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    Writers Explain What It’s Like Toiling on the Content Farm

    by Corbin Hiar
    July 21, 2010
    Working on a content farm isn't for everyone. Image by Andrew Stawarz via Flickr

    “We are going to be the largest net hirer of journalists in the world next year,” AOL’s media and studios division president David Eun said last month in an interview with Michael Learmonth of Ad Age. Eun suggested that AOL could double its existing stable of 500 full-time editorial staffers in addition to expanding its network of 40,000 freelance contributors. Many of the jobs will be added to its hyper-local venture, Patch, while the majority of AOL’s freelancers will work for the company’s content farms — Seed and the recently acquired video production operation, StudioNow.

    I was completely aware that I was writing crap." - Demand Media contributor

    These two areas into which AOL is ambitiously expanding are the fastest growing sectors of the journalism market. Hyper-local networks like Outside.in and content farms such as Demand Media are flourishing. As Eun’s bold prediction indicates, more and more journalists will end up working for new online content producers. What will these new gigs be like? To better understand, I reached out to people who have already worked with some of the big players.

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    Life of a ‘Content Creator’

    “A lot of my friends did it and we had a lot of fun with it,” said one graduate of a top journalism graduate program when asked about her work for Demand Media. “We just made fun of whatever we wrote.”

    The former “content creator” — that’s what Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt calls his freelance contributors — asked to be identified only as a working journalist for fear of “embarrassing” her current employer with her content farm-hand past. She began working for Demand in 2008, a year after graduating with honors from a prestigious journalism program. It was simply a way for her to make some easy money. In addition to working as a barista and freelance journalist, she wrote two or three posts a week for Demand on “anything that I could remotely punch out quickly.”

    The articles she wrote — all of which were selected from an algorithmically generated list — included How to Wear a Sweater Vest” and How to Massage a Dog That Is Emotionally Stressed,” even though she would never willingly don a sweater vest and has never owned a dog.

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    “I was completely aware that I was writing crap,” she said. “I was like, ‘I hope to God people don’t read my advice on how to make gin at home because they’ll probably poison themselves.’

    “Never trust anything you read on eHow.com,” she said, referring to one of Demand Media’s high-traffic websites, on which most of her clips appeared.

    Although chief revenue officer Joanne Bradford has touted Demand’s ability to give freelancers a byline and get their pieces published to “a great place on the web,” the successful writers I interviewed made great efforts to conceal their identities while working for the content farm.

    The prospect of seeing their names in the travel section of USAToday.com or the small business page of the Houston Chronicle’s website — two newspaper sites where Demand now contributes content — did not interest them. The working journalist who previously wrote for Demand is only listed as “an eHow Contributing Writer” on her pieces while Christopher, another Demand freelancer I spoke with who asked to only be identified by his first name, chooses to write under a pen name.

    (Note: MediaShift tried multiple times to get Demand Media to talk to us on the record for this series, but they declined, saying they were not doing media interviews due to competitive reasons.)

    Churning it Out

    Like the working journalist, Christopher cited Demand’s compensation as his primary reason for working with the company. For the past two years he has written for the company to supplement the salary he earns as an adjunct professor at a mid-sized Midwestern university. Although Demand pays only a meager $15 or so per piece, by choosing easy prompts and writing them up very quickly, Christopher managed to collect a tidy sum for his time and effort. Christopher forces himself to pump out a minimum of three per hour for three hours a day. “For me it’s always the hourly rate,” he said. “I won’t [write for Demand] if I feel I can make money doing something else.”

    Christopher has tried other content farms but keeps coming back to Demand Studios. Lured by higher per-article pay rates from AOL’s Seed, he wrote three pieces, only one of which was published. Unlike at Demand or Yahoo’s Associated Content, which pays as little as $0.05 a piece, Seed freelancers cannot claim a given topic. So even though this actual story request for a thousand word piece on post-traumatic stress disorder among doctors and nurses in the military might earn a freelance journalist $205, they could also earn absolutely nothing for their labor.

    Seed of Hope?

    As Yolander Prinzel of the blog All Freelance Writing explained, to freelance for Seed, you must create “content on spec, without any real direction and cross your fingers hoping you didn’t just waste your time … You and goodness knows how many other writers all rush to find that magical, mystical voice that will satisfy the faceless editors.”

    Unable to determine what had caused Seed to buy one of his pieces for $30 and reject the other two without any substantial feedback, Christopher told me he “just said screw it. It’s so random.”

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    Other AOL contributors have had better luck with Seed. Since February, Megan Cottrell has been a regular contributor to Wallet Pop, a consumer finance site owned by AOL.

    Although Cottrell uses the Seed system to post and edit stories, her clips owe less to a mastery of SEO alchemy than to old fashioned networking: She began working with Seed after she met one of Wallet Pop’s editors.

    “I haven’t done Seed the way it’s set up [to work for most writers],” she told me. “I’ve pitched stories to [the Wallet Pop blog] Money College and had stories assigned to me.”

    Although Cottrell’s experience is likely very different from that of most Seed freelancers, AOL’s use of her writing is indicative of how the company aims to leverage the work produced from the content farm. A story she wrote about student loan debt was featured in the slidebar at the top of AOL’s home page. Homegrown content from Seed can be featured or linked to on multiple platforms, all of which can earn the company valuable page views and the corresponding ad dollars.

