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All the news that fits, they write

A company uses an algorithm to turn popular Internet search terms into headlines, and then hires freelancers to write stories to fit them.

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I remember all the gnashing of teeth it took for me to adjust to people referring to a publication, or a publication format, as a "product."

Now I'm going through the same thing with "content." The existence of things called "content management systems" does not necessarily mean that media companies lack all respect for creative labor. I just wish that some of these people could talk about "content" without making it sound like another way of saying "chopped liver."

The latest report to give me pause in this line was from "On the Media," on WNYC, the National Public Radio affiliate in New York. Host Bob Garfield invited Daniel Roth of Wired magazine in to talk about his article on Demand Media. To say this company has a nontraditional model for producing chopped liver, er, content, online is to understate it considerably.

Here's how it works: Demand Media has a special algorithm that combs the Internet for key search terms – "what the people want to know right now." At first blush, that sounds reasonable. But then another algorithm generates headlines. Or rather, it generates strings of words that editors massage, for 8 cents per string, into something that sounds human. (The silver lining at this point for the frankly horrified Mr. Garfield is that actual humans are still needed for this.) Then these headlines are offered as assignments. Freelancers write stories to fit them. It's safe to say that, with an average fee of $15 apiece, there isn't a lot of original research going on.


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