Don’t Blame the Content Farms

    by Dorian Benkoil
    July 26, 2010
    People condemn content farms, but any magazine stand shows there's a range of quality and approaches in traditional media, too

    From a business perspective, traditional journalism is rather inefficient.

    Find out what [consumers] really want and value, and try to give them that, instead of what you've been making." -Alan Webber

    Stories are chosen by a small group whose members often have similar experiences and outlooks. With little knowledge of true market demand, they assign the stories to a limited pool of writers and reporters who may not have the knowledge or contacts to quickly do a top-notch job. The stories are then produced and put out to consumers who may or may not like them. The process is repeated, daily or weekly or otherwise, often with little hard data on what, exactly, made a given story or feature popular.


    But despite the inefficiencies, publishers have been able to survive, even thrive, because of other inefficiencies and barriers to competition, such as costly printing presses, advertisers with few other viable outlets and controlled distribution.

    Enter the Internet. The “content farms” that MediaShft has focused on this week are exploiting new digital information technologies and systems to turn the model on its head, remove the friction caused by the inefficiencies, and reap the economic rewards. Rather than a small group of editors surmising what a community might want, algorithms from Demand Media, AOL and others process search queries and social media, glean what’s wanted, then use other pieces of technology to calculate the likely value; they then quickly find writers or producers at a profitable price, assign and produce the content, attach money-making ads, and pay the “content creators” in a streamlined way.

    Some in the industry may bemoan what’s produced as “dreck,” a term AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher used while interviewing Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt, but it does seem to satisfy a significant number of media consumers.


    “Whenever you do stuff at scale and it’s disruptive, people immediately think it’s not good,” Rosenblatt told Swisher, saying Demand produces some 6,000 pieces per day. “We’re trying to prove that our content is good.”

    It’s not as if the content farms invented the idea of producing work that’s just good enough to sell. Just scan the racks at your local newsstand. As for complaints about the amount the content creators are paid, anyone producing the content is doing so voluntarily. By definition, they’re being paid a market rate.

    Not All Content Creators are Content Farms

    Not every company trying new media business models can be put into one “content farm” bucket. Organizations like Politico, Patch and MainStreetConnect (a recent client of my company) are hiring reporters according to a more traditional model and focusing them by subject matter, geography, or both, while also using technology to keep costs down and drive new efficiencies that allow them to become, they hope, profitable with lower revenue than is required by traditional news organizations.

    It’s the classic case of a disrupted industry: The newcomers can do what’s required to make a profit without having to support legacy processes responsible for a majority of current profits.

    “It’s hard to do something for future gain that is costly in present revenue and margin,” publishing industry expert Mike Shatzkin told me in an interview. “If you don’t have present revenue or margin, you have nothing to lose.”

    Writer James Fallows, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, suggests that those bemoaning the fate of journalism might take a page from the engineers at Google, and instead try new processes, test and iterate, to discover how to derive enough revenue from what they make to sustain its production.

    “Find out what [consumers] really want and value, and try to give them that, instead of what you’ve been making (which they may or may not want to buy, but which you’ve wanted to sell),” Alan Webber, who co-founded Fast Company magazine, told me in an email. “Find ways to cut costs. Find ways to cut waste. Find ways to test new ideas, new products and services faster, cheaper, and better.”

    That’s more productive than fretting that the old ways of doing business are no longer working. And it sounds like what the content farms are doing.

    Transformation of the Media Industry

    About a century ago, as Americans were switching from horses-and-buggies and trains to cars, there were said to be more than a thousand companies producing automobiles in the United States. After a vigorous era of foment and entrepreneurialism, a handful survived, often incorporating the lessons learned from some of the other players that they bought out. Eventually, a thriving industry supplying millions and millions of consumers was born.

    Entrepreneurial journalism — an increasingly popular topic at journalism schools and institutes around the U.S. — is just that, entrepreneurial. Amid the ordered disarray of startups and growth, different models are being tried. Some will succeed, and more will fail. New standards will be created.

    Those upset that their skills can’t get them more from the market might do well to bolster those skills. No longer is it enough to be able to report and write; hiring managers are looking for the ability to template, shoot, mic and perhaps even write a bit of code. If you don’t know how to use Twitter these days, you’re nowhere near the cutting edge.

    Think of the power the new tools give journalists, including ones working for such venerated institutions as the New York Times, to reach beyond the confines of their publications and personally assemble communities of readers, viewers and participants around the journalism they create, while also developing leads and sources. That’s more traffic for the publication, more influence and voice for the journalists. The tools also give people working for the content farms, also known as content mills, the ability to quickly get their work done and in some cases earn an hourly wage well beyond journalists’ typical starting salaries.