    According to a MediaShift interview with Brian Farnham, the editor-in-chief of AOL’s hyper-local venture Patch, using content from Seed “is something we’re testing and exploring, to exploit if we can, and enhance the local professionally done journalism that we’re doing.”

    In an upcoming story this week, I will take a look at what it’s like to work at Patch, as well as other hyper-local ventures.

    *****

    Have you worked for a content farm? Would you consider doing so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

    MediaShift Editorial Intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

    Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

    Tagged: aol associated content beyond content farms demand media jobs seed
    • Andrew

      Corbin, I think you mistakenly referred to AOL’s video production studio Studio Now as “Studio One”.

    • Andrew,
      Yes, that was a mistake and we’ve fixed it. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • This reminds me of how it used to be embarrassing for professional journalists/writers to have written for, say, an airline magazine or some other such unglamorous publication. Content farms are the new airline magazines. Personally, I’ve resisted writing for them so far, because I’d rather make no money than write this stuff, but then I have someone supporting me financially and thus I have the luxury of not doing something I don’t want to do.

      Overall, this speaks to a dire need for writing to be a more valued skill. I think this is a MAJOR problem among writers who are young, because they have no concept of it being any other way. They need to consider though that it doesn’t have to be like this: http://annatarkov.posterous.com/pay-the-writer (make sure to read the comments)

    • Did you choose the three most disenchanted writers you could find for this piece? I know many writers who make a full time living writing on-line (including myself). Is it really any wonder that people who are “completely aware that [they are] writing crap” don’t succeed? Ultimately, those who write better content about topics that they understand will develop larger audiences and be successful.

    • Christa Keene

      Did you only choose disgruntled writers for this piece?

    • Sveta

      I guess that so-called journalist will do anything for a buck, huh? Once you’re willing to write things you know are not true, whether it’s about gin or the president, IMHO you are no longer a journalist. In other parts of the world, journalists risk prison and even their lives to get the truth out. This person’s willing to lie for 15 smackers? If I were her, I’d want to remain anonymous, too. After reading this, we can’t trust anything else she’s written, she we know she’s only in it for the money. Very sad state of affairs.

    • I’ve experimented with all of the content farms, with mixed success. Weirdly, Demand Media accepted my application, but has never offered me anything. I’ve considered applying again under my wife’s name just to see what happens.

      I’ve had a similar experience to some of the writers above with Seed. I can’t figure out what they’re interested in and/or why they would purchase one story and not another. Plus, their requests seem to be very sporadic. I’ve pretty much given up on them, though I like the idea in theory.

      Associated Content doesn’t pay all that well, and they have a screening system for stories that can be maddening. I’ve tended to use them as an outlet when I just want to republish a story and make a few additional bucks.

      My best experience financially has been with Examiner.com. They tend to pay reasonably well of you can generate traffic. It’s averaged in the range of $8-$10 CPM, which can add up. The downside is that because so many people are writing for them (often about the same thing), it’s easy for your story to get lost. It also doesn’t help that so many people are writing stories that are basically nothing but reprinted press releases. It’s not a place I would post anything that is exclusive, but it is putting food on the table.

      I don’t mind cranking out stories all day. I have my own web site, and that’s how I’ve made it into a business. I am just looking for some small amount of predictable reward.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I’d like to respond to a few of the issues raised in the comments:

      All of the writers I interviewed were not entirely disenchanted by their experience creating content. They enjoyed the reliable if insubstantial amount of money it provided, a fact I noted in my reporting.

      Those who have left content farms writing are now putting their journalism training into making news, not search engine bait. The only thing their posts required were coherent sentences and keywords. They did not lie, they did what the low paying work required.

      What I am having a hard time understanding is why the animus here is being directed at writers in difficult financial straights instead of hugely profitable content companies promoting crap content.

      (And Brad, what you do at Examiner.com is hyper-local journalism, a different but related topic that I will be addressing soon.)

    • Corbin–just as an FYI, while Examiner pitches itself as “hyper-local,” a great percentage of their pageviews tend to be driven either by “national” examiners, or local ones who simply post national stories (for instance, the number of local Examiners who posted Mel Gibson stories today).

    • Illuminating comments.

      I’ve heard of some others who don’t want to be named working for Demand. Some do put their training into making news and use Demand as supplemental income after the day (or night) job. So Demand isn’t only something people do while waiting to get work making real news.

      I’d also note, from very limited personal experience with Demand: It requires linked sources, from .gov or .edu sites. Churning out three posts per hour seems quite difficult unless one is leveraging prior knowledge and choosing assignments grouped by subject matter. In that case, the writers of that content are likely subject experts, like the unnamed adjunct professor. I wish he had the guts to use his name.

      And about animus directed at writers:
      I think what you’re hearing, Corbin, is disgust and perhaps shock at the quotes from someone who was not brave enough to use her own name when criticizing someone who paid her, no matter how little. I agree with Sveta that any of the working journalist’s later work would be suspect because of her quotes. Respected journalism institutions have been bitten too often in recent years by folks who took the same attitude later at professional jobs, especially where speed online pays off.

