and items of interest. Content can be anything consumed by a user: data, information, listings, photos, videos, maps and so on.

Note: On June 14, USA Today announced a partnership with location-based social network Gowalla. I asked Borton if any of the Demand Media content would be served on the three Gowalla applications. She responded: “All three of the USA TODAY content features appearing on the Gowalla application are written by USA TODAY staffers and freelance columnists.” Read more

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Helium Hopes Credentialing Sets it Apart from other Social Content Producers

For those who are concerned about the future of news, the notion that a “content mill” could produce quality journalism seems to be anathema.

But Mark Ranalli, CEO of Helium.com, has been working towards building the kind of online community that could do that.

In a recent conversation with Ranalli, he explained that since its launch in 2006, Helium has been growing as both a content platform and community in many different ways. One of the significant changes is Helium’s Credentialed Professional Program.

As more professionals have come to Helium, some via its partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists, Helium needed a system that brought their offline credentials into the online community.

For example, a journalist or SPJ member can apply to Helium’s credentialing board with all the necessary information, and the board will check those credentials. If the writer is credentialed as a journalist, then he will receive the appropriate site badge, and a four-star ranking.

A paramedic who is writing on health issues might apply to be credentialed as a medical professional. Credentialing and badges let others know that the writers are people who have substantial experience in particular fields and that their work can be trusted.

Helium has also assembled a credentialed Editorial Team. Potential editors must apply for a position, and pass what Ranalli describes as a very stringent test of their editorial skills before being considered for the team. “I know that the people on are editorial team are top-notch,” Ranalli said, “because even I can’t pass our editor’s test.”

Since the implementation of credentialing and the introduction of the Editorial Team, Ranalli noted that more magazine and online publishers are turning to Helium’s content rather than to freelancers. The pay, however, is lower than what freelancers may once have made. Ranalli sees a downward trend for wages: “People might not get paid the same amounts as in the past, but they will be paid and published.”

Credentialing may also be important as Helium considers doing investigative journalism. In December of 2009, Helium News was introduced to encourage more news-style reporting, as well as collaboration between contributors. Ranalli believes these changes begin creating an online newsroom experience, where seasoned reporters mingle and exchange ideas with new writers.

This “virtual newsroom” community does not fast track publishing on Helium. All articles, whether or not they come from a credentialed writer, are submitted first to a blind peer-review process. This process has always been part of the Helium model of editorial oversight, partly because it can lessen the likelihood stories will be approved based on a writer’s popularity.

Ranalli also consider the blind review process an important way to bring forth new voices that might otherwise never be heard and have the potential to make a strong contribution to journalism.

Helium, over the years, has created partnerships with prestigious organizations in order to raise the profile of it writers. A partnership with the National Press Club has opened the doors of that 100-year-old organization to Helium contributors who have earned a five-star ranking.

And an ongoing relationship with The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting brings the Global Issues/Citizen Voices essay contest on under-reported topics to the Helium community. The current and ninth contest is focused on global maternal health.

Spacer SpacerThis partnership and others have lead to the Citizen Journalism Awards, which cover a broad range of topics and are sponsored by organizations as diverse as The Sunshine Foundation, the Knight Center for International Media and ITVS (for the 1H2O Project), and PETA.

Helium hopes these partnerships and its editorial processes elevate it above other content-creation companies. At least some believe it has. The Massachusetts firm was recently named one of the “Hottest Boston Companies.” Read more

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How Associated Content Helps Yahoo Go Local

Since 2004, Associated Content — “The People’s Media Company” — has grown a stable of over 380,000 loyal content producers who have contributed over two million pieces of text, audio, video, and photographic content to its distribution platform. In mid-May, it was announced that Associated Content had been sold to Yahoo! for a little more than $100 million, and has plans to shut down the Associated Content website when the sale is complete in the third quarter of this year.

How will Associated Content continue to court the loyalty of its contributors while the sale and shutdown are pending? And what — beyond the obvious advantages of loyal contributors and a huge cache of money-earning, evergreen content — does Yahoo get? I posed these questions to Patrick Keane, CEO of Associated Content.

But first, here’s how it works now. Associated Content’s writers create self-selected and assignment-based content. Most of what is produced is evergreen content, but there are also personal essays, product reviews, and the like. While some content is paid at scale or “upfront,” Keane explained that various types of content are often valued individually, according to the form (text, video, etc.) and potential earnings.

