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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Freelance Toolbox

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. Maybe you noticed Demand Studios at SPJ’s convention in August in Indianapolis.

Demand Studios is the creative arm of Demand Media, an upstart 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 about 4,000 articles and videos a day with titles such as “How to Curl Hair With a Curling Iron.”

The articles appear on high-traffic sites such as YouTube.com, eHow.com and Livestrong.com. In recent months, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution commissioned Demand to produce travel articles that ran online and in print, and articles about Demand have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Wired magazine.

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. An average Demand writer earns just $15 for articles of a few hundred words, and filmmakers generally earn $20 a clip, although Demand just announced plans to pay a few premium writers $80 a story.

I don’t have to tell you how terrible these rates are for freelancers, and understandably some of you 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 SPJ’s relationship is 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, and this column is the product of a thoughtful conversation among SPJ’s Freelance Committee and the organization’s national leadership.

“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.

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 is gaining ground. Remember, we are journalists who champion a free exchange of information and ideas. We feel frustrated that 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 and affinity partner. 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, said Jeremy Reed, Demand’s senior vice president of content. 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 (SPJ and journalism) 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?

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 on the Web at amybgreen.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since SPJ began an advertising agreement with Demand, Society President Kevin Smith has accepted an invitation to join an editorial advisory board for the company. He receives no compensation beyond travel reimbursement to attend four annual meetings. The purpose of this role is to advise the company on how to incorporate sound journalistic practices and standards into its emerging and evolving business model.

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