      I don’t say that to be mean: I say that as someone who wrote some advertorial in college. And I say that as someone who tried writing for Demand last year. (The reveal: http://bit.ly/bjEKnv ). I wasn’t fast enough, or cavalier enough, or knowledgeable enough in available assignments, to make piece work pay well. Still, I can see how others would gain enough speed, at least for copyediting, after investing some time, to use it as a supplement.

      As for Brad and Rick and Examiner.com, it’s key to resurrect Rick’s comment at MinnPost back in January, (link: http://bit.ly/cVoAL9 )
      “The last number I saw was that about 1/3 of their examiners make enough to reach the $25 payment minimum each month. They do pay decent for this kind of work (it averages out to about a $10 CPM), but if you leave you don’t receive anything for future page views, and I suspect a lot of folks never make a penny and simply give up.”

      Subject matter that draws traffic matters greatly at Examiner, it appears. Rick writes about TV there. I suspect civic local news, or “hyperlocal news,” or other subjects with smaller audiences, would be difficult to sustain.

    • Lise

      Yay, chick at WalletPop! Did you know that dozens of freelance writers at WalletPop were laid off in May? AOL hiring all these people sounds great, but in reality they’re having money troubles, too.

    • In addition to hyper-local journalism at Examiner, I also write for Associated Content. Aside from the page-view payments, they offer an up-front bonus payment for each article submitted for review. Editors select better writers from among the thousands of submissions they receive and offer higher paying articles to them exclusively. Typical rates would be $8-25 per article, plus the page-view bonus. News articles generally pay less up-front, but garner a higher number of page-views. They also offer Partner Calls for other sites for flat rate advance fees to select writers. These advance fees, along with all upfront bonus payments are deposited into the writer’s Paypal account within 24 hours of the article’s acceptance.
      Every editor I have dealt with at Associated Content, while advocating using good SEO techniques in one’s writing, has stressed that the quality of the content is the foremost consideration. Associated Content offers tutorials on increasing readership which, again, almost always begin and end with writing quality content that people will enjoy reading. Because they allow self-publishing in addition to editor-reviewed pieces, however, their content covers a wide range of quality levels.
      The reason that I don’t feel any animus toward these companies is that they are making an open offer to writers. An offer which they can choose for themselves to accept or not. Nobody is being forced into writing for them.
      I personally know writers at Associated Content who attract a million readers per month on a regular basis in addition to the upfront bonus payments they receive.
      Top writers also receive consideration for monthly and annual Best of AC awards. One of my articles won a $500 bonus for the best content of 2009 ( http://bit.ly/a0zOoh ).
      I have tried numerous online writing outlets. Today, in addition to writing for private clients which provides the lion’s share of my income, I write only for Examiner.com and Associated Content. Most successful online writers that I know use several outlets actively, although the choice varies by individual preference. I left a high-paying career in consumer electronics to write from home full-time, because I love to write.
      I can’t be angry with companies that offer that opportunity, but I can be angry at people who are passionate enough about writing to finish journalism school, but then write and publish “crap” that they simply make up with no knowledge or research. It shows a complete disregard for the craft and for the reader. It leads me to question exactly what is taught in journalism school these days. Do you think that same person, faced with a tight deadline for her “respectable” employer today won’t fake it again? When you lead your story with a protagonist of such little character and try to build sympathy for traditional journalism outlets by saying that she is much more successful working for one of those respectable companies, the reaction in the comments seems quite predictable.

    • Jagg Xaxx

      I’ve been writing for Demand Studios since late March. For July my income is averaging $100 a day, every day. I work, from home, maybe 30 hours a week. Prior to this I was working as a carpenter’s assistant for $14 an hour, smashing concrete walls with sledgehammers, cleaning up crappy worksites, coming home filthy and exhausted every day. I have a PhD in Art History. In the current economic and academic environment, it is virtually impossible to get a job in my field. Would you suggest I go back to my sledgehammer in order to avoid “polluting” the Internet? What I’m doing isn’t journalism at all, so I fail to see why so many people complain that I am demeaning the field of journalism. Besides, in my opinion, “journalism” pretty much died when it got in bed, excuse me, embedded, with the military.

      • Reality

        I’d suggest that.

        But hey, you know, someone told me recently that there’s actually a new emerging field of jobs that involves neither crap content farms nor sledgehammers!!! Can’t remember what it was called. Was it…er…”everything else.” Something like that.

    • Michelle

      I looked into the video content creator side of Demand Media as a way for our company to make extra cash. But with a paltry $20-$50 per completed video, that requires us to find an expert to be in the video and convince them to tell you their advice and offer their expertise for free, interview them on camera in their office, get proper on camera releases and then go back and edit the video, the math did not add up. Not even for the graduated college student. There are hard costs involved of purchasing a quality HD video camera, proper audio gear, editing gear, and lighting gear. And anyone who does this for them without proper liability insurance is insane. I would never walk into a lawyer’s office for example, with video production gear, without insurance. You never know when a light stand could fall over and break their brand new coffee table, let alone their head!!! It is such a bad precedent to prey on young people who just graduated from college and suck them into this.

    • I don’t know which is sadder, the people who throw words down on a page for what amounts to slave wages, or the fools who take the time to read what these writers’ readily admit is “crap.”