Since monetization happens over the lifetime of an article, and articles are considered annuities for both Associated Content and the producers, potential earnings are determined by a number of factors, including Web search results and Ad Sense metrics.

Content contributors have a number of options to help them distribute and promote their work across social networking sites and blogs. Contributors can also rely on the site’s search engine optimization and how-to guides for creating headlines and leads with search-friendly keywords. The combination of self-promotion and search engine optimization helps producers maximize what is available to them beyond the upfront payment system.

Keane said that “no immediate changes” would be made to the payment process. He elaborated: “We remain committed to the people that produce content. The acquisition by Yahoo! brings a great deal of opportunity for them and this will increase our contributor base. Contributors will continue to create and upload content onto Associated Content’s platform. They will now be supported with a much larger distribution – 600 million unique monthly visitors.

“There may be tweaks and changes to the process of content creation in the future,” he continued, “but both Yahoo! and Associated Content are committed to maintaining the standards our contributors are used to in order to produce the most useful, original content by the people, for the people. Yahoo! plans to leverage content from our contributors across its leading media properties including Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Finance.”

Contributors will also have the opportunity to produce for Shine, Yahoo! Movies, OMG, and most of the Yahoo! network.

Associated Content currently partners with media organizations, including Thomson Reuters, Cox Newspapers, CNN. Keane said the sale is viewed positively by them. “Yahoo! partners and collaborates with publishers and they view the acquisition of Associated Content as an opportunity to extend those partnerships,” he told me. “We envision that this agreement will open new opportunities to partner with other companies that share the same mission of producing high-quality original content at scale. No specific changes have been made at this point.”

There may be a battle brewing over who will produce fresh, news-style content, though. Even though its focus until now has been on the production of evergreen content, with less than 10 percent considered “news,” there are a number of seasoned journalists who contribute news-style content to several of AC’s verticals, including Sports and Society.

Prior to the sale, I had asked Keane about the potential for Associated Content to create local news. “Using the virtual assignment desk, we can activate any audience in any ZIP code,” he responded. “So, then, we could potentially have someone follow the story of a plane crash. We can activate people in any community to create news stories if we’d like to do that. But that’s not our focus.”

Yahoo!, however, will now be able to throw its hat in the ring, alongside others such as AOL, in the fight to produce content for local portals.

Spacer SpacerWhen asked after the sale whether Associated Content might begin to produce more locally-focused content, Keane responded: “The local section on Associated Content’s site already has a library full of locally-focused content across several topics. Yahoo! intends to leverage the Associated Content platform to generate content across their properties, including local content. This deal will help Yahoo! provide useful local content, as Associated Content has the unique ability to tap 380,000 ‘man-on-the-street’ contributors who are experts in their locale and can produce high-quality content in real time from any DMA.” Read more

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Google’s Real-Time Search Raises Importance of Link Sharing Via Social Networks

One of the most important ways for blogs to get good traction in search used to come from links on other highly linked blogs and Web sites. The exchange of links from blog to blog created “link love,” which then helped to increase a blog’s Google PageRank. Along with keywords, PageRank could significantly boost a blog’s position in search, sometimes putting that blog higher in results than a major news site. Even when bloggers linked to newspaper sites, news sites didn’t always see those links as beneficial to them.

Now, a new kind of link love, associated with real-time search and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, might be the kind that news organizations seek to embrace.

In December, Google announced that it would offer real-time search results that are seconds old, rather than the usual ones that are updated every 15 to 20 minutes. News headlines, blogs, tweets and feeds from the most popular social networking sites would now be part of a true, real-time search. This signals the first time that any search engine has been able to integrate real-time search results into its regular search results.

“Information is being created at a pace I have never seen before — and in this environment, seconds matter,” said Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, at December’s announcement. “I cannot emphasize enough: Relevance is the foundation of this product. It is relevance, relevance, relevance. There is so much info being generated out there, getting you relevant information is the key to success of a product like this.”

Keeping its search results relevant is one of Google’s biggest concerns. Both Google and Bing have deals with Twitter to get real-time access to tweets, but Google claims supremacy in real-time search by including Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites in its results. Google’s Twitter deal, the details of which have not been disclosed, may also aid in its development of new search features for mobile and improved geographic search, which were also revealed at the December event.

