Last week, the Huffington Post reached a new apex. Viewed from France, where ads are localized, its home page carried a remarkably tasteful ad: a farting application for the iPhone (see below). As prudery still rules in American media, you’ll notice that the farter’s exhaust aperture has been blurred. Fine.

A quick précis: France is a country of 65m people, with a modern tech infrastructure. Internet to the home is faster than in the United States and way cheaper than in Australia. The cellular networks work even better than the AT&T’s, and the three carriers use a single worldwide standard, GSM. Its internet population numbers 45m, a fast growing proportion of which speaks serviceable English, good enough to read the parts of the Huffington Post that are not written in Shakespearian English.

With this in mind, let’s focus on two interesting aspects of the HuffPo advertising mishap.

First, it shows how advertising is sold: by the bulk. The HuffPo sales people’s intellectual horizon doesn’t extend very far. This is what I call the Burundi Syndrome, one where American companies see the ROW (Rest of the World) as an aggregation of second class people. Consider Apple’s geographical definition for instance: its London-based EMEA division encompasses Europe, Middle-East, Africa. A vast zone ranging from Burkina-Faso to Sweden — where the average student is way more educated than its American counterpart and where the per capita GDP is just 20% lower than in the US (OK, Burkina Faso — I’ve been there too — has a long way to go).
Coming back to the Huffington Post, the choice of a below grade ad served on a ROW market demonstrates a tragic inability to understand the true power of the internet, i.e, making contents globally accessible to a solvent population.
That’s the first distinction between great media brands and cheap ones. Neither the New York Times, nor The Sydney Morning Herald nor the Guardian would delegate the sale of their non-domestic ads without some sort of guarantee covering the advertisers’ relevance.

Second, and more importantly. By allowing such a degradation in its premium advertising space (a home page is supposed to be just that), the HuffPo acknowledges that its content is, in fact, cheap. It therefore admits that volume, rather than targeting or relevance, drives the value of its content.

And volumes the Huffington Post delivers. A lot. According to ComScore (which is blessed with the rigor of a Greek public accountant), the Huff Post cruises at 26m unique visitors per month. Other sources agree on more than 20m UV, which is above the New York Times (19m UV/ Nielsen), and twice as much as the Washington Post.

How do I dare question such an audience success? Simply because, in my not-so-humble-opinion, The Huffington Post is not, per se, a news organization. Its content relies upon on a mixed bag of high profile bloggers, drawn from Arianna Huffington’s vast personal network; these individuals deliver thoughts of varying depth, ranging from fun stuff to leftovers quickly produced by an obscure assistant. The rest is an army of bloggers (thousands) whose only pay is the virtual currency of visibility. Under such circumstances, you get what you paid for. The Huffington Post is above all a very well staged aggregator with a razor-thin layer of editorial.

There is much worse than the HuffPo. And it is called Content Farms. I must confess that it showed up only recently on my personal radar screen. First thanks to one of the best columnists in the business: New York Times’ David Carr, a true hard-core journalist (see his complicated background here). In this remarkable piece, David explains his encounter with a Demand Media exec.

Demand Media is the internet’s largest “mediocrator” (the term is mine, not Carr’s), built on the following concept:
–  7000 contributors; not exactly Pulitzer candidates, more like “my computer is four meters away from my bed” type of people.
–  A $15 to $20 stipend per article. To put things in perspective: for such alms, a Vanity Fair or The New Yorker writer would produce roughly ten words. At this rate, David Carr says he would be making almost a dollar an hour writing is column.
– Copy editors are paid $3.5 for processing a story; Demand claims to have 1,000 of them (they oversee a stream of 7,000 articles per day).
–  Demand Media also supplies videos ($20 a pop). As a comparison, research by my students at the Sciences Politiques School of Journalism established that professional video reporting could cost about €1400 a minute.
–  The choice of stories is algorithm-based. An analysis of internet traffic detects what users are keen to click on and what yields the best in advertising revenue. Add clever use of Search Engine Optimization, and you get big numbers.
– Tech is also present in copyright monitoring with anti-plagiarism software.

Demand Media is a huge internet property. In an AdAge interview, Joanne Bradford, Demand’s Chief Revenue Officer and former Yahoo’s sales boss, said eHow alone – one of the many sites fed by Demand’s content – has 50m UV a month.
What’s on eHow by the way? As I’m writing this column, I can see How to make tissue paper flowers for party decorations written by Wandergirl a young lady from Nashville Tennessee, eHow member since 2008. She worked hard, staging pictures, writing nice instructions for this essential element of decoration. Not being a huge fan of paper flowers, I won’t dare to assess the quality of the piece; I’m way more of an expert on migraine relief, and I was not utterly impressed by the How to get rid of Migraines piece, a gently watch-your-food kind of new age entry (but the value proposition of the How to Decorate a House Plant Pot for Under $3 piece seems, in contrast, indisputable).

OK. I’ll quit sneering. How do content farms relate to journalism?

Clearly, a company such as Demand Media has its eye on mainstream media. Smartly enough, it assembled a high profile editorial board, as explained in this PaidContent story (PC is on the top of the subject: follow their tag here): university deans, former media execs, ethics specialists; Jeff Jarvis didn’t fall into the trap of Demand’s legitimating strategy, he explains why here.

Two things lead me to write about content farms this week. The first one is conversations I had in Paris, with people who drool over the content farm model: audience-based demand and algorithm-driven, this thing is definitely gaining traction. Then, a string of announcements triggered my interest. Two months ago, USA Today decided to outsource some travel content to Demand Media. No big deal. In many publications (French ones are typical), travel journalism is already a cozy heaven of soft editorial corruption. It shouldn’t get worse, then. A great deal from a bean-counter perspective: USA Today doesn’t pay for content and shares ad revenue with Demand Media.

Even more interesting: last May’s announcement that Yahoo was paying around $100m to acquire Associated Content, another huge writers-in-a-stable outlet. This points to interesting bits:
– A company such as Yahoo doesn’t believe in the economic value of classical journalism. I’m not judging here, just the fact’s ma’m. It prefers pouring $100m for a stream of cheap contents to spending a fraction of that sum to build something, hem…  different.
– This shows where the real money is. Not in quality reporting, but more in a product for a massive audience that translates into eyeballs (what a term) that, in turn, will be monetized — especially if you add a good layer of software algorithms to the product.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying these companies are evil while old media outlets are the embodiment of intellectual noblesse. Actually, a great deal of brainpower lies on the content farms side; better than others, they carefully analyze their audiences, do good SEO and ad management. I said many times here how woefully underinvested in technology mainstream media are (search, recommendation engines…). I’m not anti mass-market product either: I had great time participating to the development of a 2.7m free newspaper in France.

But I also think the percolation of bulk content, of a type of lowest common denominator production has implications for the evolution of web use. In an increasingly visible fashion, bulk content will radicalize media consumption by outlining the boundary between streams of low-ends “contents” and added-value editorial productions, whether provided by traditional media or by a new breed of pure players.

In a sense, that’s a good news.

There is a hitch, though. In this ocean of mass audience low grade products, authentic journalistic efforts will have to get used to taking refuge on tiny audience islands of. A consolation: such audiences will be solvent and willing to understand the true price of editorial. Hopefully.