Or, Everything New Under The Sun?
Recently Wired ran a story on a fascinating media company, Demand Media, which has created a whole new way of generating, and then producing and distributing, general interest videos and articles.
Naturally, my first thought was of antebellum New York.
Demand Media’s process works like this: the company has two algorithms that allow it to transform users search terms into specs for short evergreen videos or articles (think:“How to Tie Your Shoes” on YouTube), which they then bid out to a vast army of freelance copy editors and videographers at a few dollars per item. The resulting media is plugged into the conglomerate of websites DM owns (eHow.com is one), which then earns revenue from ads playing next to the video or text. Et voila! The demand and supply curves for new content are made to meet almost immediately, for the benefit of Demand Media’s shareholders.
By figuring out how to commoditize — or rather, commoditize further, as cheap evergreen stories have been around for hundreds of years — and mass produce the general content article and video, Demand Media has taken the structures of the new media environment to heart in an unprecedented way. But it’s also a classic case of using capital to replace labor (via technological automation); and it faces the classic trade-off of late-stage capitalist production: mass-production techniques produce low-quality goods.
Or, as the article’s enormous subtitle puts it:
“A fiendishly clever startup knows what we are googling – then churns out thousands of cheap videos and articles to meet our every whim and wish. Why the future of online content is fast, disposable, and profitable as hell.”
But content’s past is prologue, I would argue.
Over the last few years, there has been a small trend to look to the 17th and 18th centuries — when technologies of print really came into their own — as analogous to our own time of changes in information production, distribution and consumption, in order to understand how these shifts affected, or could affect, communities of discourse, and power relations. The somewhat tired, but oft-cited comparison of bloggers and pamphleteers, for example, or work on the information management strategies of the early modern French absolutist state (see David Bell’s recent piece in the New Republic, “The Colbert Report”), offer a couple of different takes on this theme.
In the case of the new production line that Demand Media has put together, the early modern era doesn’t really work. It lacks…steam. I think the better analogy is 1830s newspaper industry — specifically the creation of what is known as the “penny press” in antebellum New York City. Even the bio of Demand Media’s founder — seasoned huckster Richard Rosenblatt — reads an awful lot like that of some early 19th century millionaire (in Roth’s article, at least), especially the multiple early failures.
In both cases, new audiences prompted a rethinking of the production process in response to new technology — search algorithms, rotary presses — which in turn changed the business model, and, not incidentally, how content was produced. By the end of it all, you have far different types of media production, distribution, and consumption than previously existed, all because of some tinkering with different links in the production chain.
Beginning with Benjamin Day’s penny daily The Sun, the 1830s saw the rise of cheap newspapers which featured content markedly different than the public documents, poetry, political rhetoric and commercial news that were the mainstays of the press across the country.
The key innovation of these papers, for our purposes, was that they figured out that new printing technologies would allow the targeting of a mass audience; and to reach and keep the attention of that audience, they began running stories and features that appealed to the masses, rather than political groups and commercial men. Papers were also distributed differently; rather than selling them as year-long subscriptions, they were sold in bulk, and at a discount (2/3rds of a cent) to street urchins (sorry, “newsies”) who then sold them on the streets — the so-called “London model.”
But content’s the key change. The main leaders in these papers were not political news or financial reports, but rather juicy, comical crime reports, scandalous society pages, and a new class of evergreen stories that looked at the individual lives in great metropolis — human interest stories. All grist quite similar to Demand Media’s videos in its interoperability, if not its dramatic arcs (I doubt many of DM’s videos feature ruined society heirs or drunken sailors). With their combination of the mundane and freakish, these papers were democratic in their spirit — salacious, populist — though not necessarily so in their politics (Horace Greeley’s Tribune, for example, strove for a respectable middle-class reformist tone).
To give you a sense of how different these papers were, it helps to know that prior to the 1830s, most newspapers, even those in major cities, were a losing proposition. To keep afloat, they were either produced as advertisements for larger printing businesses, or as political ventures — “party organs” in the term of the day — funded by a party, or through the patronage its members controlled (government printing contracts, mainly).
The new penny press papers, by contrast, were much more focused on the bottom line, with the newspaper itself serving as the main source of revenue. This increased focus on profit, unsurprisingly, had the effect of accelerating innovation in the industry (at least in particular directions). In addition to the new types of stories, many of the other structures we now identify as characteristic of the media — timeliness, wire services, foreign correspondents, objectivity — came out of the pressures and requirements of running a successful enterprise in what quickly became a highly competitive, but often highly profitable, sector. And it was out of these new institutions, over the course of the 19th century, that Benedict Anderson’s theory of newspapers and national identity really starts to come into play.
To come back to that aside about objectivity: one of the unintended results of the profitability of these papers is that they emerged as information distributors without clear financial ties to established political interests — a characteristic that some editors used to spin out new theories of the importance of an objective press. Over time, some of the editors of the penny press began to see themselves as tribunes of the people, important counterweights to established political — and sometimes economic — interests. One early penny press editor opined that “An editor must always be with the people — think with them — feel with them — and he need fear nothing, he will always be right — always be strong — always free“.
Philosophical bromides aside, the “objective” press — independent from political parties, not beholden (in theory at least) to political bosses — grew out of the creation of the new revenue streams the mass market allowed. It was the logic of capitalism, not Jacksonian ideology (though that helped), which led to the character of the modern news business — including its establishment as the “fourth estate.”
Thus did an important pillar of modern civic life develop, at least in part, out of attempts to sell disposable content fast, and profitably; which leads us back to Demand Media’s business model. What does it mean that consumers, in the aggregate, now set article topics? Is this going to make the available supply more mediocre, in the end? Or will this recent revolution develop along lines set during an the earlier revolution in industrial information production? Who knows. I wouldn’t hope for much; but as with so much in the historical analogy game, it at least suggests some possibilities.
PS: for the curious: I think some of these same issues — about the organizational forms that capitalism encourages, and their relation to democratic politics — are raised, albeit in a somewhat oblique way, in this awesome Orgtheory post about democracy and corporations.
1.) Daniel Roth, “The Answer Factory,” Wired 17.11 (Nov 2009).
Hilariously, the article is not yet online. Link to come someday, maybe. Update! now with more links!
2.) Seriously, the guy has been investigated for fraud multiple times, and, during his time at drkoop.com he sold patent medicines (“Dr. Koop’s Men’s Prostate Formula Pills”). And like every google-savvy serial entrepreneur, he is also the proud owner of a meticulously tended Wikipedia page.
3.) James Gordon Bennett, Courier and Enquirer, 12 November 1831, as quoted in Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940(NY, 1941), 232.
4.) Similarly, this is not the same story as that told in Jeffrey Pasley’s “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Pasley covers the explosion of political newspapers in the 1790s and thereabouts; by the 1830s, these were old hat, though given new life by the rebirth of intense partisan conflict in the election of 1832 and Jackson’s presidency more generally.
Image cite: Wallyg,”NYC – Civic Center: The Sun Clock,” Flickr, CC License.