USA Today, like the majority of dailies in the United States, has a
problem. Last year, its circulation suffered a significant drop, and
it’s now the number two daily after being surpassed by the Wall Street
Journal.

So what’s USA Today to do? Obviously, it needs to change. And a small
change is coming in the form of a deal the newspaper has struck with
Demand Media to provide ‘Travel Tips by Demand Media‘ on USAToday.com.

Demand Media, of course, is what is often referred to as a ‘content farm‘. It employs an army of freelancers to produce search engine-friendly content. Search engine-friendly content, in turn, attracts lucrative SERPs, which drive organic traffic, which drive ad revenue.

It’s a model that is reportedly working quite well for Demand Media, and as I’ve discussed before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what the Demand Medias of the world are doing; they simply fill a particular void in the market. But, in my opinion, the fact that the second largest daily in the U.S. is turning to Demand Media for content isn’t exactly an encouraging sign — for the newspaper industry. That’s because it demonstrates just how far newspapers have fallen.

One of the biggest challenges that newspapers like USA Today face is the continued commoditization of the kind of content they print. And with commoditization comes an even bigger challenge: maintaining a semblance of authority. Syndicating Demand Media’s content to readers on USAToday.com simply contributes to this dynamic of commoditization and will make it harder for USA Today to credibly act as an authoritative source for travel information.

After all, Demand Media’s content is available elsewhere on the web, and the freelancers who produce it, however competent they may or may not be, are not necessarily recognized travel experts, or even ‘journalists‘ per se.

According to USA Today’s Victoria Borton, “We’re not going to sit and write 4,000 ‘How to Travel with a Toddler’ or ‘How to Find the Best Airfare Deals’ pieces, but that’s the sort of thing people are searching the search engines for.” Hence the deal with Demand Media.

Which begs a simple question: why aren’t USA Today’s writers going to produce these kinds of pieces? If the content USA Today’s writers are being paid to produce isn’t what consumers are looking for, why shouldn’t USA Today pay writers to write ‘how-to‘ articles? Why should they be paid to write what they’re writing now?

Borton’s quote seems innocuous on the surface but in my opinion it’s quite revealing. Borton implies that Demand Media-style content is what consumers are looking for online but that USA Today has no intention of producing it. That’s a not-so-subtle admission that the content produced in-house at USA Today isn’t what consumers are looking for. But instead of rethinking its core product, USA Today will simply outsource to Demand Media.

From this perspective, it’s quite clear that USA Today, like so many other struggling newspapers, is confused about its own market, its own product and about the needs of the modern news consumer. Financially-speaking, USA Today’s deal with Demand Media may float, but this is one ship that is clearly sinking.