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Content Mill Bubble? No, Just Hype and a Business Model Shake-Out

Advertising Age recently ran a story about a freelance writer who allegedly made just under $100,000 a year writing for content mill Examiner.com. Content mills (or farms, as some call them) are those sites that pay people the cost of a McDonald's Happy Meal -- sometimes not even that -- per article.

My BNET colleague Jim Edwards thinks that the entire content mill category is ready for a melt-down, and lumps in anything he can think of, including BNET, Forbes, and Aol News. Forbes's Louis DVorkin, controversial among the writers who used to work for him at True/Slant, which Forbes acquired, refers to these online writers as a new breed of journalist. It seems like a good time to peel away some of the spin, both pro and con, and look at reality.

The content mills vary in model, but generally pay a few dollars -- about $3 to $15 -- for a single article, generally running 300 to 500 words. The promise to the writers is that they can make $20 to $30 an hour by writing as fast as humanly possible. According to freelancer Edmund Lee, who wrote the Advertising Age story, Jodi Jill posts 100 to 130 articles a week. Examiner.com, the mill with which she seems most associated, confirmed that she made just under $100,000, though it wouldn't release traffic numbers or the rates at which it paid her. Jill told Advertising Age that she worked 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Here's where some of the spin gets bad, because Jill's approach is hardly typical of what many of the content mills requires. I've looked at a number of her posts, and they seem to top out at 200 words and rely heavily on what others have reported or produced and including broad generalizations of what "people" like and do. Here's a paragraph from a post about Mandy Moore doing voice-over work for a new Disney (DIS) animated feature, Tangled, which takes on the Rapunzel fairy tale:

Disney's film Tangled, hits the theaters on Thanksgiving, but the hype over the film has been strong. People love the premise of the film as well as the delightful story arcs within the film. Focusing on a classic tale, the new twists bring to light exactly how this new updated version of the film could be better than ever, even with all that hair.
I've been generous in the choice of passage quality. She doesn't manage to recall the source of the original story. And she can tell that "people" like the delightful story arcs, even though the film won't be out for another week and, as a result, haven't actually seen it. Quite the predictive feat. Then Jill states that one of the problems with "illustrating films" (the term is animating) is drawing hair, and that this is "one of the main items illustrators steer clear of." That's why you see all those bald characters in Disney animation.

Sorry, Ms. Jill, but this is awful. Not only is the writing flat, but woefully uninformed. And yet, given the presumption and brevity, I could see how she might write 100 pieces in a week, or 20 in one day. Three such pieces an hour while watching television or reading other sites doesn't seem like a burden.

You can't say the same about most content mill writing, according to all the freelancers I've heard from with experience in the area (and that number is easily in the dozens). In short, Jodi Jill's writing experience is an anomaly. So is her pay. As Lee writes, most Examiner writers make a few hundred dollars a year. For Demand Media, the top payment bragging terms I've heard have been $3,000 a month, but, again, that is highly unusual.

Jim has the largely low paying part right about content farms (although he knows as well as I that payment is significantly higher at BNET and that stories don't simply chase page views). However, he seems to misunderstand other aspects. He assumes that all of them are news-oriented, which isn't correct. Demand focuses largely on how-to information that it runs on its own network of sites, like eHow.com. The same is true for Associated Content, which Yahoo (YHOO) bought not long ago. They represent one business model: analyze search terms, develop practical, evergreen content to match, and deploy it on massive sites that help generate strong showing in niche search engine requests.

Aol's Patch.com focuses on local news. Examiner tries for a cross between niche interests and news, like a series of niche content spots on the Web. The point is that there isn't one basic model of content mill ... other than what I think will prove to be a long-term inadequate dependence on people willing to work for next to nothing. People who need to make a living will eventually tire of the required pace to make relatively low amounts of money. This is no more a bubble than pay walls or adding video to sites. Although these sometimes can work, in general they are desperate tactics that don't succeed.

I do agree with Jim that the businesses do need to find good revenue models. The value assigned to writing, reporting, video, and images has dropped as their accessibility on the Web has increased. Ad inventory has also become effectively infinite, so the rate space can command from advertisers has similarly fallen. There's not enough money to pay people anything close to reasonable rates, which is why the corporations involved try to get as much as they can for nothing.

In some cases, the payment is literally zip. Compared to an Examiner, the Huffington Post shows the real low end of the industry, promising an audience to people desperate to find one so they can hopefully figure out a way to get some benefit from it. As I've shown before, most HuffPo bloggers get next to no traffic.

And that brings us to the most unpleasant spin of all -- that of the organizations that want to pretend to be bastions of new journalism but that want to indulge in this form of New Feudalism. Louis DVorkin at Forbes is a classic example, writing that a "new breed of journalist fits right in at Forbes."

At Forbes, I often talk about our plans to build a scalable content model. That means both full-time staff reporters and hundreds of expert contributors. Our experienced staff writers are fully embracing the new ways, while imparting their hardened knowledge to those who grew up living and breathing the all encompassing content creation process.
"Expert contributors." A pleasant term for the unpaid help on whose back you hope to scale your content model. That's where the real bubble is. To depend on the kindness of strangers might be fine if you are a character in a Tennessee Williams play. But to do so in a for-profit business is insane, even if you can find photos or research stories on the Web. Ultimately, someone has to pay for the time of the people involved, and there's only so long you can donate your energies on speculation of a brighter day. To plan a business on such a passing advantage is a bubble that popped before it inflated.

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Image: Library of Congress Flickr photo stream, public domain.