Demand Media: Content innovation means letting algorithms lead

Demand Media is one of the few media companies that has a research-and-development department, Byron Reese, the company’s chief innovation officer, doesn’t hesitate to point out. The reason, he said, “is that we view content production as a manufacturing process, not a creative process.”

That perspective surely challenges the assumptions of a few traditional media companies, which in the olden days considered writing to be a craft, not a widget or “workflow process.” But the companies that focused on hand-crafted narratives are now being rivaled by more disciplined firms that can leverage the scale of the Internet to find efficiencies in every step of the editorial process, from choosing topics to write about to editing to headline writing and compensation.

The company has grown tremendously rapidly using this new model. Four years ago it didn’t exist. Now the company has 500 employees in Santa Monica, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Bellevue, Washington; New York and London. After $355 million in investment, the company has produced more than 1 million text articles and 200,000 videos — mostly in the how-to genre. Last month its 500 employees and 7,000 freelancers generated 101 million users, according to some measures.

Most of what Demand Media does most closely resembles reference materials, not journalism. That’s a wide-open business that few are doing well, Reese said.

“We are really trying to put the world’s information on the Internet in an exhaustive fashion,” he said. “We are trying to fill up every question people ask with an appropriate answer. The Internet overproduces certain kinds of content and underproduces other types. It overproduces Britney Spears. But it doesn’t have so much about how to unclog your toilet. People are kind of left on their own to find the right answers.”

For now, all the content Demand Media produces — on a range of sites including and Golflink — is in English. But the company, which has done pilot projects in half a dozen languages, intends to go international in 2011.

Asked what content the company produced has made a difference in readers’ lives, Wadooah Wali, senior director of communications for the company, said most of it was extremely practical. She sent along this tweet as an example: “THANK YOU @EHOW my dog swallowed meds & your ‘How to induce vomiting’ saved hm.”

The company has come under criticism from some journalists, saying Demand Media cannot possibly produce quality content for the low prices it pays freelance writers. David Carr’s takedown in the New York Times particularly got under the company executives’ skins.

In response to the flurry of critiques, the company has set up an editorial advisory board that includes Kevin Smith, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists. The company also produced a “manifesto” explaining why quality and quantity are not in conflict in what it calls a “disruptive content model.”

“It isn’t as if we’re coming in somehow, and undercutting other people’s work,” Reese said. “What we’re doing is coming in and adding assignments. There’s no one who’s not getting an assignment from GQ. I would like to meet the person who says their rate has fallen because we exist.”

Demand Media has partnered with newspapers, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on things like travel writing.

“It’s journalism with a little J, not a big J,” Wali said. “We know we can monetize that. We know that it’s the traditional news that people want but that is hard to support in the current economic conditions.”

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