The pros and cons of writing for a content farm
On the upside, content farms expose journalists and amateur bloggers to an audience; on the downside, they often pay less than minimum wage.
That was the conclusion I came to after I tried working for one content farm, Examiner.com, last year. Twenty-five posts and $35 later, I admit I felt a little concerned about the future of online publishing.
Examiner.com is a network of regional and national websites and contributors, or “examiners,” which recently grew to 55,000 strong. The site is owned by Clarity Digital Group, which also owns The San Francisco Examiner, but the two companies are not related, according to the company's website.
While the application to be an examiner asks for writing samples, to be an examiner you don't have to be a professional. The credentials of contributors range widely from journalists to people who are passionate about a certain topic. Local New York contributors cover anything and everything, from the “New York County elections 2010 examiner” to the “Brooklyn pet health examiner.”
Here's how Examiner.com explains its pay structure to contributors (UPDATE: an Examiner.com rep explains the site's business model):
Examiner pay is based on a rating that considers a number of factors, including revenue and the quality of your audience, which includes things like subscriptions, page view traffic and session length, in addition to others. Pay may fluctuate depending on any of these and other factors.
Content farms have been criticized for their models of churning out content on the cheap, meaning writers get paid very little. (For a comprehensive look at what content farms are, check out the recent MediaShift series, “Beyond Content Farms.”)
Every content farm has a slightly different model to pay writers. Examiner.com and others pay based on page views. Demand Media typically pays about $15 upfront. As Sean Blanda found out, a Demand article can get rejected by an editor.
At Examiner.com, there's no immediate gatekeeper; contributors publish directly to the site. Guidelines and tips are often sent writers, but for the most part, you're on your own.
The upside: good exposure
I was accepted to Examiner.com as a “national social media examiner” last summer. I already had a full-time job as a business reporter, but, like many journalists, I also had an active blog on the side to build up my digital brand. My reasoning for joining Examiner was to extend that digital brand. Plus, if I was going to blog for free anyway, why not get paid for it?
At Examiner, I found I could write about digital media, which I often covered on my blog anyway, but be exposed to a much larger audience. I mostly published commentaries and how-to's about social media once or twice a week, spending no more than a few hours a week at most. I noticed my headlines often did well with search engines and on social media.
The goal was to increase my footprint as a writer about digital media. The plan obviously didn't seriously deter me, as a year later I now write about digital media full-time.
The downside: doesn't pay the bills
While I didn't join Examiner.com for the money, I quickly realized anyone looking to make real freelance money would have to work a lot harder than I did. It's true that making anything meant I was making more money than my blog. But making peanuts from a commercial site feels entirely different. Here's the breakdown:
- I published a total of 25 posts for Examiner.com from June 11 to November 31, 2009.
- My content received a total of 3,906 pageviews in 2009.
- I earned a total of $35.73.
That means I earned less than a penny for every page view, or a $9 CPM. Each piece paid me, on average, about $1.50. So, for every post I wrote, I could basically buy myself half of a beer at happy hour.
And I recently received an e-mail from Examiner.com letting me know that they now offer discounted health insurance.
The bottom line
Websites such as Examiner.com might not be a bad way to break into writing about a type of content in order to build one's brand as a writer or expert. As one former content-farm contributor recently posted on MediaShift: “It gave me a platform to demonstrate my skills.”
But for most, it won't pay the bills, or any single bill for that matter.
For someone to make a living off of Examiner.com or a similar content farm, it would take millions of page views. The average page views across all “national examiners” last year was 48,938. The average number of page views for other examiners in my specific Gadgets & Tech channel didn't beat me out by much (4,964). (Of couse, averages are tricky because they include both the high and low ends of a spectrum. Surely some Examiners never publish at all.)
Despite the less-than-stellar compensation, content farms seem to be thriving with a model for cheap content. As Dorian Benkoil writes in another MediaShift post, who can blame them?
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.
What do you think: Are content farms worth it to journalists? Will more content providers in the future be based on the content-farm strategy?