Are Upgraded Content Farms Replacing Traditional Media?

We’ve talked on this blog earlier about the “digital first” approach as a media survival tactic and how traditional news reporters increasingly find themselves facing cutbacks. Last week, two major announcements had the industry reflecting on the state of publishing yet again: the sale of About.com by The New York Times and the acquisition of Bleacher Report by Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System.

As Peter Kafka reported on August 8 on All Things Digital, The New York Times is in talks to sell About.com to Answers.com for a reported $270 million. The NYT bought what Kafka calls a “precursor” to content farms such as Demand Media for $410 million in 2005. About.com has been struggling lately, and had seen its CEO, Cella Irvine, leave the company last year after some dismaying performance numbers had surfaced.

About.com produces high-volume, low-cost, and, some say, low-quality content, and relies heavily on Google search traffic. No one in the industry is surprised the NYT is ditching this struggling property. As Ryan Chittum wrote on August 9 in “The Audit” column in Columbia Journalism Review:

It was never clear how a low-quality content farm like About.com fit into a stable dominated by the august New York Times. The site’s home page yesterday had pieces on ‘5 Tattoos You’ll Regret,’ ‘How to Play Blackjack,’ and one that asked, bafflingly, ‘What’s Wrong with My Toes?!’

The impending deal, Chuttum writes, is “also evidence that the Times believes its future lies in journalism people will pay for.” Yes, and also a reflection of today’s state of print publishing, where the industry giants increasingly rely on paywalls for revenue.

So, what does the purchase by Turner Broadcasting of the Bleacher Report, the user-generated, sports-blogging site, for the reported less than $200 million, tell us?

As Mathew Ingram comments on GigaOm, it “fills a content hole for the Time Warner unit, but it is also a validation of the user-generated-content model behind the sports-blogging network, and a sign of the disruptive effects that model can have.” Igram writes:

For Bleacher Report, the deal is a validation of the company’s user-generated content model, which some have criticized in the past as being one step away from a ‘content farm,’ churning out aggregated or thinly-sourced content with as much search-engine optimization as possible in order to boost pageviews. […]

This is the same kind of criticism that was lobbed at The Huffington Post in its early days, before AOL acquired the company for $315 million and made it the centerpiece of the former portal’s digital-content strategy, and the same charge that has been levelled against BuzzFeed… All have been accused of ‘over aggregation’ to drive pageviews, or juicing their numbers by making use of other people’s content, or thinly-disguised traffic boosters like slideshows.

Google’s SEO crackdown on thin, low-quality content had a lot to do with it, according to Ingram, but even before Google devalued that sort of content, Demand Media, HuffPo, and others had to learn the hard way that low-quality content only attracts a certain kind of pageview-driven advertising.

Still, whether we like or not, this kind of user-generated, high-volume content has been showing up as a supplement and, at least in part, a replacement of the traditional publishing system. Ingram thinks that at least it’s something publishers must take into consideration if they don’t want to “wind up being disrupted,” as he puts it.

Ingram writes:

… [W]hat Bleacher Report’s acquisition shows is that the model of user-generated content that it and others such as Forbes magazine and Vox and Seeking Alpha have pursued — in which non-professional writers emerge from a community and eventually become subject-matter experts for a specific market — can be an increasingly valuable alternative to the traditional media.

About Tatyana Meshcheryakova

Tatyana has been a journalist and editor for more than 17 years, including stints at AOL and a number of trade and consumer publications in Philadelphia, covering digital technology and the publishing industry. In addition to editing hundreds of articles and blog posts each month, Tatyana is responsible for training new journalists and editors that join our team. Tatyana has a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University, and is fluent in Russian.

  

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  1. About.com was way ahead of other sites in producing curated content — until the NYT bought it and essentially got rid of all the amateur writers, like me, who would not produce quality articles under NYT’s terms.

    The NYT wanted to own all the rights to articles posted. Previously, the authors owned all rights and About.com had the right to display the articles.

    Without amateurs (that is, niche experts) writing for About.com, it relied on employees and freelancers rather than volunteers. The quantity of quality articles plummeted, as did About.com’s previously excellent reputation.

    About.com still has a chance to rival Wikipedia as a source of information on just about anything. But it will have to do it by enlisting volunteer writers who contribute quality work without much, if any, compensation — as long as they own the rights and get some visibility. There is still hope for this once-great, once-revolutionary site!