      I’ve written some things that I’ll admit weren’t my best, but I’ve never been so embarrassed by a story I wasn’t willing to put my name on it. It appears one thing is in short supply these days — Pride of Authorship.

      • Reality

        Truth. But you know, these days, as the ratio of crap to quality content is approaching infinity, even those of us who desperately want to find the quality still must spend inordinate amounts of time wading through the excrement. Very sad.

        Oh, and the people who throw down those words are still more sad. By a wide margin. I mean, it’s their job.

    • AR

      I wrote for Demand Media to make quick cash between (real) journalism jobs. Yes, the stuff I wrote was crap. Not because I didn’t care, but because that’s what they’ll get for $15. Basically if you know sourcing and AP style, your articles will get through the copy editing process pretty quickly, regardless if you’ve offered anything new to the world. Sure ehow.com articles get clicks, but I’d like to know how much time someone actually spends on the site, versus clicking, scanning and then going somewhere else for real information.

      That said, the money came quicker than with a typical freelance gig, and I didn’t have to talk with anyone or put much time into the writing because it was with a pen name. And there was no time spent querying or pitching to editors.

      I wouldn’t call myself disgruntled. It served its purpose. I found alot of the writers on there (via writers’ forums) weren’t journalists but wanted to be writers, and they were dying for the chance to write crappy stuff for USA Today, etc., through Demand Media.

      It’s something journalists do out of desperation, not purpose.

    • Gloucester

      Content farms don’t occur in a vacuum. Consider the larger media environment. After many years of working for newspapers and watching as the entire industry repeatedly shot itself in the foot with a submachine gun by giving my work and my colleagues’ work away free online, I was laid off due to inexplicably plummeting profits. Apparently, something was lacking in that particular business model. (On the upside, the genius execs who engineered these fiascoes managed to bail out with multimillion-dollar golden parachutes, so we can all take comfort in that.)

      At loose ends, I went to work for a content farm. It pays. That’s about all I can say for it, but that’s more than the newspaper industry is willing to provide. As for the quality of the stuff I do, I’d say it’s OK and not much more. If content farmhands don’t take the minimal time to do a passable job on these pieces, it says more about them than it does about the farm.

      So in the broad context of major media garroting themselves when confronted with new technological methods of delivering their product, content farms look pretty good. They are working and viable while pretty much everything else isn’t. I have to survive. Can’t switch careers at this late stage. Farms are the means.

      Still, somehow, I’m not content. But there was a lot about the series of spineless newspapers I worked for that I didn’t like either. I never had any significant say in how those papers functioned; I was just a munchkin in a corporate Stalinist world. Same now down on Maggie’s farm. Nothing new in that regard.

    • Luke

      Brad,

      If writing for private clients provides a “lion’s share” of your pay, then you’re working at the other places for free.

      The more you know

    • John

      I’ve observed a common thread about the attitude of “establishment journalists” towards internet content work. They mostly consider it rubbish and rubbish created for low pay. Despite that, plenty of them do it on the side. Some go so far as to denigrate their own work. And of course, all this trash talk is done anonymously, so they can continue to do that work without fear of retaliation from their online content clients.

      There is are some words for that sort of behavior. Charlatan comes to mind. Hypocrite is another. Anyone from a profession with that produces hacks like Judith Miller and liars like Jayson Blair, nevermind the management that covers for them, has no business grandstanding behind a cowardly wall of anonymity.

    • stu

      Simple fix: too many writers out there and would-be writers. It’s all a matter of supply and demand. Note to wannabes: get a new “career” and stop posing as ” a writer”

    • anonymous only, please

      Hmmm. So how is using an image from Flickr with this report any different than using text from a content farm? In both cases the creator received little to no compensation for their original work….

    • Allison McNeely

      I wrote for a “content farm,” Suite101.com for a few months when I was fresh out of school.

      I did my BA in Political Science but discovered towards the end of my degree that my passion for journalism and professional writing never really went away, and that was what I wanted to with my life. I knew that a Political Science degree wouldn’t really help me and that I needed experience and to build a portfolio.

      I never made a ton of money off of Suite101.com, but that’s not really what I was in it for. Suite101 helped me increase my results on Google and more importantly, gave me a platform to show that I could write. It gave me a platform to demonstrate my skills.

      I now work full-time at a magazine, doing what I enjoy, and I do credit writing for a “content farm” as being part of the experience that got me where I am now.

    • Kenneth Wills

      Check yourself at the door! That’s my response to a faceless individual, graduating from a “prestigious” journalism school and then for kicks submitting junk content for publication online. It seems to me that perhaps, education eluded this particular individual.

      Writing is a craft, an art, worthy of respect, no matter the job.

      Yes, Demand Studios is a content mill. A new business model well adapted to the way consumers demand information. Get over it already. That’s Marketing 101 folks.

      My experience with Demand Studios spans a history going back a few years now and I certainly make a decent living. The difference you ask, is that I write informed content. My articles include extensive research, verifiable references and extended resources; in addition to sound advice incorporated into each and every article.

      This is real simple. If an employer told me he or she would not hire me because I published content on a site like eHow or LiveStrong, personally I would find that employer biased and lacking the ability to make sound judgements based on the “readily available” evidence. Such an employer can either review my content and make an informed decision; or that employer can hire a nameless individual based a “prestigious” degree with a complete lack of regard for ethics, or even that very education he or she flaunts as if it bares all the merit required to open doors. Almost anyone can go to school and graduate with a degree. In the real world, few actually graduate with an education.