It’s not easy to determine relevance in the Twittersphere, which is often viewed as a cacophony of noise that makes it hard to find the signal. Google has developed a way to determine search relevance by ranking tweets with a method similar in some ways to PageRank. Singhal, who led the development of real-time search, explained that the key to understanding relevance in Twitter is to identify “reputed followers.” He told Technology Review, “You earn reputation and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone — then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers,” that person’s tweet is valuable because his or her followers are followed by a wider group.

One user following another in a social networking site is analogous to one blogger (and Web site) linking to another. As links from high-ranking bloggers and sites gave “link love” to unknowns, well-established, popular Twitter users lend reputation to the users they follow.

Social ranking based on popularity is not the only way that Google is making sense of, and determining the value of, tweets. Google also has taken into consideration the use of hashtags (#), by which users note that their tweet relates to a particular topic (often a trending topic). While hashtags can help anyone keep up with the latest on a particular topic, they also can attract spam tweets, which lower the value of the hashtag. Google, however, has modeled hashtag behavior in a way that filters spam — again, cutting out the noise. Hashtags may be one of the ways that Google will be able to focus real-time search on geographic regions.

Now that real-time links are included with standard Web search, it’s more important for bloggers, marketers, and yes, news organizations, to use social networking sites to spread information via shared links. If a news organization is concerned about stolen content, social networking should be more acceptable considering the means of dissemination are limited to 140 characters.

Here are my suggestions for how news sites can make the most of real-time search and share in the new link love:

  • Have a presence on social networking sites. This is best leveraged if the presence is connected with an individual — whether the person is a reporter or someone else doesn’t matter, as long as it is a person. Spreading news in the social realm works best when done person to person.
  • Create a branded URL shortener and make it easy to find and use. This will save readers from going to another shortener service, and it ensures link integrity. If creating a shortener is too costly, think of using the professional version of bit.ly, which gives statistics on each shortened URL.
  • Create simple tutorials to tell users how to share your content on social networking sites. Explain how hashtags can be used to specify a subject or geographic region.
  • Track click-through traffic from social networking sites to see which are most active for your region, and focus efforts there. This may be helpful when geographic location becomes a larger part of real-time search.
  • Monitor activity on social networking sites. This makes it easier to see which stories are important to readers, especially during major breaking news. This will be most helpful to news sites that automatically cache content behind a pay wall after a short time. Maintaining open access to major stories, as the public is actively sharing links, shows a strong commitment to the community and can foster loyalty.
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Most Print and Online Journalists Use Social Media for Story Research

The discussions in many newsrooms about social media often focus on whether or not it is appropriate for journalists to have a presence in social networks. Yet there is far more to interacting with social media than participating in networks.

A recent study by Cision, a provider of newsroom software for the public relations industry, and Don Bates of The George Washington University Master’s Degree Program in Strategic Public Relations, sheds some light on how journalists use social media and what they think of it as a news resource. 

The survey of 371 journalists working for newspapers, magazines, and Web sites found that a large majority of reporters and editors now depend on social media sources for story research. Among the journalists surveyed, 89 percent said they look to blogs for story research, 65 percent go to social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, while 52 percent check out what’s happening on Twitter and other microblogging sites.

Some interesting takeaways from the survey:

  • Social media is also used to publish, promote and distribute news and other content. Sixty-four percent use blogs, 60 percent use social networking sites, and 57 percent use microblogging platforms.
  • Less-experienced journalists use online and social media metrics to measure the impact of their stories more than experienced journalists.
  • Ninety-one percent of journalists at newspapers and 85 percent at magazines found news from social media sites to be less reliable. That dropped to 76 percent for their counterparts working online.
  • Google is used most for search and Wikipedia is second, with 60 percent of journalists surveyed using it regularly.

Most of the journalists surveyed work in print (52 percent for magazines, 25 percent for newspapers), and the remainder work online. Their median experience in journalism is 18 years.

The full survey can be downloaded for free from the Cision Web site. Read more

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Demand Media May Be Bad for Social Media, but Not for Journalism

In the last month, there has been a lot of sturm und drang over Demand Media, its model of content production, and its proprietary algorithm for optimizing content. Most of what was said, however, missed the point. I believe Demand Media is more of a threat to social media communications than it is to journalism and journalistic standards because of the kind of content it provides and what it does by providing search optimized content for corporate sites and evergreen content for the news industry. First, some background.

Who are these Demand Media guys anyway?

