Are Content Farms Putting Online Journalism Out To Pasture?

It’d be misleading to say that “the jury is still out on content farms.” While discussion on sites that churn out stories at high speed for little or no pay (and with varying degrees of quality) is still timely as more and more sprout up, it seems that many journalists have already made up their minds: they’re not terribly fond of them.
Big companies looking to boost their internet presence and audience reach, however, seem not to be able to get enough. Just recently, as The Wrap points out, Yahoo teamed up with Associated Contentand Demand Media entered into a partnership with a print title, USA Today as AOL Seed is busily rounding up literally hundreds of writers to produce content based on what news the internet is positively clamoring for, now.
One might assume that being publicly linked to more or less well-respected and reliable news and information sources would add to the legitimacy of these content farms, but that isn’t so. That’s according to former WSJ.com reporter Jason Fry, at least. In a blog post devoted to the rise of these article generators, which he dubs “vapidmedia factories,” Fry does not hold back when it comes to airing out his opinion on what these McNews sources are doing to journalism, particularly on the web:

Journalists, the web is not how our profession ends. The web is a wonderful vehicle for storytelling, explaining, doing civic good and empowering readers who want to dig for information. If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media, starting with [Wired‘s Daniel] Roth’s poignant portrait of an experienced video journalist shooting noisy, out-of-focus footage for $20 a pop. This is the journalist as Chinese factory worker — except for a lot of rural Chinese the factory is a step up. You know the old joke about the sign that reads Good, Fast, Cheap — Pick Two? Demand Media took that and turned it into an irony-free business plan. The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.

Whoa, really? Now we’re comparing algorithm-based content mills to the objectively heinous conditions Chinese workers face in factories?
What all this talk of working conditions and questionable quality seems to neglect is that many, many blogs work pretty much exactly the same way, but because they manage to be a little more stealthy about their business practices — or because the profession of writing for the internet is still “relatively new” and something of a lawless… farmstead? — they get less press. Even though “EXCLUSIVE” Ten Ways In Which The Internet Is Killing Journalism” is both highly diggable and extremely SEO-friendly.
It’s as if anyone writing about the evils of content farms has never worked as a freelance blogger or, to put it another way, an independent contractor writing on the web. Hours are long, overtime doesn’t exist, pay isn’t standardized, and if you’re thinking about insurance or a retirement plan, it’s probably while crying over your alcoholic beverage of choice.
And many blogs, especially those who push for lots of posts and relatively little pay or who participate in the extremely competitive world of celebrity gossip blogging, prefer for their news to be published first, regardless of quality of writing or factual accuracy.
Fry notes that stories produced by these content mills “read like first drafts, poorly organized and indifferently written. Which gets at my problem with Demand and AC: These stories essentially ARE first drafts, because the economics of Demand’s business model dictate that’s what they must be.” This is not, however, all that different from stories plastered all over many websites hoping to get news out first, lest the world not be kept up to date with the state of Britney Spears’ cellulite or The Bachelorette cast’s TMIs and STDs. That’s not to say that every story dictated by the algorithms used by content farms are tawdry, or even that the are meant to cater to the lowest common denominator, but, often enough, the Faceless Mob isn’t known for its discriminating taste.