      Why do I work for Demand Studios? The hourly pay is worth it and the independence fits my lifestyle, since I am still pursuing my Doctor of Arts degree. I am an American living in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I not only pay the bills, including tuition for two graduate students; I also make enough to raise two kids, save, invest, and to take vacations almost at will.

      Now to be fair, I double what I make with Demand Studios through my investments, but Demand Studios makes it possible. Why? I make a full-time salary, working part-time.

      Would I hide the fact I worked with Demand Studios? Certainly not, otherwise I wouldn’t work with them.

      The real problem with America is a little thing called “work ethic” as evident not only by this article, but by the majority of responses. Who cares about the rate per article, if the hourly rate is sustainable. It’s irrelevant. A bit of prudence when I started with Demand Studios, ensured I learned the system well enough to produce quality content at a profitable rate.

      Here’s one for you. I meant and wrote a piece recently on a millionaire here in Singapore. Guess his hourly rate of pay? $10.00 per hour folks. Why is he a millionaire? No, not the lottery. He was prudent and let his money work for him, while never walking away from cleaning a toilet. Still till this day, he works part-time to clean common areas as a reminder and example, of work ethic for his grandchildren.

      Now that’s someone worthy of respect.

      • Metacognition

        No. We don’t demand that kind of content. We never wanted utter, valueless trash. And as we made it more and more clear that we didn’t want it, what was the response? Oh! Of course! The farms pumped more and more and more of it into the internet to compensate for the fact that we’re trying as best we can to get the hell away from that garbage and find something of value. Awesome tactic.

    • AR

      One more thing about content farms vs. real journalism:

      At least at Demand Media, they don’t allow you to interview real people (or at least I never found a way to do that.) Many of the articles could have been done in 5 minutes by making a phone call and doing an interview. But, they require you to base your research on internet sites (reputable ones – they do have that standard), which to me negates any “journalism” being done here. The funny thing is, they won’t let you use wikipedia, which I can understand for a legitimate news article, but most of the time, the basic info from wikipedia is better than ehow et al any day.

      I don’t see how anyone can say doing a quick internet search then regurgitating the information already found on the web isn’t adding useless “noise” to the internet.

    • Phil Hilts

      Just a question. I’m not familiar with algorithmically-generated story lists. Does that mean the writer picks a story idea from the list, then does some reporting and writes it?

    • John

      AR is ill-informed. I’m not one of Demand Studio’s blind cheerleaders by any means, but the instructions for how to cite an interview are in the main Style Guide. Clearly if there are instructions on how to do it, that form of information is accepted.

    • Carrie Williamson

      I have no idea why a writer would bother writing articles that are supposed to be thoroughly researched for this piddly amount of money and little to no recognition. However, until writers take a stand against the online media, that is exactly what the powers that be will continue to think they are worth.

    • Lori

      What never ceases to amaze me is that these “writers” for content mills don’t see that these are not real writing jobs. Even the owners of the site are calling them “content creators” and yes, I’ve seen plenty of that content. A large portion of it is indeed crap.

      I also find it pretty odd that those who write for these places fight tooth-and-nail to defend such places. I think how those companies present themselves to writers is criminal. I think writers who take those types of jobs can, and should, do better. They’re being underpaid to churn out content and keywords, not write.

      You may be a writer. You may be working for a content mill. But you’re not both at the same time.

    • This was a great article. We at HubPages are enjoying the recent explosion of the social content space, and our different model that is enabling thousands of freelance writers to write what they actually love writing about, and to realize the full lifetime value of their content.

      A few differences between HubPages and the likes of the content farms mentioned in the article:
      – we don’t feed topics; our writers write about what they know and love
      – while we don’t pay up-front, we do a 60-40 impression share on ad revenue that allows writers to continue to earn for years after publication
      – since writers on HubPages own their own content, they are free to unpublish/delete their work at will, in case they sell an article, for example

      The size of our site (25 million uniques monthly, 100 million page views, 160,000 published writers with almost 900,000 articles) and our continued rapid growth rate is testament to how compelling an alternative way of rewarding authors is in the current marketplace.

    • Why do colleges and universities still offer “journalism” degrees?

      There are no real jobs; the newspaper industry is dying; websites are hiring anyone who will take crumbs from the floor in order to create articles that no one really reads.

      Journalism, you’re dead. No one has figured that out yet. But, by all means, dump thousands of J-school grads onto the pavement each year. Someone has to work retail and sell life insurance.

    • I have toiled in the content fields by way of Associated Content for nearly two years. I recently changed my user name with AC in an attempt to remove them from my Google results; months later, I am still cached by my real name and am apparently damned to be permanently outed as an AC contributor. But it’s not all bad news: If you are a “real” writer, i.e. someone who can spell and punctuate, you are identified as a “high quality contributor” and receive calls for content for the partner sites that pay $25 per article. I only answer these calls, and I write on business topics I have absolutely no experience in, such as “Proper Business Attire in China.” The writers in the article are right; there is something humorous about this, so we may as well embrace it and have a good laugh while getting paid.

