I’m still waiting to make a bushel from my ‘content farm’ work

The future of journalism has arrived, and I’m excited to be part of it. No, not this MinnPost thing — that’s so 2009. I’m talking Associated Content, baby!

I recently became a contributor to Associated Content, which bills itself as “The People’s Media Company.” On its website, Associated Content explains that it “enables anyone to participate in the new content economy by publishing content on any topic.”

So I thought I’d give it a try. I posted an article I’d written on accessible home design for aging baby boomers and sat back to watch the page views roll in. And did they ever!

To date, my article has been viewed 24 times. At Associated Content’s going rate of $1.50 per 1,000 views, I’ve made 4 cents so far. If a few dozen of you click on it, I could triple that!

Associated Content is one of several “content farms” that are playing an expanding role in the media ecosystem. In this business model, writers and editors, for very low pay, churn out content that’s sent out onto the Internet, where it generates ad revenue for the parent company.

Here’s an article by a former newspaper colleague of mine on her experience writing for the content farm Demand Media at $15 an article. That’s better than copy editors, who get $3.50 for each article they edit.

The content farms are a logical reaction to the economics of the Internet, where people have shown little inclination to pay for content. If people won’t pay, then you have no choice but to cut your costs as much as possible.

Even an august publication like the Washington Post isn’t above trying to get free content from local bloggers in its area. (Full disclosure: MinnPost uses that model, too.)

You can hardly blame the Post. Traditional media have suffered an ongoing bloodbath for several years now, with newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations axing anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of their editorial staff.

Just last week, Gannett — the nation’s largest newspaper publisher — announced that it will design 78 of its daily newspapers at five centralized “Design Hubs.” This will save the company money on designers while making production more efficient. But it will inevitably lead to every Gannett paper looking the same, from Visalia, Calif., to Asbury Park, N.J.

Gannett, often a trend-setter in cost-cutting, is actually behind the curve on this one. Tribune, the No. 2 newspaper publisher, adopted centralized, templated design hubs last year.

Gannett and other publishers are also talking to Narrative Science, which has developed a computer program to turn routine information into automated news stories — no humans required. The Big Ten Network already uses Narrative Science to produce sports stories for its website; here’s an example of a computer-generated baseball story.

But that’s hardly a new concept, either. Radio stations have been computerizing for more than a decade, broadcasting highly formatted satellite programming while slashing all local staffs except a few poorly paid producers and ad reps.

My friend Jim Hopkins, author of The Gannett Blog, has likened the crisis facing modern media to the 1990s movie thriller, “The Hunt for Red October.”

Hopkins points to the scene where CIA analyst Alec Baldwin is aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, desperate to cross a vast, dangerous stretch of ocean. Admiral Fred Thompson says there’s only one way: by racing a helicopter, stripped of all unnecessary weight. “A chopper turned into a flying gas can,” he warns grimly.

With scattered exceptions, including the site you’re reading now, that’s the gloomy prognosis for our media. The question is: What will happen to our society when all we’re left with is sweatshop content delivered by flying gas cans?

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by jim hughes on 07/19/2010 - 06:59 pm.

    The software-generated baseball story amazed me. Grammatically correct, factually compelete, and absolutely uninteresting.

    There’s no market for “use this word in a sentence” journalism. Content that costs nothing to produce will generate no revenue.

    Art, music and theater could all be automated too. It doesn’t work that way.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 07/20/2010 - 09:13 am.

    John, what does it matter that the Gannett newspapers in St. Cloud and Visalia looking the same? I see a lot of gnashing of teeth among local journos about this, but it’s not as though subscribers to the St. Cloud Times are going to be offended because the Visalia paper looks the same. I mean, they don’t care on the Web (the sctimes.com site looks exactly as the same as almost every Gannett website, save the color scheme), so why should they care about it in print?

    I understand the economics of content farms and see a lot of my former colleagues at QuinStreet struggling with that issue. (Tip: Don’t be rushing out to buy that post-IPO QuinStreet stock any time soon.) But the irony is that the operations that seem to be doing the best financially — Gawker, HuffPo — have the MOST individualistic attitudes.

    Also, chances are pretty good you won’t even get credit for those 24 page views: most are probably from search-engine and spam spiders that are filtered out at the end of the day.

  3. Submitted by Janet Grischy on 01/21/2011 - 04:05 pm.

    Hello John,
    Your clever article annoys me on a couple of levels. Your writing is no more valid than mine because you get paid more. Ask Van Gogh.
    You failed on the content farm, but some succeed. Many have degrees or hard-won areas of expertise, and the ability to communicate simply, and without condescension.
    I’m sorry that the world is changing on you journalists, but it is. Have you read any of my stuff? How do you know it’s inferior?
    Janet Grischy, farmgirl
    ps: We write tight. No gas.

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