    “Yes, Demand Studios is a content mill. A new business model well adapted to the way consumers demand information. Get over it already,” writes a commenter on a previous story in our series. “Why do I work for Demand Studios? The hourly pay is worth it and the independence fits my lifestyle.”

    A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, retaining and monetizing audiences. He tweets at @dbenk.

    Tagged: beyond content farms business model demand media journalism online news aggregators patch.com pay
    • Great post, and great series.

      I think one of the keys to focus on here is the two kinds of content, which often get blended in these discussions. There’s content that people search for because they need information, and there’s content that people read for pleasure, for entertainment, for education, etc.

      The latter kind is what media has always excelled at. Because there was no easy way to figure out what information people needed, magazines and other media packaged it based on topic, target demographic or however else they branded themselves. The great pleasure of this kind of editorial is discovering that article you never knew you wanted to read. It’s exploratory media.

      The former, and what Demand and other “content farms” excel at (not to mention sites like Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers), is information people need now. If I type a question into Google, I’m hoping to find a webpage that will answer it for me, well. Traditional publishers have not excelled at this kind of content and the void is being filled by others.

      I don’t think those of us interested in packaging interesting content should be worried exactly about the influence of content farms. We should be learning from them and making sure that all our service content is easily searchable. But Demand isn’t pretending to be a curator of all the best there is to read. It’s filling a need online that no one else was filling.

    • Great nuggets of information here, thanks! The factory farm suggestion was interesting.

      One thing your straw dog (old media) used to do effectively was to cut the lengthy wind-up reporters (in throat-clearing mode) would indulge in if not edited.
      Your first 3 paras are wind-up & the 4th has some wind-up in it. If your piece is about “content farms” start with that. Don’t waste our time.

    • ClickAndRun

      Anyone who says the content produced by Demand Media fills a need is dead wrong–searching for a piece of content doesn’t earn a dime. Moreover, visiting a page on ehow earns no money at all. In most cases, the money is earned when the person clicks on an ad and leaves the website. It simply is not the case that advertisers are lining up to “take over” any of Demand’s properties. The revenue is accidental and there’s no more sense to it than a game of Blackjack.

      • Reality

        Well-said. That this is somehow catering more efficiently to the demands of us consumers is…laughable.

    • DS Writer

      Wow, how delusional is Rosenblatt? The content from DS is anything but good. And I say this as a long time writer.

      On a good day for me, I can crank out one of these “good” articles in 15 minutes, which earns me $60 an hour. That is why I write for this atrocity. It allows me to avoid the cube farm while only working 4 hrs a day for decent money. And I only started writing for them after getting laid off.

      And here’s the funny thing – I know that I am writing it badly but it passes through with no rewrites most of the time. Some quality control, eh?

      Sometimes I do feel bad about contributing to mucking up the internet like this with poorly written “articles.” And every time I see a reputable company (USAToday, Houston Chronicle, SF Chronicle, etc.) hitch their wagons to this stinker of a content farm, it just makes me cringe.

    • Great post. If more newspapers embraced the approach of these so-called “content farms” for niche content, maybe it would generate enough new revenue and free up enough new resources to allow them to invest more in investigative journalism — which can’t be “farmed.”

    • One wonderful thing about content farming is the discontent it causes if you know anything at all about the subject.

      Another good thing is how they create additional opportunities for marketing new products.

      Specifically: I’ll gladly support anyone who comes up with a way to tweak a search engine so it NEVER AGAIN SHOWS ME ANYTHING from the increasing list of sites being filled by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

      I mean, if I wanted Usenet, I know how to find Usenet. Been there, done that, had a great killfile working with the “nn” browser.

      Now I have to do the same idiot-filtering all over again with the Web, with poorer tools and more money fighting to beat any filters I can come up with.

      Joy. Oh, yes, I blame the content farms.

      • Reality

        Yes. Absolutely. Search engines are the problem that created profitability for crap farms. And they’re the solution that will destroy it in the future.

        It’s gone under the radar for a long time, but nowadays they’ve pushed too far. There’s so much crap in search listings that average users like myself are starting to ask what the hell is happening, only to learn about the atrocity of content farms. Awareness is the key here. When enough programmers and developers become aware of this, we’re going to find a way to blast it all the way to extinction.

        And yes, I blame the content farms too.

