What can news orgs learn from content farms?

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last year about so-called ‘content farms.’ These companies – Demand Media, Answers.com, Seed.com, etc. – produce large amounts of content based on reader demand, as determined by search and social media trends. In a nutshell, they listen to the questions and search requests of the global internet audience and try to provide answers. Of course, they don’t try to answer every question or search query; just the ones that appear to have enough interest around them to generate a solid return from ad dollars or syndication fees.

It’s a smart business, but calling it journalism is a stretch. Let’s learn from them to create better journalism. What can we learn? How to be better listeners.

A few years ago, blogging entrepreneur Jason Calacanis started Mahalo.com, his ‘human-powered’ search engine, to provide curated search results for the most popular stories and topics daily. Mahalo now includes a question/answer service in addition to its wiki-like search results. Demand Media seems like Mahalo taken to a new extreme – it relies on search and social media trends and CPU-powered algorithms to churn out assignments to an army of freelancers.

When Mahalo first launched, I wondered what, if anything, journalism could learn from it and now I find myself wondering the same thing about Demand Media. What I find interesting about the new ‘content farm’ model is that it gives us a more automated way of finding out what’s happening in our communities – the let our readers and fellow citizens tell us what they want to know, without having to actively tell us about it. We can learn about our communities, no matter how small, in the same way that Google learns about us.

This new model assumes that news organizations aren’t always on top of all of the hot stories and relies on readers, searchers, and bloggers to signal their interest in topics through their actions. It assumes that (gasp!) we don’t know as much as we think we do. Think of it as gathering intelligence.

Why hasn’t every newsroom set up Google Alerts for common titles and phrases for their community? Why doesn’t every reporter have a series of RSS feeds for their beats and related search terms from all relevant search engines – including the one on their own site? People in our community send us signals about their interests all day long and most go ignored. How many news organizations pay as much attention to the search phrases used on their own site as they do to the ones used to find them on Google, Yahoo and Bing (assuming that they pay attention to those at all)?

Every newsroom should set up a system to provide this intelligence data to editors and reporters. Such a system needs to be flexible and smart; watching in-house and traditional search engines as well as blog, real-time, and social search.

  1. Gather the data
  2. Identify trends and new topics
  3. Report this back to the newsroom for possible assignment

The tools are out there, but most journalists lack the time and/or training to piece it all together. Never before have journalists had such powerful tools for gathering information from their own readers and never before have readers had such an array of choices for publishing and communicating with each other.

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