Farming for Content

Not long ago, who had even heard the phrases “content farm” or “writing mill?” But now they’re all the rage and firmly at the center of a debate over writing quantity vs quality. So called content mills, farms or factories, produce sometimes thousands of articles a day by paying writers bargain-basement rates to churn out content, mainly how-to pieces, based on what people are searching for on Google, Yahoo and other search engines.

Even as critics blame this kind of low-rent writing for the death of real journalism, content mills are soaring in value. Last year, Yahoo bought Associated Content, a content factory, for $90 million.

While  journalists argue over highbrow vs lowbrow journalism, these writing factories are soaring in popularity. When Yahoo bought Associated Content, along with buckets of articles, it also purchased a reported 600 million users and tens of thousands of advertisers. 

Here, Reporting and Writing student Rochelle Sterling discusses the trend, including its value to students. 

The Low-Down on eHow

How one student earns some extra cash from content writing by Rochelle Sterling

The emergence of blogs and other unconventional media has created an overhaul of what it means to be a writer in the journalism world. Gaining credibility has transformed from simply gathering clippings of published articles, to establishing a rapport by gaining readership from online publications and maintaining an online presence. About.com, HubStation.com, and eHow.com, along with many other sites featuring user-generated content often come under fire for being “content mills” of sorts. Nevertheless, they remain a staple as a source of supplemental income that some students rely on.

An ongoing debate in journalistic circles, questions whether content writers have begun to lower the quality of journalism, and whether journalists have taken the backseat to content factories that hire largely untrained writers for little or sometimes no money.

Even as the argument continues, cash-strapped writers—including students—point to content writing as a good way to earn supplemental income while building their portfolios.  EHow.com, for instance, accepts 300 to 400 word articles that cover everything from “How to Donate Books” and “How to Use A French Press” to “How to ‘Pop & Lock.’” They also occasionally publish opinion-based pieces but essentially eHow provides basic “how-to” articles that get straight to the point without fluff.

CCNY journalism minor Hannington Dia writes for eHow.  According to Dia, “few opportunities provide money as quickly as content writing. [I get paid] twice per week.” This form of content writing is considered passive or residual income, meaning that articles generate revenue after they are posted and as traffic to the site increases. In addition to earning a few dollars, typically between $15 and $350 per content piece, writers retain rights to their copy even after it’s published on eHow.

Much like any other avenue of self-employment, contributors have the option to write at their own pace. Content writers submit as much material as their personal schedules allow in order to earn as much money as possible. Churning out stories quickly and efficiently matters since eHow reserves the right to remove posted articles as they see fit.

The compensation for content writing regularly attracts criticism. The payouts are considerably small; more (and more consistent) submissions make the most money, while sporadic and shorter articles tend to lack substantial readership and run the risk of being pulled from the site. Additionally, save minimal interaction by way of forums and comments from other writers, most contributors to eHow and similar sites work in a vacuum without a shared sense of community.

Most importantly, no one can make a real living writing for eHow or other so-called content mills. Dia argues, “Content writing has its ups and downs.” Content writers who spread themselves among several user-contributed content websites tend to earn the most money.

Dia describes content writing as a good proverbial foot in the door, “but get out once you get enough content and experience. Go no further than that.”

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