Demand Media was founded in 2006 by former Intermix Media & MySpace CEO Richard Rosenblatt and Shawn Colo. The company started out by buying up domains, Web sites and other abandoned or neglected Internet properties. DM grew quietly and strategically, while working on its proprietary algorithms for search engine optimization (SEO).

In March 2008, Demand Media acquired Pluck, which in 2005 founded Blog Burst, “a syndication service that places blogs on top-tier online destinations.”

I met Dave Panos, Pluck’s CEO, and the Pluck Team back in the autumn of 2005 at the “BlogOn Social Media Summit.” At that time, Pluck had several consumer-oriented offerings, including a simple to use RSS reader. I found the Pluck guys to be really savvy about the inner workings of the Internet, and to have great respect for bloggers. They had BlogBurst in the works — a syndication service for blogs — out of a desire to get good content out in front of more readers through traditional media outlets. (Check out the BlogBurst News page to see the deals that BlogBurst made with various newspaper companies from ’06 to ’07.)

Demand Media’s acquisition of Pluck was a wise move. Demand had the Web properties for featuring content, and the proprietary algorithms to help get that content into search, while Pluck had the newspaper industry connections, the content, and knowledge of syndication.

Very, very smart business move for both companies.

It was all great fun until someone coined the term “content farm”….

ReadWriteWeb‘s Richard MacManus had been following the developments at Demand Media for several months, and on Dec. 13, posted “Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should be Worried.”

In that post, MacManus explained that he’s been following the progress of so-called ‘content farms,’ and wrote an analysis of Demand in August 2009 — well before Wired.com’s overly verbose and barely informative article on Demand Media appeared in October. (The Wired article later inspired Jay Rosen to interview Rosenblatt.)

MacManus’ various posts on “content farms” (which you can find linked to in his recent post) are great reads, but a few of his posts lump together Demand Media with Answers.com (a more-or-less “crowdsourced” site similar to Yahoo Answers, only with fewer answers) and AOL’s new forays into niche content production (see Dorian Benkoil’s analysis of AOL for Poynter.) MacManus sees these efforts collectively as having a terrible, awful effect on content on the Web.

To compare the three, however, seems to me like comparing apples, oranges and bananas.

MacManus asserts that “content farms” with their strangely mystical algorithmics, are going to ruin search results for “quality” content. But well before search got clogged with results from Answers.com or eHow.com (a Demand Media property) or any number of other content sites, it got clogged with very little effort by splogs, link farms, poorly constructed aggregation sites, and other nasties that re-directed searchers to sites that were nothing more than huge lists of Google ads which, when clicked, led you to even more huge lists of Google ads.

Well before Demand Media’s sites came along, there were important discussions on “click fraud,” and then the internal linking practices of blog networks that caused Google to shake up its algorithm, leading to lower page rank for blog networks.

Spoofing search isn’t anything new. Creating mediocre content that could show up high in search isn’t anything new. Understanding how to place mediocre content in search according to the right keywords isn’t anything new. Lots of SEO experts do it daily for clients.

What appears new and troubling to some is Demand Media’s algorithm that simplifies and refines the rather inexact and laborious process of finding keywords for search. The intention of that algorithm is probably not to undermine the integrity of journalism nor is it to make bland, mediocre content ubiquitous in search.

The intention is simpler than that: Demand is optimizing content for clients who want to have better positions in search. This is what most businesses want for their blogs and Web sites.

So how did journalists begin to see Demand Media as the latest threat to journalism?

Perhaps it had something to do with Mike Arrington and the term “fast food content.” In his Dec. 13 TechCrunch editorial post, “The End of Hand Crafted Content,” Arrington refers to what’s going on at DM and AOL as “fast food content”: “These models [of content creation] create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.

“We’re not there yet, but I see it coming. And just as old media is complaining about us, look for us to start complaining about the new jerks.”

Arrington then advocates for content creators to “figure out an even more disruptive way to win, or die. Or just give up on making money doing what you do.”

The “race to the bottom” comment is a bit of a reach on Arrington’s part. And Arrington’s supposition does not take into account corporate blogs, social media marketing communications, and content produced for a variety of social media campaigns — all forms of communication that may rely on content produced by freelancers. The world of “ghost blogging,” virtual assistants that specialize in managing corporate social media, and outsourced social media communications are all fields that are — for better or worse — growing as companies that want to be part of social media believe that they do not have the in-house resources to manage it.

