AdAdge recently ran a piece discussing the move toward content outsourcing in traditional media, from “in-house” journalists and editors to third party “content farms” such as Demand Media and Associated Content:
Hachette is using Associated to supply some content for its Woman’s Day site. Thomson Reuters experimented with Associated for a limited period of time last year but plans to ink similar deals in the future, whether with Associated or another content provider. And Cox’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a handful of articles from Associated last summer; it is now running regular articles supplied by Demand Media.
Such partnerships further the ongoing shift among established news operations to capitalize on the availability of cheap content, such as USA Today’s recent deal with Demand Media, which is using its network of freelancers to supply pieces for a new Travel Tips section on USA Today’s website.
In the past I’ve criticized Demand and Associated Content as being fountains of crap content, much like the oil spill in the Gulf is spewing junk into the ocean. But that’s unfair; many of the writers that work for (freelance for) these organizations are former journalists or people with expertise in the areas they’re writing about.
At least some of the content being generated then will be of reasonable and maybe even high quality. The issue as the AdAge piece points out is cost; these sources are just much cheaper than headcount:
Associated pays its contributors anywhere from $5 to $30 per article, sometimes upfront — and in some cases pays a performance fee of up to $2 for every 1,000 impressions the story generates within Associated Content’s site.
The margins on these articles are quite large; but the publisher pays no health insurance or other overhead costs — Demand says it provides “access” to health insurance — so the bottom line on outsourcing is highly favorable vs. hiring staff writers and editors.
Maybe someone will come forward and claim to be making “six figures” from writing for one of these companies but I’m skeptical. What we’re seeing develop, accordingly, is a class of underpaid writer-content creators or “digital serfs” who are largely anonymous and fungible. Some people may, of course, be using content farms as a kind of SEO strategy to promote themselves or their businesses. But those savvy folks are likely in the minority.
Branded publishers know that they can’t maintain their reputations by relying primarily on this stuff but they can back-fill or round out their content online with help from Demand or Associated Content.
Perhaps these companies are simply filling a void and need created by the disruptive influence of the Internet, which won’t support ad revenues comparable to print and thus the staffing. Perhaps these are the new economics of content creation online. But the creation of a class of digital serfs is a lamentable outcome in my opinion.