News or Noise? Gather CEO Tom Gerace on New England’s Fastest Growing Web Property

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the secondary conversation cycle where people share their take on the news, where moms talk about how they view the H1N1 vaccine, where parents talk about how they should tell their kids about Tiger Woods’ affairs. That’s what we’re good at. We look to that space because the content creation costs are far lower, and the ability to monetize far greater, because the conversations go on much longer than just the expiration of the breaking news.”

But how many more Tiger Woods stories does America really need? “There are definitely articles on the site that create a lot of value and articles that don’t create a lot of value,” Gerace acknowledges. “Let me differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘edifying.’ Gather is a for-profit company and our goal is to meet the market demand for content. There is far greater demand, like it or not, for content that is edgy, that has some sexiness, raciness, or celebrity attached to it, than there is for content that you and I might see as having gravitas. People would rather read about Tiger Woods’ affairs, by a 10 to 1 margin, than about healthcare in America. As a media company, we should be supplying content about both. I’m not going to apologize for the fact that we have exceptionally good celebrity and gossip content on the site, because Americans want to read it.”

But while I’m as sensitive to audience desires as the next writer, I couldn’t let the quality argument go. I pointed out to Gerace that one of the lead items in the “Spirituality” section on the day we were talking (April 15) was a post stating that President Obama had canceled the National Day of Prayer. In point of fact, the president had canceled a White House ceremony observing the day—a ceremony that had been instituted by George W. Bush only a few years before. In Gather’s defense, the author of the post was simply transmitting misrepresentations spawned earlier in that day’s news cycle by conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. But in doing so, he or she surely subtracted from the sum total of human wisdom.

The Gather team gathers for lunch“I’m a believer that the way you counteract inaccurate speech is with more speech,” Gerace replies. “Let me say again, our goal is not to be a journalism site. Our goal is to be a site where people talk about what’s happening in the world. When members of the U.S. Senate get up on the Senate floor and talk about death panels, these are the leaders of our nation sharing spin that I think in their heart of hearts they know not to be true, and that’s also freedom of speech at work. Will you find inaccurate stuff on our site? Oh yeah, absolutely. But do we believe that people will counteract that over time and that the truth will win out? Absolutely. I do not want to create an editorially verified, top-down, fact-checked media enterprise. The Times and the Post and CBS are doing well at that.”

But surely, I told Gerace, he must think about how to nudge writers to post articles that are more accurate, with more original reporting, or at least with clearer sourcing?

“I understand the challenge—it’s happening all across the media, even at the most reputable brands, that we take information we get second-hand without validation and we put it on the marketplace,” says Gerace. He says Gather is dealing with the challenge in several ways. One is to encourage, and eventually to enforce, stricter standards around citation, both for Gather Points contributors and for Socialwriters. Another is to crowdsource the filtering problem. “We need to go in and ask for, or demand, original sources, but we also need to begin to provide some method of credibility ranking,” says Gerace. “We have a patent-pending technology called PeopleRank where we look at how people read an author, and that helps establish the prominence of an author in the community, which will help to distinguish between respected and non-respected writers. That’s a first step.”

Eventually, Gerace adds, Gather will start to churn the Socialwriters, dropping the worst performers from the program and replacing them with better ones. “Gather will be, without fail, a top-100 media property by December 2010, but what might surprise you is that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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