    • Hey, we pointed to your piece today, but you seem to characterize me as not liking demand and others like it. in fact, I have been one of their few defenders in the blogs, as you can see here: http://kara.allthingsd.com/20100111/demand-media-is-mad-as-hell-and-well-pens-a-manifesto-and-here-it-is

    • Gail Cohen

      I’ve written around 1200 articles for Demand and can’t figure out what all the whining is about. It’s the job of every writer to submit work to which he is proud to attach his name. Period. Call me weird, but I think my articles inform and help readers.

      • Reality

        You’re weird. I could never produce 1200 products in my own field (computer programming) in one lifetime unless I absolutely did not give a damn about their quality.

    • kob

      Yes, entrepreneurial journalism is the future, but comparing what’s going today to the industrial push (autos, toasters, you name it from 1880s on) of an earlier time may be mistaken. Those businesses, including newspapers, took capita to create, failed quickly or consolidated. In contrast, neighborhood, community level journalism has almost zero start-up cost and will provide continual competition to corporate models or any other independent effort. I’m not convinced that a coherent revenue model on the local is possible because of the potential for competition, alternatives and relative lack of brand loyalty.

    • Dorothy

      You know what’s strange about that D8 interview? Richard Rosenblatt boasting that his “content producers” can make as much money as they want. Sure, some figure out how to game DS by cranking out content that gets rubberstamped and passed through because it conforms to DS “standards.” The name of the game is “gaming,” and content farmers who’ve figured out how to get a living wage with minimum effort are only following their employers’ leads, after all. You game Demand Studios, and Demand Studios games Google.

      With all the talk about giving consumers what they want, what’s not being examined is whether this model of producing “content” actually does give the consumer what she wants or merely stakes a meaningless claim to that so-called market.

      It’s no wonder people are confuzzled and no one knows whether to take these ventures seriously or not. Take a look at Rosenblatt’s own rhetoric: one minute he’s vehement that his content producers are not journalists, the next he’s boasting that the content they produce is “like service journalism.” There’s an element of charlatanism in that. Or maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, eh?

      And the business model? It’s no more clearly a winner than the product. This is the appearance of maverick gambling (call it “innovating” if you want; what do I care?) for fortunes that in reality essentially ride on Big Daddy Google: how long before Demand is blindsided and all that optimism and IPOism collapses in on itself? Google has product. Demand Studios does not.

      I understand how exciting it is to think you’re getting a whiff of something good baking in the oven, but Demand’s (and Patch’s, for that matter) business model, unless it’s tinkered with seriously, just does not make for good product in the end. The consumer’s smarter and more of a moving target than Demand knows. And “content producers” (why not call them content cows, instead… but let’s not talk about who’s really content or not) only yield so much quality. It would seem that some sobering up is in order in the world of new media entrepreneurship.

      All the hype is going to mean more profits in the short term for these company–none of which will be passed on to the wage slaves… that much is clear. Remember when organic farming was what your uncle Bob pissed on because it was for lettuce eaters? The land only has so much fat, dudes. And those adding to the hype by touting DS as a new model for media biz should check themselves. Better ideas (and better stories) are taking root elsewhere.

    • Hey, Kara, in reference to your comment http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/07/dont-blame-the-content-farms207.html#comment-171413 , no characterization intended. I was simply quoting from your interview of the Demand CEO, to which I linked so folks could see for themselves. And thanks for your further info on what you’ve written about them and their ilk.

    • Kontent is not writing. It comes in 55 gallon drums and ought to be sold on the Chicago commodities exchange. It is to writing as Bondo is to auto body repair.

      The product is defective. And it is created not by writers and editors, but by micro-contractors and business people.

      Anyone can feed the content mills. Contributors are not “by definition” paid market rates. The requirement that they know how to write has been dropped, as have barriers to entry. We could make health care more affordable by dropping the requirement that surgeons be trained and certified. We could then attract people at $9 hour. The outcomes would be “good enough.”

      • Reality

        Well said.

        There’s a reason why we like for people who do jobs to be good at them. That the internet ecosystem is currently one in which that requirement doesn’t apply is a very serious problem.

    • Kob, when you say what these folks do costs nothing, I would ask what you say about the millions raised and spent by them on staff, infrastructure and more. They are indeed much more cost-efficient, and require fewer hard assets, but they hardly cost nothing. And the argument is not over what it costs but rather what new models are being created.

    • Whining about the directions in which markets develop is futile. Writers crying over the changing landscape of content production will have no more effect than buggy whip makers did in protesting the spread of the automobile.

