Content Mills and Diminished Dreams

Last week’s issue of San Francisco-based SF Weekly features a lengthy look by Joe Eskenazi at Bleacher Report, an online sports news site that was sold to Turner Broadcasting for what was reported to be near $200 million last August.

I highly recommend reading the full article as it provides a pretty in-depth perspective (though it is pretty clear that author does not like the site) of the operation and a look at “content mills.”

Bleacher Report is frequently criticized for publishing really, really bad articles written by an army of writers who are posting for free. B/R is just one of many sites that operate using this model where the focus isn’t so much on producing quality reporting, analysis and commentary as it is on showing up in Google search results and getting the all important pageviews that drive those sweet, sweet digital advertising dollars.

This focus on what is known as Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) has led to Bleacher Report running articles like “Top 20 Boobtastic Athletes” and others of the Top [Number] [Adjective] [Plural Noun] variety along with blatant click-bait like “Why Tom Brady is the most Overrated Quarterback of All Time,” which Eskenazi reveals was written by a teenager who doesn’t even actually believe the headline.

GigaOm senior writer Matthew Ingram took issue with this piece and came to the defense of content mills, instead suggesting that they are part of the “ongoing democratization of journalism.”

In presenting his defense of Bleacher Report, Ingram states:

This is part of the problem with the traditional media response to “content farms” or user-generated media sites like Huffington Post and Bleacher Report — the sense that they can’t possibly be as worthwhile as a regular content operation because people are writing for free, and therefore the only possible value has to be the creation of low-quality content for cheap traffic purposes. But what about the writers? Why do they do it? And isn’t there value there as well?

Well, I think that question was, in fact, answered quite well in Eskenazi’s piece:

In an era when those who have more get more, when so many have been forced to recalibrate their expectations, it’s hard not to see Bleacher Report as epitomizing more than just sportswriting on the Internet. Those on the top have profited handsomely. For the folks whose work powers the site, however, Bleacher Report is often the best opportunity they can find, and a springboard to diminished dreams.

That line, “a springboard to diminished dreams,” hit me pretty hard when I first read the article. Having made the mistake of writing for content mills, I knew what it meant all too well.

Before I tell my story, I’d like to make a few things clear. This is not some digital v.s. print or old media v.s. new media rant. I agree completely that the media landscape is changing and will continue to change and that those of us working in media need to change with it. But out of all the new publishing venues that have arisen in the past 20 years, I have a special level of contempt for content mills.

It was 2006. I had just finished journalism school along with multiple internships and a stint at a small town community weekly (where, yes, I was overworked and underpaid) and I was broke. I very quickly took a job at a call centre that paid about a dollar more than minimum wage while I tried to pursue the elusive career in journalism.

Now, when I say I was broke, I mean I couldn’t even afford the postage to send out resumes and article clippings (at the time, this was still the standard way of applying for a job at a newspaper.) My cellphone had been cut off because I couldn’t pay the bill and I feared my DSL connection would soon follow.

Not surprisingly, I hated the call centre work which was compounded by the fact that I soon learned that a dollar above minimum wage was not enough money to live on, which would lead to me having to couch-surf for a period of time.

Then I came across a job posting seeking writers for an “online magazine.” It sounded good. With digital being the future it made sense to work for an online operation plus the word “magazine” implied a high level of quality (I envisioned ) Also, the posting said there was money involved.

I applied and felt lucky when I was accepted as a “feature writer” (another term that implied high quality in the old media world.)

And so, with an avatar on the site the ability to publish, I set to work “creating content” in what little free time I could find.

I knew going in that writers would be paid by pageviews, though the recruitment literature suggested that there was already a large audience reading the site and stated, if I remember correctly, that many writers were making $400 a month posting two articles a week and some were getting enough pageviews to make a full-time income.

I realize $400 per month sounds like very little money but it would’ve been enough of a supplement to my call centre salary that I wouldn’t be taking anything remotely valuable I owned to pawn shops.

However, the literature didn’t mention how unlikely it was for a writer to get to the $400/month spot, never mind making a “full-time income.”

My postings started off slow. Trying to do this while working full-time didn’t exactly give me enough time to work the phones, chasing down leads on articles and all the other things that generally go into a news article. Not that it mattered, much.

Like Bleacher Report, the content mill in question didn’t really want writers to break news or focus on anything current at all. The preference was for evergreen content that wasn’t time sensitive that people would find via Google.

