Demand Media: Why SFGate's Real Estate Section Reads Like a Grade School Book Report

Categories: Business, Media
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Matt Smith
Now them's some gooood readin'
Direct your browser to SFGate.com's "Home Guide" section for the rare experience  of news articles written as if for morons so ignorant they've never read an actual newspaper.

According to the lead sentence in a article about house prices, "Real estate is worth only what the highest bidder is willing to pay for it."

The lead of a clip-art-illustrated piece on foreclosures explains: "If you can no longer afford your mortgage payments, you aren't alone."

A stock photo of a calculator, meanwhile, hovers over an article on home loans that begins: "Mortgages have different interest rates and terms that determine how much a homeowner must pay each month."

Did the Chron replace its news staff with fourth grade book report writers? Close. It's contracted the notorious content farm Demand Media to provide filler for an online real estate section in hopes of cutting costs while still pushing real estate ads.

According to GigaOm, Demand Media pays writers between $5 and $15 for a short article, while legitimate newspapers used to pay freelancers $300  back in the good old print-industry-solvency days of a decade ago. For pieces adapted especially for the Chronicle account, Demand Media reportedly paid writers a premium.

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'Mortgages have different interest rates and terms that determine how much a homeowner must pay each month.' Boy, am I glad I read the paper today!
So the people writing the Demand Media articles aren't stupid. They're merely answering, several times per hour, the question of how good an article can be if researched, written, and edited in under 20 minutes.

Demand Media's CEO insists this isn't a recipe for mass-produced garbage. Instead, the company is "connecting consumers with content that meets their specific interests and [offers] connections to people that share their passion. To do this well, and at scale, has required significant innovation and investment," Richard Rosenblatt said in a Dec. 2009  interview.

But Rosenblatt is now regarded as a full of shit even by people amenable to the idea of squeezing employees for every last dime. Last week, journalists examining Demand Media's planned IPO filings revealed Rosenblatt had made repeated bogus statements about his company's so-called profitability.

According to a SFGate.com vice president, however, paying Demand Media for mass-produced dreck is good for the Chronicle and good for its staff reporters.

"This provides us with additional revenue opportunities that we can use to support our core newsroom," Michele Slack, veep of digital media for SFGate.com told Ad Age. "These partnerships are about bringing in additional users and incremental revenue. All of that is to support our core business and the newsroom is an integral part of that."

Judging from Slack's business school jargon-filled performance, one would think the "new revenue opportunities" were the result of some sort of innovation.

We "provide our users with a breadth of valuable content that we couldn't if we were not partnering," Slack effused.

But putting the Chronicle brand name atop assembly-line pablum is nothing new in the annals of corporate strategy. It's known as brand dilution, a form of throwing in the towel that involves allowing your good name to go to pot for short-term profit.

Remember how GM refashioned the Olds Firenza as the Cadillac Cimarron, and was subsequently replaced by Lexus as the generic term for luxury car? Or how the decimation of Levi's once-hallowed brand culminated in Wal-Mart's "Signature by Levi Strauss & Co." line?

Add to that list a news organization that once employed Herb Caen, and now publishes articles that begin with the sentence: "Renting may have its advantages, but it isn't beneficial as a long-term investment."

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