Demand’s approach seems to have touched a nerve in Jeff Jarvis and a few others who, in their blog posts, do not take into consideration that they are dealing with marketing content, not a new platform that wants to disrupt journalism in the ways that TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and others have disrupted journalism.

Hey, fast food content, you’re screwing up my search results!

Paul Kedrosky has a problem. He’s searching for information about buying a new dishwasher and is really peeved that he keeps coming up against really bad generic content that’s telling him absolutely nothing. So, he posted “Dishwashers, and How Google Eats its Own Tail.” In it, Kedrosky says, “Content creators are simply using Google against itself, feeding its hungry crawlers the sort of thing that Google loves to consume, to the detriment of search results and utility.”

Kedrosky’s post reminded me of all those discussions of click fraud, splogs, and link farms: Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

This is exactly what sploggers and the like did by using Google’s AdWords webmaster tool. This is, however, different from what Demand Media is doing, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that some in the journalism establishment are doing.

How the rush for a presence in social media and pageviews has lead to clogging search with cheap content

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked these past four years straddling the worlds of journalism innovation and social media marketing. Early on, I was introduced to the Cluetrain mantra — “markets are conversations” — and the ideas that social media tools could be used to facilitate direct communications between businesses and customers, increase customer service response times, and even spur on product improvement and innovation.

But over time, the ideas of Cluetrain would be seen, by some, as “purist” thinking, and say that’s simply not the way the business or marketing is done. That clients care about getting their customers information not conversation.

The purpose of that information isn’t just to educate clients, but also to yield pageviews — a particular statistic that is very powerful in marketing. This information, in many cases, is part of the company’s “marketing message” rearranged into forms that will grab hold of Google’s spiders and make them stick. Pageviews, a number one position in Google search results, and “going viral” are often the only measurable things that many corporations want from the Internet.

So, if social media communications is presented to corporations as something that is directly measurable, corporations can see social media as a means to their end, not as a means of creating better customer relations and direct conversation — two forms of communication that are not easily measured — but just as another broadcast medium for their marketing message.

So much for the notion of helping companies to communicate with customers.

With the current boom in social media brought on by the amazing growth of Facebook, Twitter, and the like — and with the continued proselytizing of social media evangelists — corporations have begun to shake in their boots worse than Ichabod Crane when the Headless Horseman cornered him. Many companies claim they “don’t have time” or “can’t afford” an in-house social media person, and are not interested in hire a social media strategist to help them develop and maintain a solid social media strategy. Many corporations want to keep a safe distance between themselves and the general populace of the Internet (who are perceived as still pretty lawless), yet they want the measurable SEO benefits that can come from regularly produced social media content.

This has lead to an avalanche of “virtual assistants,” “ghost bloggers,” “ghost tweeters” and so forth, ready and willing to take over and provide specific and targeted content. This kind of content, however, does not always go though any sort of editorial process, including basic copy editing. It is usually produced, vetted and edited by the same person who is creating it.

Enter Demand Media’s content production model, which takes pieces produced by, in some cases, freelance journalists, runs it through its algorithm to “optimize it,” then sends it off for copy editing and publication.

So, who are Demand Media’s clients?

Demand provides content to sites like the satirical Cracked.com and eHow.com, a general information site. The content on eHow is often very basic and broad on a variety of topics from medical conditions to how to fix appliances and the like.

Demand Media also provides content to corporate blogs and social media efforts. Demand functions like a broker or middleman for corporate owned sites that want to “engage” in various forms of social media for promotional purposes.

Demand hires people that at one time might have called themselves “pro bloggers.” Then, they have the work eyeballed by some copy editors — a step that might not have happened with a professional blogger, who usually did his/her own copy editing. Thus, the content that Demand Media has produced for its clients is a shade more vetted than it might be if produced by a solo pro blogger.

As Demand’s site states, they have standards, and the work done by its content producers meets a standard high enough for corporate sites. Here’s a quick breakdown of how their content is produced.

So, are the folks at Demand Media really spearheading a new paradigm that will further disrupt journalism on the Web? Not necessarily, as there does not seem to be an intention on Demand’s part to speak truth to power nor to create a media empire based on citizen-driven content.

In fact, Kara Swisher of All Things Digital spoke with Demand CEO Rosenblatt, who issued a manifesto in defense of Demand Media. Swisher notes that “Demand Media content is simply the basic how-to, guide-of service journalism that really has nothing to do with the investigative work that media giants are finding it harder to fund.”

