Welcome to the Fourth World

Isn’t it wonderful that the owners of Associated Content are selling their company to Yahoo for a reported $90 million? That’s “wonderful” as in: I’m full of wonder and amazement how it has come to pass that huge numbers of desperate people are willing to work for (almost) free in order to further enrich a brazen few.

Associated Content’s 380,000 freelance contributors are paid close to nothing for providing what the company calls “a broad array of passion points” — with passion being defined as topics that Google has determined are popular search terms (and thus honey to advertisers).

Journalism and professional writing were never great gigs, money-wise; lucre has lured few into the trade. But the Internet age has really sharpened that point. Consider multi-millionaire Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post is supposedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars — and yet doesn’t pay many of its contributors. Or Examiner.com, which is owned by multi-billionaire Phillip Anschutz and doesn’t pay its 300,000 contributors much of anything. Or Demand Media of Santa Monica – another outfit that claims $200 million in ad revenue — and demands its contributors give up all rights to their work in exchange for an average $15 an article.

The saying used to be the freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns the press. Fair enough, and in this electronic age we can all own our own press – we can be masters of our own domain name. But really, why do people exchange their time and skill for pocket change just so millionaires and billionaires can get richer? Yet that’s essentially the business model. It works because the global Internet — the same phenomenon that has made every one a potential publisher — has gutted traditional media employers and empowered mass purveyors of “crowd sourced content” and their advertisers.

If you’re the writer, you might do it because you need the experience or the contacts or the electronic equivalent of “clips” (work samples). If you’re the proprietor, you do it because you’d be a fool not to. After all, why not encourage educated, talented, articulate people to work for free? Who needs Bangalore when you can get Third World labor in Santa Monica? Let’s call it the Fourth World, replacing what we once knew as the Fourth Estate.

More Google Search Tricks

Here are five more ways to use Google as an uncommonly helpful research assistant:

1. If you’re researching  topic and you don’t know what keywords will deliver the information you’re looking for, include OR in your search, in capital letters (this is a move called using the “OR operator”). Try combining it with the “site:” operator.

2. If you want to exclude a particular term in your search use the – (the minus sign operator). For instance searching the Tea Party political movement without mention of Glen Beck would be: “tea party” –glen beck

3. Search for types of files using the “filetype:” operator. For PowerPoint files about Patagonian glaciers try: Patagonian glaciers filetype:ppt

4. Search within numerical ranges using the .. operator (that’s two periods, not three as an ellipsis). So, to find out about Wimbledon tennis in the 1930s, try: Wimbledon 1930..1940

5. If you want to know the geographical area covered by a phone area code, just type it in to the Google search bar and Google will show you a map.

Make Google Dance Your Tune

There are lots of clever ways to make Google dance a different tune. Here are five examples of less conventional ways to make the world’s dominant search engine bust a move:

1. Limit your search to a particular site without having to rely on that site’s built-in search tool (which may not be up to the task). To search for the subject “ABC” on the website XYZ.com do this: ABC site:XYZ.com.

2. Use Google to correct your spelling. If Google senses you’ve typed in your query incorrectly, it will suggest the correct spelling. You can also get a word’s definition by searching on: define: word I’m interested in defining.

3. For the math-challenged, Google has a calculator. Just enter the equation you seek to solve.

4. Want to know what time it is in Bangkok? Search: time Bangkok

5. In this world of topsy turvey exchange rates, you might need to know how a certain currency converts to yours. Search: 100 dollars in Euros.

Blogging vs. Journalism

There are real differences between journalists and bloggers. Just ask Felix Salmon, the longtime financial writer, who operates successfully in both worlds. Here he is in all his glory: [http://bit.ly/salmonblogging]

“In my experience, j-school graduates tend to be quite earnest people who care a lot about the important role that journalism plays in a democracy while being less good at throwing caution to the wind and making mistakes. But as I like to say, if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting.”

