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

4/28/10Follow @wroush

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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 »

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

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    This model reminds me of Demand Media, whose writers are paid in a similar fashion, albeit more straightforwardly and with seemingly much more editorial oversight. Demand Media concentrates more on how-to articles that will get a lot of SEO lift, so the content is rather different. But Tom is right that there is a lot of money to be made in this arena. And he is also right that the local investment community is not very attuned to these models. Demand Media is in L.A.

    And we have a little BzzAgent-ness in the mix too. I was surprised at that extension of Gather.

    I do share your hand-wringing, Wade. We get the world we deserve if we can’t discern quality.

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  • Dan

    Wade – I think your vision of quality is more of an elitist view. Tom and the folks at Gather are bringing conversations to an area where people can discern and discuss from a bottom-up model rather than a top-down one. People feed information to one another and discuss topics organically rather than being told what to think by a few folks in the mass media. Those quality conversations are a new form of news and worth cultivating. Gather’s model seems like a progressive view of future news consumption – to me that is more “quality” than you will get from traditional elite mass media.

  • Gary R.

    Conversation? What a load of crap!

    Take a look at any of the content that is generating this exponential growth for Gather and see how much of it is being discussed at all…Here’s the answer: NONE.

    Much of the content (in fact almost ALL of it) regularly violates copyright and fair use (as well as decency in some cases), and is simply copied from other sources online just to get traffic in the door.

    Gather is very quickly becoming a site devoid of any real substance and it is sad to see Gather’s CEO try to package crap in gold foil.

    Gather is encouraging members to exploit tragedy and gossip to make a buck.

    What a fall from grace, for him and the site.

  • Kathy

    I had a long comment but it disappeared. We who’ve been here since the beginning abhor the so-called content (lack of content) from the Socialwrite program.

    That Gerace instituted this program means he was desperate for SEO views, and that his other programs failed in this regard.

    We consider it an absolute betrayal of our fiction, poetic, visual and real journalistic skills and talents to be subjected to daily onslaughts from the check out aisle at the supermarket.

    In the beginning, in late 05 and 06, when many top quality people joined from Boston Globe’s Jan 14, 2006 article that Gather.com is a site for writers, when Gather co-hosted the First Chapters’ Contests with Simon & Schuster (see a NYT article in 06 about this), when Gather co-hosted a Romance contest, a music contest, a True Crime story contest…a Borders/Mitch Albom contest….

    and you can see how Gerace has betrayed the faithful membership in his many about-face turns to try to generate SEO views.

    It appears he’s won this round, but many of the best people left for FB or for real publishing.

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