The End Of Hand Crafted Content

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Old media loves nothing quite so much as writing about their own impending death. And we always enjoy adding our own two cents – the AP not knowing what YouTube is, the NYTimes guys reading TechCrunch every day, etc.

Speaking broadly, I like what Reuters, Rupert Murdoch and Eric Schmidt are saying: the industry is in crisis, and the daring innovators will prevail. Personally, I still think the best way forward for the best journalists, if not the brands they currently work for, is to leave those brands and do their own thing.

But as one of the innovators in the last go round, I think there’s a much bigger problem lurking on the horizon than a bunch of blogs and aggregators disrupting old media business models that needed disrupting anyway. The rise of fast food content is upon us, and it’s going to get ugly.

Old media frets over blogs and aggregators that summarize content and link back to the original source. They can’t make a business in that world, they say, so they run the other way and try to find a way to protect and charge for content.

These are the cavemen, or whoever, who were afraid of fire when it was discovered because it burned, or was too technologically advanced to really understand. The smart guys used it to cook their meat and keep them warm, and multiplied.

For our part, we throw a party when someone “steals” our content and links back to us. High fives all around the office. At least there’s some small nod in our direction. And the aggregators like TechMeme can figure out who broke the news. Page views are lost, but reputation is gained.

But for every link there are dozens of sites that outright steal our content with no attribution. Not just spam blogs, even the NYTimes does it. This isn’t a copyright issue – the stories are rewritten by actual people. But it’s far cheaper to simply take the news and rewrite it – if you can get away with it – than to hire people who do actual journalism. Over time, it becomes a competitive tax that is difficult to bear.

But even then, companies like ours can find a way to compete.

So what really scares me? It’s the rise of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that hand craft their content today. It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.

On one end you have AOL and their Toyota Strategy of building thousand of niche content sites via the work of cast-offs from old media. That leads to a whole lot of really, really crappy content being highlighted right on the massive AOL home page. This article, for example, is just horrendous. One of AOL’s own blogs trashes the company’s spinoff, rambles for miles without any real point, and adds a huge factual error to top things off (“the company is losing money”). Hiring a bunch of people who couldn’t keep their old media jobs and don’t have the stomach to go out on their own and then slapping little or no editorial oversight onto these masses of sub-par journalists leads to an inevitable conclusion – cheap, crappy content. And that crappy content is given a massive audience on the AOL portal.

On the other end you have Demand Media and companies like it. See Wired’s “Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model.” The company is paying bottom dollar to create “4,000 videos and articles” a day, based only on what’s hot on search engines. They push SEO juice to this content, which is made as quickly and cheaply as possible, and pray for traffic. It works like a charm, apparently.

These models 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.

My advice to readers is just this – get ready for it, because you’ll be reading McDonalds five times a day in the near future. My advice to content creators is more subtle. Figure out an even more disruptive way to win, or die. Or just give up on making money doing what you do. If you write for passion, not dollars, you’ll still have fun. Even if everything you write is immediately ripped off without attribution, and the search engines don’t give you the attention they used to. You may have to continue your hobby in the evening and get a real job, of course. But everyone has to face reality sometimes.

Forget fair and unfair, right and wrong. This is simply happening. The disruptors are getting disrupted, and everyone has to adapt to it or face the consequences. Hand crafted content is dead. Long live fast food content, it’s here to stay.

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