Demand found a niche and client base that wants the benefits of social media and would rather outsource content production to a company that will make sure the content is vetted and picked up in search. Companies that desire to be part of social media — without the social — are going to do this anyway, and what Demand offers is something with a little more polish than what a freelance professional blogger or virtual assistant might provide.

Production of SEO optimized content is not just a matter of “gaming” Google; It plays to the notion of tweaking the purpose of social media for marketing. In this, Demand is also neutral. Demand’s intention is not to trick consumers of corporate social media efforts into believing someone’s there to listen to them. Rather, Demand’s intent is driven by the social media plan of the corporation that commissions the content.

For newspapers, Demand’s edited, optimized content could be beneficial. As newspapers continue to downsize, many will not be able to afford freelancers for the supplemental publications that have been helping some newspapers to stay afloat. If a newspaper receives edited, optimized evergreen content at reasonable cost it will not need to end supplemental publications. Read more

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AllVoices: New Prize for Excellence in Citizen Media

User-generated content may still be difficult to monetize, but it may be able to earn those users a bit of cash if it’s got some quality. New citizen journalism site AllVoices, which describes itself as an “open media site where anyone can report from anywhere,” launched its Excellence in Citizen Media program — where contributors can earn up to $10,000. (Program details)

The program, which began on Aug. 19 and runs through Feb. 19, 2009, will pay the $10,000 (less transaction processing costs) for the first “one million total page views of reports and contributions submitted by contributor or participants.” Incentives of $1,000 will be paid for every 100,000 total page views (up to one million).

Contributors can submit content in many forms (including text messages and cell phone videos) directly to the site. News categories include: politics, business, conflict and tragedy, science and technology, sports, and entertainment. AllVoices.com also is a community site, so their terms of service includes a Community Conduct policy along with other policies covering content contributions.

According to MocoNews.net, AllVoices.com (previously known as Masala) is a Bay Area company that raised $4.5 million in venture capital while still in beta. They emerged from beta in July, 2008. The company was founded by 39-year old Amra Tareen, a former venture capitalist at Sevin Rosen Funds, where she specialized in IT and telecom.

AllVoices joins NowPublic, Associated Content, and Helium in offering perks or payment to people who contribute content. NowPublic has an arrangement with the Associated Press to distribute content. Helium has partnered with both the National Press Club and the Pulitzer Center in offering membership and awards for excellence. Associated Content offers a variety of syndication and publication rights with corresponding pay scales for popular articles. Read more

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Seven Traits of Highly Effective Community Managers

Getting back from the New Pamphleteers conference, I considered how many news organizations sites that, one way or another, are doing some sort of community building. This can mean anything from using Topix Forums to implementing a custom-built community tool (with the hopes of repeating the success of Bluffton Today.

More often than not, most of the attention and money for community sites gets spent on a tool — specifically, the community-building content management system (CMS). It’s as if the person who will actually develop and manage the community is an afterthought. I recommend flipping this around: make your top priority choosing the right person for this new job.

A lot will be riding on this person — more so than which tools are used. Your community manager should understand people well and be good at creating and maintaining relationships and ability to create relationships, regardless of which tools are available.

Here are seven things to look for in a community manager:

1. Commitment to “the cause.” A community manager should be personally committed to the site’s mission or reason for being. This commitment makes it possible to authentically evangelize the community members. Your community manager must spot and engage community members who will feel comfortable participating on the site. Consequently, if your site’s mission is primarily to drive traffic to your site, you should rethink creating your online community in the first place. Site traffic tends to be driven more by better site design and search engine optimization than by getting all interactive on the citizenry. A community manager cannot fix your news org’s bad site design or help staff write-keyword rich headlines.

2. Love people. Good community managers have an innate ability to interact with all kinds of people, both face to face and online. A good candidate might be someone in your newsroom is great at cultivating contacts and knows many people know well, then they are a potential community manager. But be sure to consider whether this person is good at developing contacts for her or his own purposes, or more generally good at cultivating a variety of contacts across a wide spectrum of individuals and personalities. (For this reason, and others, be sure you broaden your search beyond current newsroom staff.) Also, your potential community manager should be open, congenial, and can handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy (not like a cop or Marine sergeant).