    • HQ

      If you give up after three submissions at Seed, your chances of doing well with them is pretty much zero. I freelance for AOL regularly via Seed, make decent money, and almost never submit articles on spec from the open pool anymore.

    • Alex P.

      All I can say is, as a journalist with a traditional outlet, I often times find my work rehashed and summarized by these so-called “journalists” writing for content farms.

      They might not be plagiarizing word-for-word, but they’re plagiarizing none-the-less.

      Reporting is very hard work. Googling and summarizing what you find is not.

    • Lagibby

      I took early retirement after 27 years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor for a large metropolitan daily.

      I was both a copy editor and writer for Demand Studios last winter. It was kind of fun to research and write short how-to articles. But they had some glitch in their assignment listings in January and it was taking me too long to find an unambiguous title to write quickly. Their algorithm-generated titles are a sick joke.

      As a copy editor, I would edit until I found an article that made me want to throw up (probably written by someone who knew they were writing crap) and then I’d quit for the day. I couldn’t make the quota. It drove me crazy — someone probably trying to write 3 articles in an hour would go to one Web site and write tax advice or workplace safety advice that was incomplete, vague or wrong. I could write a better article, but I rarely could find such titles when I searched assignments.
      The way Demand Studios burns through writers and copy editors seems like such a waste. It’s an interesting revenue model, but there’s absolutely no quality control and no incentive for a copy editor, getting $3.50 a story, to do a good job. Or a writer, for that matter. When I started freelancing in the late 1970s, I got paid $100 a story. The same newspaper now pays around $150. Demand Studios pays $15.
      You get what you pay for.

    • I’ve always wondered why/how eHow.com exists. It’s more like eWTF? than eHow. I have yet to find an article on that site that actually explains how to do something with the depth and insight needed to actually do it. It’s particularly bad in the recipe department. Ugh. Websites like that should be banned by some sort of consumer protection agency.

    • John

      No surprises – Demand Studios writers are always complaining bitterly about “stupid copy editors,” and these are the same people who adore sites like Hub Pages, Suite 101 and Associated Content that allow them to do whatever they want with no interference. Yet here we have the same people commenting on churning out three or four 400-500 word pieces in one hour? With little or no sourcing? And they wonder why someone stops them and says “whoa nelly!”

      If you treat a job with contempt, you produce contemptible work. Period. Once again, this problem is ENTIRELY about the people doing the commenting and their churlish, hypocritical attitudes and not the work. When I look at the “journalists” in this thread, I see either a bunch of people who are lying about what they do for a living, or the Jayson Blairs of the future if they actually are working in print media.

    • John

      Actually, come to think of it, this very article is a very poor piece of “journalism,” because it has ZERO balance. Isn’t that something they teach in journalism school?

      I simply must trash this $60/hr claim made by some Demand Media writers. While I have no doubt it is possible, it is impossible to sustain. First, you need to find enough easy titles to crank out four $15 articles or three $20 articles per hour. That in and of itself takes time, so the only way to even compute $60/hour is to leave that time out of the equation. Second, enough of those titles do not exist to sustain that kind of rate for even one day, let alone week after week.

      The low pay issue is illusory. It is possible for a smart, disciplined person with a good base of experience and who sticks to what they know to make a good wage on content writing, and such people produce 500-word articles that could be placed side-by-side with similar work from any newspaper or magazine in the country. PERIOD. If you think internet writing is crap, that might be because you yourself only produce crap. However, the claims of making $20,000 a year in royalties from Hub Pages or Associated Content or $60/hr from Demand Media are extreme exaggerations or outright lies.

    • its all well and good having content but what about websites having creative directors.. who know WHAT to pick and how to arrange it..

    • Just because one can write doesn’t qualify one as a writer.

      Stringing words together in a grammatically-correct, relatively-coherent order means that one has understood the basics of spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, flow and the rest of those writerly considerations.

      Getting paid any amount of money to put together a piece of writing about any topic doesn’t make one a writer.

      Owning a company that rides on the backs of folks who produce written content for very low wages that attracts substantial commercial income for the company that’s not equitably shared with those who produce the “product” is not good business; but, “business” nonetheless.

      If it serves a purpose to work for such a company to earn minimal income for writing content that has low personal and/or professional value, far be it for me to chastise.

      However, if one claims “writer” as profession, honor that profession. If you demean for whom you’re writing, what does that say about “pride of profession”? If you demean what you’re writing, what does that say about you?

      If you have the courage to write good work – no matter for how much, nor for whom – then have the courage to stand up for that good work; and, don’t sell your work, nor yourself, for less than what you can afford – either in terms of c-ching nor Spirit.

      Either that — or, find another job.

    • Is it assumed that most of the content farm traffic comes from search engines?

      If not, then what type of person is reading these articles?

      Side note: At least I know where to go when I need to massage an emotionally stressed dog.

    • There are GOOD content-creation jobs out there. While I won’t work for Demand or any of the other conglomerate content farms, I do write for business blogs who care about the content I turn in- (it can’t be crap) and pay much better than $15 a post. To all the “journalists” out there – don’t accept a $15 a post or lower rate and maybe we can maintain our self-worth and value in the industry- even as it moves online.