“All too often, I fear, a “formal training in journalism” just means that journalists self-censor the good and funny bits of stories that bloggers naturally latch on to. What’s more, bloggers have a much more natural voice and personality than journalists do. So it’s only natural that bloggers will get more of a “following” than some guy who writes straight-down-the-line stories for the local newspaper.”

“Then, of course, there’s the very germane fact that many highly successful bloggers didn’t get a formal training in journalism because they were too busy getting a formal training in the thing they’re writing about — business, finance, economics. The likes of Yves Smith or Brad DeLong or Simon Johnson or John Hempton are popular partly because these people know what they’re talking about and actually do it; it’s surely an advantage to be able to use first-hand rather than second-hand knowledge when you’re writing about something.”

“Journalists are often very competitive and feel that if anybody else is writing about what they’re writing about, that’s probably bad for them — especially if the rival outlet is very popular. But blogging doesn’t work like that: most of the time, when it’s done well, it’s full of external links, often to original journalism. Blogs are a great way for good journalism to get noticed, instead of being buried and ignored on page B7.”

“Overall, my feeling is that if mainstream business outlets embrace the blogosphere, they’ll do well. If they shun it, however — and paywalls are one good way to do that — then they’ll have a much harder time of things.”

Trying to Make Journalism Pay

The upcoming New York Times Magazine features interesting examination into the entrepreneurial exploits of Apple. Not that Apple. Sam Apple. The journalism entrepreneur.


With traditional media outlets facing bankruptcy and yet plenty of people wanting to be professional journalists, Mr. Apple smelled opportunity. The 34-year-old former interactive media director launched The Faster Times last July. The idea was to counter the proliferation of amateurishly produced blogs with a staff of trained journalists paid not in salary but by 75 percent of the revenues from the advertisements placed next to their articles. Contributors to this capitalist collective would profit according to the market’s value assessment of their individual work.

Of course, in this set-up, who covering Bolivia would turn out to be less lucrative than covering (or uncovering) Jessica Simpson.

American journalism has always relied on advertising (80 percent of revenues for newspapers). The thought was that vast online audiences would deliver vast advertising sums. It didn’t work out that way, because there is vastly more content competition online and ads sell for a small fraction of their print cousins.

True/Slant. five employees and 300 part-time contributors delivering “entrepreneurial journalism” to a million readers a month,

True/Slant reduces costs by eliminating old fashioned editorial hierarchies and making its contributors the sole “programmers” of their content. “Newsrooms today are high-cost, inefficient content-creation operations that will not be supported by advertising revenues in the digital world,” Dvorkin tells the Times. “It just won’t happen.”

True/Slant’s low-cost newsroom churns out around 125 pieces of content a day, hoping to pick up pennies and nickels from online PPC advertisers.

Other revenue models: a generous benefactor like The Daily Beast has in Barry Diller; NPR’s nonprofit model; Politico’s paper version. And that old standby, subscriptions – which so far only the online Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are working with success. (The New York Times has just announced a paywall going up in Januay 2011.)

Examiner.com, owned by the billionaire Philip Anschutz, generates more than 3,000 items per day from 36,000 local contributors, who are paid about 1 cent per page view.

The Huffington Post, the most successful of the new breed, boasts 70 salaried editorial staff members and 6,000 uncompensated bloggers who churn out 500 items a day. According to Nielsen Online, it gets more hits than the online Washington Post and is among the top 10 current-affairs sites,

True/Slant contributors are paid a monthly retainer and bonuses based on how many people read their articles. Most writers make a few hundred dollars a month if they hit their traffic targets, and a few big names like Matt Taibbi make more. The company isn’t profitable yet: An individual article is worth only $10 to its bottom line.

Started in July 2009 at a cost of $20,000. It soon had a monthly audience of around 200,000 readers, according to the tracking site Quantcast. Revenues that were coming in from Google AdSense, gave writers $5 to $75. Pretty crappy, in other words. No wonder then that many of the original FT contributors moved on. Mr. Apple continues to experiment with payment models.

Web start-ups have a failure rate between 70 and 90 percent. But even with those Darwinian stats, a sustainable business models is likely to emerge.