3. Must enjoy technology. These days, the tools of digital media are (or should be) easy to learn. Your community manager will understand — and be able to adapt quickly to — upgrades in tools. She or he also might suggest new tools, and will learn new tools pretty quickly. However, don’t confuse liking technology with loving it beyond everything else. A community manager’s first love must be people — because sometimes their job might be to help those pesky, complaining, people learn to use these tools effectively.

4. Must understand online culture. Internet communication is very different from face-to-face interaction. It can even be compared to moving to a new culture where you often lack vital interpretive clues like body language and vocal intonation. Someone with ample experience participating in a variety of on communities (not just Facebook and MySpace will understand the nuances of online communication and thus can distinguish between trolls, disruptors, and people who may just be having trouble expressing their point of view. A strong knowledge of emoticons is required.

5. Powers of observation. Good community managers are astute observers of community interaction and interpersonal relationship dynamics. Don’t be surprised if your community manager knows exactly what a prompted a seemingly mysterious traffic boost or decline. Over time, your community manager will know what works for your particular community. Listen carefully.

6. Flexibility. Your community manager might also be your community news editor, or your blog editor, or some other kind of editor. If a special community feature has been designed for a big report or investigative story, your community manger might be able to help your reporters talk to the community — especially walking reporters through this experience for the first time. However, any editorial work or reporting should be secondary to the community, because community work can be very demanding.

7. Life experience trumps youthful enthusiasm. Do not dump community management on your interns because they work cheap, know Facebook, and the rest of your staff is overworked and stressed. Enthusiasm is great, but it cannot replace knowing the local community, a variety of tools and trends, and human nature. Communities can be quirky and change quickly, so community management requires commitment and dedication — not just for a summer or semester, but over the long haul. Read more

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Citizen Journalism and the Quest for Good PR

In the many academic discussions about “citizen journalism,” few consider how it relates to public relations for nonprofits. On Apr. 28, Elizabeth Toledo wrote in PR Week about how citizen journalism affects non-profits. She raised some ethical concerns.

First, Toledo states that the old model was for “advocacy organizations” to influence media by “sending press releases, holding press events, submitting letters to the editor, and publishing newsworthy information.” The editor or columnist then acted as a filter, and organizations with good reputations “could generally count on professional journalists to dismiss accusations that did not have a solid foundation.”

Concerned about how both CNN and the New York Times appear to be increasing citizen involvement on their sites, Toledo says “the editor’s role shrinks while the role of the ‘citizen journalist’ grows. Leading news sites… will invite the public to submit their own stories and, through a combination of popularity and relevance, the public will drive which stories make it through the firewall onto the evening news. It’s not simply that more op-eds will make it onto the editorial pages — these citizen journalists will drive which stories grab the attention of the news reporters as well.” (Note: The New York Times does not publish citizen contributions in the manner of CNN iReport.)

Toledo depicts “citizen journalism” as having the potential to be tool of special interests, and warns of “ideological opponents” that might flood services like CNN’s iReport with negative information and spurious commentary, and that this might make it, unfiltered, on to CNN.

Her advice to nonprofit managers who might not understand this “fusion of social networking and news” is to urge content creation: “The upside is that a nonprofit will be able to take full advantage of its local supporters. In the past, these organizations urged their supporters to submit letters to the editor in response to a news story, but today’s proactive entities will prompt supporters to submit content to create the news.”

Is Toledo advocating a defensive position for nonprofits in response to something that hasn’t happened yet? She doesn’t say whether the problem with iReport content is the nature of the contributed content on that site, or whether it is with the iReport content that CNN selects for broadcast.

In February, Jon Dube spoke with Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services and addressed the issue of unfiltered content making it to a CNN broadcast. Grant said: “Before an iReport is used on-air or on CNN.com, the content undergoes the same extensive vetting process as all of CNN’s reporting does. Our own journalists, who are well trained at verifying the authenticity of news reports and events, follow steps to verify the events captured in iReports that are used on CNN and on CNN.com. There is no set number of people involved in the process, as each CNN reporter, producer and show has the ability to select an iReport submission appropriate to use in their reporting.”

Still, this seems like an ethical conundrum from several angles:

  • Should non-profits urge constituents to basically “fight fire with fire” and call it “citizen journalism”?
  • Does contributed content uploaded to something like iReport immediately become “citizen journalism,” or is it transformed into “citizen journalism” once it is vetted and aired?
  • Where, then, is the line between advocacy and “citizen journalism”? Or is that line becoming further blurred?

What do you think? Read more

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