See, rather than promoting the “online magazine” as a great destination to read quality articles, writers were instead expected to optimize articles for Google by stuffing in as many keywords that people search for as possible, often at the cost of decent writing and clever headlines.

If writing for content mills did anything for me, it was making bitter towards the letters S, E and O a little earlier than most others working in media.

Back when I was in journalism school, a classmate mentioned the depressing realization that we were writing articles to please our instructors and editors rather than the actual people reading. If only I’d known back then that I’d instead end up writing articles not to please any human being but an algorithm instead.

So, without the time or resources to track down people to interview or even really focus on news, I instead started stitching together press releases (always careful to attribute the content to press releases, making it clear that none of the quotes were obtained via interviews and that there is a marketing slant on them) in order to at least fool myself into feeling like I was practicing some sort of “journalism”. Of course, in reality, I was now a churnalist and my name was attached to some “articles” I really wasn’t proud of.

But I held out hope. The pageviews would come, followed by money. Or at least I’d be building up some kind of portfolio to move onto something better.


Instead, I took advice from the site’s private forum for writers where the response from editors to complaints about not being able to pull in pageviews was “Write more” and “More keywords!”

Next thing I knew, I was reduced to writing Top [Number] [Adjective] [Plural Noun]

I was writing articles to intentionally piss people off hoping that would drive pageviews. That some of those might still exist online, since the Internet never forgets, still embarrasses me to this day.

This was made worse by the fact that I could only find time to spend on content mill articles around 1 a.m. or so because of my schedule and the stuff I hit publish on was often riddled with grammatical errors and other typos. There was very little feedback from editors and what little there was consisted of wanting us to focus on keywords or spamming Digg and other social media sites. How I’d have loved for someone to have given a fuck about an Oxford comma.

The worst part, though? I didn’t even care anymore. I acknowledge that this could very well have been my own personal failing, but I had allowed my writing to be devalued so much that I began to devalue it myself. I was miserable.

Before all this, I had been through low-paid and even one unpaid internship. While I do think there are issues with that practice, I still feel like I got something out of it. I had editors who were not so polite in expressing what they thought were flaws in my writing and while I may have thought they were jerks at the time, I did push myself hard to meet their standards and started developing my own high standards to hold myself to. Looking back, I’m amazed at how little time it took for those standards to vanish.

I can’t say how every content mill operates but in my experience, there isn’t much in the way to help a writer improve. Much of the “quality control” is automated. A script will refuse to publish an article with too many typos or is too short or too long (600 words was the limit, if I recall) or didn’t have enough of those precious keywords.

In retrospect, the warning signs were there. Much of the recruitment literature read like a multi-level marketing scam where they focus on what the top earners are making and word it in such a way to make the experience of the top one per cent sound like the norm.

Had I done some basic due diligence, a Google search would have revealed blog posts by angry former writers and editors of this site that could’ve kept me away. But I was broke while working a job that was making me miserable and I was desperate for both money and to get back to writing.

To Bleacher Report’s credit, they don’t bring people in with the promise of money right away but do dangle possible promotions including one that comes with a $600/month stipend in front of potential writers, despite the fact that very few will ever qualify.

Back at GigaOm, Ingram suggests that such sites provide an alternate career path in media that allows aspiring writers to “bypass the traditional barriers that used to encircle journalism.” Based on what I’ve seen of content mills and my own experience, I have to respectfully disagree.

Just as I said earlier, this is not intended to be a new media v.s. old media rant, nor is it intended to be a screed against writing for free either.

It is true that media is more democratized and I agree that this is a good thing. I also think in this digital era that aspiring journalists need to be more choosy than ever about who gets a freebie. Obviously I’m not completely opposed. I’m not getting paid for this piece and I’m fine with that.

Which is why I suggest to anyone looking to “bypass the traditional barriers of journalism,” to start their own blog. Hold yourself to your own standards. Don’t sit around worrying about keyword stuffing or writing articles to fit a pre-written headline rather than a fitting headline topping off a finished article. But most of all, I really recommend against content mills where even if you do hold yourself to high standards and your writing is the best, it will still be surrounded by some truly awful articles.

More than that, with a content mill, you’re more likely to end up as a cog in someone else’s turnkey operation that may lead to a nine-figure payday for the founders but nothing for the writers who produce the content that made those sites big in the first place. I just can’t see it as being worthwhile.


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