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Monday, March 06, 2006

Irony: Wall Street Journal laments nature of web economy...

Those who have any interest in web content writing have probably found Lee Gome's recent Wall Street Journal article, "Our Columnist Creates
Web 'Original Content' But Is in for a Surprise."  Gomes went "undercover" as a content writer in an attempt to expose the horrible trend of people not working for the Wall Street Journal who are building an online audience or earning money from their own writing.
Okay, I am sure that wasn't Gomes' real intent.  He's probably a nice guy with his heart in the right place who is just amazed at the nature of the web content market and disturbed by many of the inaccuracies found on the internet.  Nonetheless, the article does read a lot like the thoughts of someone who is very interested in protecting the hegemony of traditionally-respected information sources as accessibility and alternatives proliferate.  In an effort to warn the world about all of that lousy content out there, Gomes makes a number of statements that seem a bit hypocritical and even a bit self-defensive.
He begins his piece by providing readers with "a lesson in modern Web economics" before offering more details about the "insidious threat" of lousy content.  He states:  "If there is a topic in the news, people will be searching on it. If you can get those searchers to land on a seemingly authoritative page you've set up, you can make money from their arrival. Via ads, for instance." 
I suppose that's true.  Of course, one could also say  "If there is a topic in the news, people will be interested in finding something to read abou it. If you can get those readers to buy a seemingly authoritative newspaper you've set up, you can make money from their arrival. Via ads, for instance."  Hey, wait, that sounds like the Wall Street Journal's business model!  The lesson Gomes provides in "Web economics" is nothing more than a recitation of the governing principles of "print economics." 
Produce original content.  Package original content.  Sell advertising.  Find readers.  Profit.  It's the same recipe upon which newspapers and magazines have long relied. 
Gomes goes on to talk about just how lousy a lot of the content on the web is.  He expresses concern about the inaccurate and misleading information that floats around cyberspace.  He blames search engine algorithms for the boom in crap and discusses the way the quest for Google preeminence makes web masters into the equivalent of rowdy football fans trying to squeeze into a television shot. 
I am amazed at how effectively the free market economy works in separating wheat from chaff.  Lousy newspapers crumble.  Good ones prosper.  Horrible magazines never develop a subscriber base.  Great magazines can sell ad space for a fortune.  Inefficient businesses go under and quality enterprises tend to flourish.  The free market system works so incredibly well that our stock exchange and business communities have created the opportunity for newspapers to exist with the primary function of covering and reporting on them! 
So, why would the very economic model that created and supports the Wall Street Jounral, suddenly become suspect when one thinks about market forces and web content?  Obviously, I don't think it should.  I do, however, think that Gomes' reaction to the matter tells us a bit more than "the web is filled with garbage."
The article seems to me to be a defense of traditional media outlets in the face of a new wave of competition and change.  No longer must people rely on the NYT, WSJ, etc. for news, information or opinion.  The net has opened up accessibility and is adding more and more voices to the marketplace of ideas every single second.  Faced with an onslaught of information from formerly non-traditional sources, it seems as if the traditional "Big Boys" are a bit concerned.
The article doesn't take a moment to differentiate between sites that attempt to offer high-quality original material and those that are satisfied by plagiarism.  Gomes is happy to recount his experience being asked to write copy about "colloidal silver" for a web site.  He does not, however, remind us that more than one big radio network long featured ads for the same crap, that direct mail campaigns continue to push the product, etc.  He's willing to tell us about some guy who wants parts of WHO press release plagiarized, but mentions nothing about the sites that commission accurate and honest original content.  His caricature of online content writing is more than a bit unfair.
In Gomes' articles, he states "The point of all this isn't to complain that writers are underpaid and overworked; that's old news."  Really, I don't know if that's news at all.  I don't even know that it's true.  I have no idea what Gomes is making, but if it's too much, I might be able to one piece of evidence that writers are overpaid.  I think his "aside" comment about writer pay is indicative of the concern those from traditional writing backgrounds have about the internet marketplace.  They are beginning to see, perhaps, that a new information culture is beginning to chip away at the traditional powers and that it has a cheaper price tag.  Those cushy WSJ jobs may eventually become a thing of the past if the nascent online sources of content are not put in their place by those with a vested interest in maintaining a sport atop the info-hieararchy.
In the end, Gomes worries about the amount of quality content being swamped by crap.  That is a valid concern.  There is a lot of hooey out there and those who sling it while also possessing a strong understanding of SEO can push it up toward the top of the Google charts.  However, I have enough faith in the marketplace to believe that these instances of lousy content being king of the hill will eventually pass.
What Gomes doesn't mention in his lament over the state of content is that if things become too bad, people will stop using the search engines that reward the junk.  They will seek out alternative search strategies or utilize portals that prove themselves reliable and accurate over time.  If Google starts to see a loss in use, they will refine their algorithm to defeat the junk content or will suffer the consequences.  People forget that Google's primary function is to connect people with the information they want.  Either they find a way to do it, or people will go elsewhere. 
Gomes' article on content is an interesting read, and it expresses some very legitimate concerns.  However, I think Gomes might want to read the rest of his paper to take a look at how market forces tend to solve quality problems instead of broadly attacking the online content as a whole.
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