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.

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.

The problem to which this is supposed to be the solution? Demand for content, it seems. There are plenty of online advertisers willing to pay to have their ads hovering near appropriate content. It's just that they are particular about what constitutes "appropriate." In one example that Messrs Garfield and Roth used, the headline generated was "How to Make Butterflies for Cake Decorating." Nothing wrong with that as a topic – but it's not the Pentagon Papers, is it?

Demand Media's situation seems to be the reverse of that of the newspaper industry, whose implosion over the past few years has been driven by a collapse in advertising sales. Fewer ad sales mean fewer articles.

What can we make of all this? We're still looking for strong economic models to replace the daily newspaper as a source of in-depth reporting, for one thing. And we're still looking for ways to compensate intellectual labor fairly. And what labor, in this day and age, doesn't have some intellectual component?

Accounting software is better at helping identify, to the fraction of a cent, the explicit costs of getting something done than it is at identifying the indirect costs of trying to do something too cheaply. When Dell, the computermaker, outsourced its customer support a few years back, it presumably saved dollars. But it lost market share and reputation. The company has since brought some of the work back to Texas. A recent NPR report on the outsourcing of airline maintenance to Central America made me think the same principles may be at work there. Some lines you can't see until you cross them.

Demand Media represents a similar attempt to squeeze out excess costs – with arguably less serious consequences if something goes wrong than in the case of the airline mechanics, or even the Dell help techs.

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