    • Bob

      I have 15 years of experience in journalism as a copy editor, reporter, assigning editor and managing editor. I work for a midsize newspaper and make just shy of $50K a year. I haven’t had a raise in three years. However, I easily make $350-$400 a week putting in about 15 hours at Demand as both a writer and copy editor. Is the stuff I write journalism? No. But I wouldn’t call it crap, either. Personally I don’t care if anybody reads it. All I care about is that Demand pays twice a week and lets me work whenever and how much I want to.

      • Reality

        If you don’t care if anybody reads it, there’s a fairly high chance that it’s crap :/

    • Hello —

      I am an Economics researcher and am really fascinated by how writing is becoming such an important task in online labor markets.

      I am beginning to conduct some experiments in how to crowdsource writing tasks. If anyone would like to share their experience with online writing or ideas for what would be interesting experiments, I would be glad to hear from you.

      I am especially interested in what are the best ways to setup and structure tasks so that people can write most easily and whether collaboratively written writing is better than individually written writing.

      Thanks,
      Dana Chandler

      • ajsdfhjsdf

        This is a terrible idea, maybe even worse than “spinning” articles. Writing is a TALENT; it takes skill and effort. Crowdsourcing facts may be one thing; crowdsourcing talent is another. I’d wager you’re going to divide these up into further, tiny little payments like 5 cents per sentence, or 10 cents to proofread a paragraph, correct? And naturally, *anyone*- no matter how uneducated, untalented, or lazy can do this. Way to rush the status of the writing industry even further.

    • @Laura this was the best comment ever. You should ask all the PhD’s at Google why they rank content farms so highly.

    • Bobby

      Working for Demand Studios sucks if you’re a real writer looking for real writing gigs.

    • I agree with Laura. All the evidence points to sites like eHow producing nothing but vague, inaccurate or downright false articles, bashed out for a few bucks by someone with no real expertise in what they’re writing.

      If they had expertise, they’d probably be getting paid for it.

      So why do search engines rank eHow so highly? Is it just a glitch that will be corrected? I thought valuable information was supposed to be what ultimately decides ranking. Is it that millions of people are too stupid to realize that eHow isn’t providing valuable information, so they’re linking there and thus increasing its pagerank? Because I note that it has a PR of 8! That’s unbelievable for a site that basically produces useless crap under the guise of information.

      I thought maybe instances like the ones cited in this article are the exception, rather than the rule (as someone pointed out, the article is a bit one-sided). So I looked up some articles on copywriting and direct response marketing, which are my specialty…and yeah, they are simply rubbish. They’re either trying to cover, in five 1-paragraph steps, a subject that would need a book devoted to it; or they’re offering information which is totally vague, or even downright wrong.

      • Reality

        Yep..you’re right, PageRank has outgrown its worth, and it’s now created an ecosystem in which eHow can be 8th because they studied how to game the algorithm rather than provide anything of real value to the world.

        I heard google is finally looking into new algorithms that take into account ‘truth’ — hopefully information quality as well. I do hope they kick that project into high gear, because every minute that we keep PageRank as our gardener is one more minute that the weeds will sprawl out and choke the few remaining plants we actually cared about.

    • Writing for so-called content farms has led to other assignments where I can now pick and choose and make as much money as I need per week. I have regular clients thanks to content farms and I still have the work at the content farms to add to my income, along with residuals.

      How many online sites pay up to thousands of dollars in residuals per year – on top of any upfront payments? I make a nice income on those residual payments, all without having to write another word.

      Readers are not stupid. Page views drop for articles which don’t have useful information. They soar for those which help or entertain readers. It is really that simple. If writers want to reach the largest mass of readers, content farms can do that. Readers can then subscribe to individual writers. They can pick and choose.

      I got noticed online and received referrals based on my writing. Now I can hardly keep up with the assignments, all for decent pay. When I wrote for magazines, including national ones I had these things happen:

      1. An editor changed the race of someone I interviewed!

      2. I got paid for an article I never submitted ($750) Nice gesture… but I wonder who might have been shorted – or did two people get paid, including one who never submitted an article. When I called to make arrangements to return the check, I was told to keep it because a new editor was in place and it would be too much trouble to figure out the paperwork!

      3. I was never informed that an article would be published and first saw it on a magazine rack . I had to ask the editor for payment since I had the magazine in hand. But what if I’d never found it?

      By the way, this sentence came from the Christian Science Monitor:

      “Others note that because this technique is so new, not much regulation exists, and therefore there is likely to be many court challenges.”

      I don’t see a direct correlation between payment and a decent sentence. Isee these kind of grammatical errors as well as factual inaccuracies in many publications which pay more than content farms.

      While I don’t know how much regular staff writers get paid at CSM, essay writers get between $75 and $160 there…last I checked. Higher payment doesn’t guarantee decent writing.

      You can find strong writing and weak writing all over the place. Writing for so-called content mills landed me a feature on Yahoo!

      No expertise? It was my own experience with Vitamin D deficiency as well as the latest research into the subject. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if not for “content mills.”

    • Do writers think about editing for wordiness any more? As this debate rages across social sites and blogs, I get weary of “writers” filling the comment space with blah blah blah — pontificating, but not communicating. Can you just say what you think and leave of all the self-conscious blather?

      • Reality

        Amen. But, you see, the blather has lots of juicy keywords that raise the article’s searchability.

        Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that it’s time for Google to upgrade their algorithm.