      Just as there is still a market for some premium buggy whip makers, there will always be a market for high quality writers. In the meantime, “content mills” such as Demand Studios will make money fulfilling different market needs, while those premium writers continue to look down upon them.

      • Reality

        It’s not just writers whining. So-called ‘consumers’ like me are starting to notice that the internet is bursting at the seams with brain-dead, valueless content. And we’re starting to wonder what the hell is going on. Five years ago I didn’t notice. Today I can hardly spend five minutes on the internet without running into content that was obviously not written by someone who knows or cares about the topic. It was only last week that I finally did some investigating to figure out why most of what I read this days is more trashy than the Enquirer. Imagine my horror upon discovering that this crap I’ve been encountering was put there and made to be crap intentionally; that the author cared not about communicating a point or providing information, but rather simply about churning out one more article for search engine hits.

        People like me are praying for more skilled writers. I relish the thought of an internet in which the highest-revenue content is written by the most skilled writers. Goodness, what a concept — the highest-quality product earning the most! It’s almost like I’ve seen that somewhere else before…where is that…oh yes! Life outside the internet!

        Content mills are an artifact of broken search engine ranking algorithms. They won’t last.

    • Alan

      Yes – traditional journalism is dead as a career. In a few years there will be less than ten real outlets globally that look like they can survive with enough revenue to pay real writers a real wage (Kara Swisher works for one of them and is clearly worth the money).

      But content mills are not the answer either – we WILL get filters and de-emphasis on search engines. People know when they read it it is junk.

      But there are other solutions. Very niche, very rich media. There are hundreds and becoming thousands of single writer, sole proprietor publications springing up on ultra niche topics. The authors have figured out that if they become writer and publisher in the right niche they can do very well. Sure there are niches that are better than others. But that was always true. The secret is that the market has changed. Newspaper publishers for the most part are in trouble. And they are digging themselves deeper by signing on for content mills to fill their online pages. In the meantime Demand Media is making hay while the sun shines. But I would avoid investing in them – their market is going to dry up in the next three to five years.

    • I agree with much of what you say about how the current climate is forcing media companies to evolve in ways that make them more efficient and better able to deliver the information people are looking for.

      I take issue, however, with the suggestion that journalists should be simply delivering stories people “like” or “want.” The stories people want are often the ones they don’t know about yet — the ones that need to be told via real investigative journalism that has nothing to do with search terms.

      This type of work requires real pay, and the argument below seems disingenuous:

      As for complaints about the amount the content creators are paid, anyone producing the content is doing so voluntarily. By definition, they’re being paid a market rate.

      People who work in sweatshops work voluntarily and for a “market rate” also, but that doesn’t mean they’re being treated or paid fairly. Writers are taking the work because, like so many people in the gigger economy, they have to.

      Regardless, as you point out, the scene is still shifting. Readers know when they’re getting value, and they will pay for value, which is why I can’t imagine that truly gifted reporters and journalists is doomed to earn ridiculous wages.

    • Sorry, meant to say “are doomed” above!

    • Bobbie Brewer

      How many of the people complaining the most about DS are those who already have full-time writing gigs or have established freelance opportunities with large publications and adequate paychecks? I am a ficiton writer (my DS name is a pseudonym) and while I am published and doing okay, I don’t have a blockbuster yet. If I work full-time right now, I won’t be able to meet deadlines or be a mom. Working part-time for minimum wage would be a silly use of my time when there is another way. I can write a DS article in 45 minutes and my writing isn’t half bad. This leaves me time to write fiction and allows me to pay the bills. Some of us still have to sing for our supper.

    • Marc

      Basic journalistic content — reporting on local government, weather, schools, business — fills a larger societal need that individuals might not all want at the same time. Fulfilling that social need puts it at odds with capitalistic principles, as it often has to bite the hand that feeds it. So a simple solution based on supply and demand might fulfill the market’s needs (and the people who benefit most from it), but it’s not really good for any of us.

    • @Christina thanks for your thoughtful comments. I might, though, take issue with the sweat shops analogy. Anyone able to earn money writing for a “content farm,” I would posit, has the resources to make money other ways. They are, at the very least literate and able to use a computer, which gives them more options than the worker who is, say, assembling clothes or handbags.

    • Reality

      “but it does seem to satisfy a significant number of media consumers”

      Crap mill content satisfies pagerank, Google’s search ranking algorithm. It most certainly does not satisfy consumers.

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