    • I’m a freelancer and recent graduate of journalism school. A few friends of mine write for Examiner.com, which is almost a content farm. My friend actually runs a very successful and professional fashion column on it. So I checked it out, and was a little unnerved by the fact that most of their contributors were just plain terrible writers. Most of them appeared to have an elementary-school-level grasp of grammar and language, and what’s more, did not seem to have any substantial background in their chosen “field”. But, with the way the economy is and the way the media industry is these days, the promise of ANY paying gig was really enticing. So I applied, and I got a response back the next day saying they’d love to hire me. I thought about it for a day ortwo, but I didn’t go through with it in the end, simply because, like the people in this story, I was too embarrassed to be associated with examiner.com. In the end, I decided I wasn’t yet desperate enough to churn out crappy articles for little to no pay.

    • Roberta Codemo

      I just started writing for Demand Studios. I also write for Examiner.com. I was a journalist for almost ten years before becoming a freelancer. I write for two local newspapers. I take pride in the work I produce for the sites. I do the research and verify each article for accuracy. Yes, the pay sucks but it’s income. On the side, I am trying to break into the world of print publications as well as working on my first novel. While initially I was ashamed to admit I wrote for both Demand and Examiner, I take pride in my work and own up to what I write.

    • Most of us professional writers refer to them as “content mills.” I’ve never before heard them called farms … a little 1984 (the George Orwell version).

      The mills are both degrading the quality of writing and writers’ lives. They’re a key reason the quality of writing on the Web has gone down as much as it has recently – with “mash-ups” replacing true journalism.

      They’re a brilliant business idea, and an enormously immoral approach to the craft of writing. They want content, not quality. They want to pay as little as possible. And they often have no editorial oversight … or not any that’s worth a damn.

      • Realty

        Yes, brilliantly short-sighted. In the long term, this will end up irrevocably poisoning the well from which the average content ‘consumer’ like myself will drink. I’m absolutely disgusted with complete lack of quality on the web these days (and I would venture to guess that I’m not alone). Sometimes I honestly can’t tell if what I’m reading was written by a human or an algorithm. But then I think…come now, were I to whip up an algorithm that mashes content together, I could at least achieve a consistency and attention-to-detail that these pieces of garbage lack. Now I understand that they are created by neither human nor algorithm, but ‘content farm worker.’ Flipping burgers is more honorable than this.

        Well my friend Mr. (Mrs.?) Sterling, I hope you can keep your chin up and keep writing honorable and professional pieces, even though I’m sure those farm drones are making your life harder.

        Their time will come. This will not last. Consumers are getting tired of it, and we yearn for someone who has the slightest inkling of what the hell they’re talking about.

        I’ve decided that, after I finish my current project, my next will be inflicting as much financial damage as possible on these crap content producers. I hope that, perhaps someday, if I put my *professional* skills to use, I may be able to tip the ecosystem to a point where it is no longer economically-viable for someone who has no ****ing clue what they’re talking about to make money talking.

    • Robert

      Despite the crap that ehow type sites publish, I still have hope for online collaborative fiction.

    • JSaunder

      Just let them churn out an infinite number of articles and you’ll get Shakespeare.

    • I am glad to see the comments brought up the issue of the high rankings of the content creators.

      As someone who often writes in a health care niche, it’s sad to see how often an e-How hits top billing.

      • ajsdfhjsdf

        That’s what the difference in pay is all about!

      • Reality

        Yeah…it’s absolutely unreal how many health and medical-related articles that hit top rankings are useless at best, and utterly wrong at worst.

        It’s not ok to write about things you’ve no knowledge of. But to write about things related to medicine, disease, etc…? That’s an unparalleled level of irresponsible. Writing bad advice about massaging dogs in one thing. Writing bad advice about taking care of one’s very life…that’s something else.

    • Joyful

      No one has mentioned the next step down from content mills, the writing jobs that pay $1 or less per article.

      The work is called spinning. The writer substitutes synonyms sufficient to pass plagiarism screens. The new articles boost the content and thus the rankings of e-commerce sites.

      I thought spinning was a process until I saw a “spinner” for sale on an e-commerce site. It was some device in a box labeled “spinner” and not a person sitting there onscreen.

      • Guest

        This is a terrible idea, maybe even worse than “spinning” articles. Writing is a TALENT; it takes skill and effort. Crowdsourcing facts may be one thing; crowdsourcing talent is another. I’d wager you’re going to divide these up into further, tiny little payments like 5 cents per sentence, or 10 cents to proofread a paragraph, correct? And naturally, *anyone*- no matter how uneducated, untalented, or lazy can do this. Way to rush the status of the writing industry even further.

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    • sammy davis jr jr

      Death to content farms!

    • chemicalginger

      I’m a professional writer who looked into and then applied to Demand a while back–just curious about their compensation and the possibility of cranking out chuff (which I’ve become very good at, sadly). I was summarily denied, without an explanation, in every topic area in which I indicated interest. Was very confused, and could only conclude they don’t want full-time freelance writers, because we’d want too much money.

    • Reality

      Well, if you can’t see the writing on the wall by now…

      …oh, don’t mind me, just get back to working on that high-quality piece you were writing! I’m sure everything will be fine for highly-respectable industry! ;)

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